Restaino’s Troubled Past: A Cell Phone Incident and Now an Ill-Advised Land Grab

Today and tomorrow are the last days to vote in the primary for Niagara Falls Mayor, and the choices are Glenn Choolokian, Demetreus Nix, and the incumbent Robert Restaino on the Democratic line.

Mayor Restaino tried to throw Demetreus Nix off the ballot but he failed

Those who support Nix or Restaino will not be left hopeless if their candidate loses. Nix has his own line, the “We Is All We Got” line.

Though Restaino failed to get the Republican line, voters who don’t vote by Tuesday will get the opportunity to vote for Restaino on the Conservative Party line in November.

Glenn Choolokian’s time may have arrived

Should Choolokian win the primary, he will still face Restaino and Nix in November.

It is odd. Restaino had this election tucked away as the incumbent, but for a reckless move to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars on his obsession to build an events center called Centennial Park on somebody else’s property.

Judge Robert Restaino

It reminds us of another blunder Restaino made in 2005 as a city court judge. In those days, he presided over the Domestic Violence Part, handling cases of defendants who, after arraignment on charges of violence against family members, were determined eligible for a court-supervised 26-week counseling and education program.

If accepted into the program, defendants must refrain from using drugs or alcohol, undergo counseling and testing, and report to Judge Restaino weekly so he could monitor their progress.

Shortly after 9:00 AM on March 11, 2005, Judge Restaino took the bench in the Domestic Violence Part.

Approximately 70 people were in the courtroom, including 46 defendants, plus defense attorneys, prosecutors, court administrative personnel, court security officers, and representatives from counseling programs.

For about 45 minutes, Judge Restaino rationally handled matters. He questioned the domestic violence defendants, released them on their own recognizance, and directed them to remain in court until the proceedings concluded.

At approximately 10:00 AM, as defendant Reginald Jones stood before the judge, a device that sounded like a cell phone rang in the back of the courtroom.

Restaino told everyone in the courtroom:

Now, whoever owns the instrument that is ringing, bring it to me now, or everybody could take a week in jail, and please don’t tell me I’m the only one that heard that…

Everyone is going to jail; every single person is going to jail in this courtroom, unless I get that instrument now. If anybody believes I’m kidding, ask some of the folks that have been here for a while. You are all going.

No one took responsibility for the ringing phone.

Judge Restaino directed everyone to remain in the courtroom. He took a five-minute recess while court security attempted to locate the phone.

An officer stood at the doorway to prevent anyone from leaving the courtroom.

When Judge Restaino returned to the bench, he was told the phone had not been located.

Judge Restaino then asked Jones, who had been standing before him when the phone had sounded, if he knew whose phone it was.

Jones replied, “No. I was up here.”

Restaino revoked Jones’ release, set bail at $1,500, and committed him into custody.

Judge Restaino proceeded to call the remaining defendants and asked about the phone. Each defendant denied having the phone or knowing whose it was.

In questioning the defendants, Judge Restaino repeatedly admonished the “selfish” person who refused to take responsibility.

At one point, he said

Restaino: This hurts me more than any of you imagine, because someone in this courtroom has no consideration for you, no consideration for me and just doesn’t care.

As each defendant came up and was asked and answered that they did not know whose cell phone it was, Restaino made various statements:

Restaino: This person, whoever he or she may be, doesn’t have a whole lot of concern. Let’s see how much concern they have when they are sitting in the back there with all the rest of you.

Ultimately, when you go back there to be booked, you got to surrender what you got on you. One way or another, we’re going to get our hands on something. See, the sadness in all of this is that this individual is prepared to put everybody through a reassessment of bail, rather than dealing with it.

During questioning, the defendants told the judge that the noise came from the back corner, and that if they knew who had the phone, they would say so.

Several defendants pleaded with the phone’s owner to come forward

Defendant: This is not fair to the rest of us.

Restaino: “I know it isn’t,” before committing the defendant to custody.

Another Defendant: I know this ain’t right.

Restaino: You’re right, it ain’t right. Ain’t right at all.

Another Defendant:  I don’t see everybody going to jail for this, I really don’t.

Restaino: That’s really a shame, and it isn’t fair at all. Somebody completely doesn’t care.

Defendant: It’s a shame everybody being penalized.

Restaino : As I have indicated, this troubles me more than any of you people can understand.

Restaino: Because what I am really, really having a hard time with, that someone in this courtroom who is so self-absorbed, so concerned only for their own well-being, they kind of figure they’re going to be able to establish the bail, and it won’t matter, so screw all of the rest of you people.

Some of you people may not be in the economic situation this selfish person is in, and you have to start realizing amongst your own selves someone out there who is the typical reason we have this Part.

They put their interests above everybody else’s. They don’t care what happens to anybody.

One by one Defendant came up and one by one Judge Restaino asked about a cell phone and when they could not produce it, he revoked their bail.

A defendant said: I think the more people you send to jail, the less likely the culprit is to come forward.

Restaino: There’s a whole lot of phones back there, but nobody’s phone was ringing.

Then he revoked his bail.

Anothe Defendant: I’m sorry I had to be here today.

Restaino: I’m sorry too.

When asked about the cell phone, one Defendant said: The noise came from the back corner.

Restaino: Life gets dizzy in that back corner.  It seems to me I’m supposed to be dealing with grown-ups.

Then he revoked his bail.

Restaino:  The other thing which is amazing here with this group, this is better than watching a mob movie. Everybody that comes to this microphone, and I got to tell you something, you’re all pretty good when you come up to this microphone, and if you saw somebody got shot or killed, you would say, “I didn’t see nothing, I heard shots.’ And if a body dropped right in front of you, you would say that, ‘I didn’t see a thing.’

Several defendants had obligations.

Defendant: You know I just got a job, and I love the job. I don’t have $1000. I really don’t.

One defendant said he was scheduled to be in school.

One defendant said he had a doctor’s appointment that day and might need surgery.

Another defendant said his mother was having surgery that day.

One defendant: My little girl is coming home at 3:00. Can I be sanctioned next week so I can get my girl?

Judge Restaino committed each of these into custody.

Judge Restaino later admitted he knew he had no legal basis for locking innocent people up. He later told the judicial committee that he was “simply focused on attempting to locate the phone’s owner” – much as he now focuses on taking NFR land for Centennial Park.

Judge Restaino did not consider an alternative that possibly one of the prosecutors, defense attorneys, court personnel, program representatives, or others in the courtroom – might have had the cell phone.

He did not question any of them.

At the proceedings’ conclusion, Judge Restaino left the bench shortly before noon.

Police took 46 defendants to the booking area in the City Jail, where they searched them and confiscated their property.

The police placed them in crowded “holding” cells or jail cells.

Most defendants made bail and were released, but 14 could not post bail and were shackled. Their wrists were handcuffed to a lockbox attached to a waist chain, and took a painful bus ride to the County Jail in Lockport, a ride that took about 30 minutes. The defendants arrived at the jail between 3:00 and 3:30, and were searched again and placed in cells.

Restaino went about his business until he returned a call from his clerk, who told him the press was inquiring about his actions that day.

Judge Restaino returned to court around 3:00 PM. About an hour later, he ordered the release of the 14 defendants sent to the County Jail. The 14 defendants were released at the County Jail in Lockport between 5:00 and 5:30 PM, having been in custody for seven hours.

They were not provided transportation back to Niagara Falls.

And Restaino never found the owner of the cell phone – or the phone itself.

Many were reminded of one of the most memorable scenes of “The Caine Mutiny,” where Captain Queeg gathers the ship’s officers in the dining commons in the middle of the night because he believes someone had eaten the remainder of the frozen strawberries. The Captain is so steadfast in his belief that someone forged a key he won’t accept otherwise, and plans to turn the ship upside down to prove its existence. There was no key. Ultimately, Queeg is removed as captain in the fictional story.

In the real life version, the judicial committee ordered Restaino to turn in his black robes. He was removed as a judge, and in 2007, they booted him off the bench, ruling he was unfit to be a judge.

The committee wrote, “In an egregious and unprecedented abuse of judicial power, Judge Restaino committed 46 defendants into police custody in a bizarre, unsuccessful effort to discover the owner of a ringing cell phone in the courtroom….

“It is sad and ironic that even as Judge Restaino was scolding the defendants for their behavior… Judge Restaino’s own irresponsible behavior provided a poor example…

“It is also ironic that in repeatedly berating the ‘selfish’ and ‘self-absorbed’ individual who ‘put their interests above everybody else’s’ and ‘[doesn’t] care what happens to anybody,’ Judge Restaino failed to recognize that he was describing himself.

“It is undisputed that he took no steps to arrange for the defendants’ release until he learned that the press was inquiring into his actions.”

Judge Restaino attributed his behavior to stresses in his personal life.

The committee wrote, “No doubt many, if not most, of the defendants in Judge Restaino’s court were experiencing significant stresses in their own lives….

He was “oblivious to the enormous injustice caused by his rash and reckless behavior,” and he was removed on November 13, 2007.

Which brings us back to Centennial Park: Over a year ago, Mayor Restaino initiated an eminent domain proceeding against Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR) to take 10 acres from them for his grandiose Centennial Park.

Centennial Parcel 0

Centennial Parcel 0

NFR had plans for the land where the mayor wanted to build Centennial Park. NFR began preconstruction work on a $1.5 billion, 135-megawatt, 600,000 square feet advanced technology and data center, which would create 550 jobs and generate tax revenues for the region.

NFR privately funded this project in partnership with Urbacon. But Restaino demanded NFR give up the land and donate it to the city. When they declined and offered another parcel of land, Mayor Restaino halted their project. Like the cell phone he never found, Mayor Restaino admitted he has yet to find the $150 million required for his project’s development, plus the cost of the land and legal fees, another $30 million.

His popularity evaporated as he was challenged by the press about his plan to cut down on roadwork and demolishing blight to make a down payment on land he couldn’t fund.

When faced with public resistance, he considered floating a bond, plunging the city into debt for decades.

And just as there was an alternative to arresting 46 people for a cell phone – such as admonishing everyone that it better not happen again – there were other options other than taking land the city could not afford.

But Restaino was not interested. He ignored people calling him out about the absence of an anchor tenant, that there was no feasibility study, and that experts estimated his proposal – if he found the money – would still cost city taxpayers $1 million yearly.

Businessman James Szwedo proposed that city-owned land on Niagara Street and Third Street would be a better location for the events center – and save $70 million. It is closer to existing amenities like restaurants, bars, and commercial businesses, and would not require taxpayer funds for acquisition.

The mayor was not interested. Even a report from the Niagara Global Tourism Institute stressed the importance of a site selection study before choosing a location for such a center. But Restaino was simply focused on taking NFR land.

The funny part is that the mayor’s reelection campaign was the driving force behind taking the land from NFR. But that backfired.

It was his quest to find a cell phone that removed Judge Restaino from his judicial office. It is likely that a quest to take land he doesn’t have the money to buy, let alone build on, may remove him from the mayor’s office.

Some guys never learn.

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