Frank Max, the Chairman of the Cheektowaga Democratic Party organization who nearly ousted Eire County Chairman Jeremy Zellner two years ago, is alleging that the young man solicited $4,000 bribes from each of 9 judicial candidates who are vying for party endorsements.
In a letter penned to Zellner, Max demands that the monies he improperly solicited be returned. Bob McCarthy at the Buffalo News received the letter on September 8, and has since refused to publish on it, calling into question his political allegiances.
Max suspects that some of those monies were funneled into the State Senate campaign of Betty Jean Grant, a close political ally of Zellner who gave him his former job as Chief of Staff of the Erie County Legislature while she served as Chairwoman. Max is close to Sen. Tim Kennedy, who won his reelection contest against Grant decisively.
The accusation that Zellner is selling judgeships for $4,000 a pop has outraged the nine candidates who made the contributions. They are competing for five cross-party endorsements (a process that Max calls ‘the essence of corruption’). If they didn’t given in to Zellner’s demand, they would have no chance of receiving an endorsement, says Max.
Zellner is thought to be pushing the name of Dennis Ward for one of the State Supreme Court cross endorsements, who is widely considered to be a crooked machine politician, but who served as a mentor to the divisive chairman. Zellner is widely known to covet Ward’s current job: Commissioner of the Board of Elections, which comes with a salary of $135,000 — and requires no office hours or regular workplace attendance.
It was also announced today that Max will forgo a second bid for the party’s chairmanship, and has instead thrown his support behind Mark Manna, a longtime party operative who sits on the Amherst Town Council.
The anti-headquarters faction of the party is going into this Saturday’s reorganization meeting intent on ousting Zellner, who has been widely criticized for his inability to win a single primary contest and his loss of the County Legislature majority two years ago. That loss burned a very serious ally: Mike Deely, the regional director of the New York State Union of Teachers, who is charged with doling out the union’s campaign contributions, and who gave Zellner $200,000 two years ago with very little to show for it.
In fact, Deely had intended on running for party chairman himself. But after Deely submitted his petitions to run for a spot on the county committee to party headquarters, Ward refused to forward the petitions to the Board of Elections. Several witnesses say that they saw Ward tearing up the petitions and laughing.
Deely has emerged a principle power broker in the local Democratic party, and actively sought to suppress African American turnout on the Eastside, in defense of Sen. Kennedy’s reelection. He also propped up the candidacy of Marc Panepinto, dumping $300,000 worth of attack ads against Grisanti in the Republican primary.
A Zellner loss would be a stunning rejection of County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s leadership of the county organization, and could foreshadow an aggressive primary challenge.
Mayor Byron Brown has already announced his support of Manna.