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By Mike Hudson

"Smokin' Joe" Anderson, who was looking at a sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he went before Chief U.S. District Court Judge William Skretny last week, instead received a $50,000 fine and no jail time.

The sentence was just, because -- in many ways -- Anderson was a victim.

If Niagara Falls isn't the most crooked-up town I ever lived in ... no, wait, it is absolutely the most crooked-up town I ever lived in. And the crooks here are people you might not expect -- lawyers, doctors, law enforcement personnel and even mayors.

Vince Anello was a crook. It's been proven in court. He was a city councilman and the odds-on favorite to win the mayoral election back in 2003, when Anderson was attempting to break into the Niagara Falls development world.

Anderson had made his money in the cigarette business, manufacturing them at his own facility out on the Tuscarora Reservation and selling them tax-free. Anderson had huge success and a lot of money with which to begin his new venture.

He got hooked up with Anello and a few other shady characters, and was informed that, in order to do business in Niagara Falls, you've got to pay to play. Most people who have attempted to start a business in Niagara Falls, including me, have had this happen to them as well.

It's actually very tempting. You pay a certain amount of money, make some guy your partner, or enter into some other shady arrangement, and your life gets a lot easier all of a sudden.

And Joe Anderson went for it. He gave Anello three checks totaling $40,000 just before and immediately after Anello was elected mayor in November 2003. And with Anello's help, he was able to buy the old Wintergarden from the city and got a sweetheart no-bid lease deal on the East Mall property, commonly known today as Old Falls Street.

Anello was a crook, but he was about the dumbest crook you could imagine. The $40,000 he settled for was a ridiculously low amount, of course, but the fact that he accepted checks, when Anderson was raking in at least $100,000 cash a day from his cigarette operation, was stupid beyond belief.

I got hold of those canceled checks in May 2005, and immediately turned them over to Ed Herbst, a friend of mine who happened to be an FBI agent. Then I wrote about it in this newspaper.

Indignation followed. Anello went so far as to tell some hack at Buffalo Business First he was going to sue me for libel. Both he and Anderson were subsequently indicted but, while Anello kept insisting he'd done nothing wrong, Anderson remained publicly silent. He realized he'd done something wrong and was prepared to admit it. Anello, being a crook, couldn't admit anything.

As the pair was awaiting trial, Anello came up with a whole new crooked scheme. He desperately needed money to pay for his legal defense of the federal corruption charges against him, so he went to work for Anderson as an electrician, his original trade. He then proceeded to defraud his brothers at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers by continuing to draw his retirement pension, despite the fact he was working sometimes 60 hours a week.

Again, this was really stupid, because everybody and his brother knew that Anderson was cooperating with the feds. But each and every month, Anello signed legal documents claiming he was only working 10 hours a week. He shook down his own union -- his friends -- for $94,000 with the scam.

He got indicted on that as well, proclaimed his innocence in the newspapers, and ultimately copped a plea bargain like any two-bit crack dealer on 19th Street. Skretny sentenced him to 13 months.

I'm writing this in Los Angeles, where I'm on tour with a couple of old buddies -- Bob Pfeifer and Cheetah Chrome -- reading from and promoting our new books. I flew out here on Feb. 15, the same day Anello flew in handcuffs down to the Federal Correctional Institution at Cumberland, Md. I don't think I have to tell you how sweet that was.

Anderson's sentencing was delayed until after the former mayor of Niagara Falls went away. Recognizing that Anello would not have been put away without Anderson's cooperation, Skretny went far beyond federal sentencing guidelines by simply fining him.

Anello's victims were many. His friends and co-workers, his family and every single person in Niagara Falls who trusted him to run the city honestly. For Anello, Anderson was just another mark.

His attorney, Terrence Connors, summed it up nicely.

"Mr. Anderson decided the only way to get anything accomplished was to take part in the corruption rather than fight it -- in other words, 'If you can't beat them, join them,'" he said.

Anderson made a mistake, an easy thing to do in Niagara Falls. It's a tough place to do business, and that's something that all this drama hasn't changed at all.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 1, 2011