BY MATT RICCHIAZZI
John Ceretto is the quintessential career politician, first elected to public office in 1995 when he ran for the Lewiston Town Board as a Democrat. He stood quite and waited his turn for advancement, and would eventually be elected to the Niagara County Legislature’s 12th district in 2005. Then came an abrupt move the Republican Party in 2006, burning many bridges in Niagara County politics.
Observers say that he was angling for an opportunity to run for higher office. His opening came in 2010 in a threeway race against incumbent Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte and Niagara Falls Councilman John Accardo.
On August 18, 2015, Ceretto announced that he was switching parties again. This cycle he is seeking election as a Democrat. He is running against the widely respected Judge Angelo J. Morinello, who is endorsed by the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform parties.
Switching parties for money
When Ceretto switched parties last year he said the reason was that he would be able to obtain more state funds for his district.
Individual legislators are supplied with state money, often referred to as “pork barrel spending,” that they routinely pass out in their districts, ostensibly unrelated to a recipient’s political support.
Were Ceretto to remain a Republican, he would likely have been allocated between $100,000 and $150,000 per year for member items. As a Democrat, Ceretto is being given 10 times that. Those allocations are determined in talks between Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.
Earlier this week, The Buffalo News published a stunning article revealing a series of emails from Ceretto staffers revealing that the office withheld state resources from political opponents and based on personal slights.
The News reported that Robert E. Nichols, Ceretto’s closest staffer, made sure that none of Cerretto’s allocation of $1.6 million for earmarks would benefit the Town of Wheatfeild.
The reason? According to the emails, Town Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe allegedly gave Nichols and Ceretto the cold shoulder at a public picnic. All of the town’s board members are Republicans.
The criticism that Ceretto is driven by grudges is a common one. Many of his critics claim that Ceretto would often retaliate against the organizations that they are affiliated with in petty and unbecoming ways.
State resources for politics
The News article also revealed that a former Ceretto employee in his Niagara Falls district office conducted several meetings in the office about Ceretto’s re-election efforts; printed invitations to a February 13 campaign fundraiser; using the State Assembly postage stamp; and using state staff time to conduct political work.
If true, such use of public resources for political purposes violates state’s Public Officers Law. An ethics violation could commence, if someone files a formal complaint against the Assemblyman.
The revelations could influence the outcome of the hotly contested general election.
“While I am still trying to digest the serious allegations laid out in the Buffalo News earlier today, if true, Mr. Ceretto has some serious explaining to do. I am at a loss for words over the details of these repeated ethics violations. I will be commenting further on this matter Thursday morning,” Morinello said in a statement released Wednesday.
Unable to work with others, and a dislike of Wheatfeild
“However, please note that when John and I visited the Wheatfield GOP booth during the community picnic – Bob Cliff avoided us and did not speak to us. So we made an effort and were pushed away. So in this case, how is it beneficial to help him with his budget? I would prefer to help not for profits or fire halls in the town of Wheatfield,” wrote Nichols.
Cliffe said he was unaware of the hostility. He doesn’t’ remember the alleged incident, supposedly taken place August 2015. Cliffe is not worried, though, because the town seldom asked Ceretto for funds.
“Most of our requests have come through the Senate,” Cliffe told The News. The town is in the district of State Senator Robert Ortt.
A flagrant disregard for campaign finance laws
Morinello’s has been mobilizing Republican voters in the district in recent weeks. Last week he blasted Ceretto for ignoring campaign finance deadlines that are required by state law. On Friday, October 7th, Ceretto was required to file a 32-Day Pre-General Election Financial Disclosure. Those forms have not yet been submitte d to the State Board of Elections.
“John Ceretto’s complete disregard for campaign finance rules is shocking and appalling,” said Morinello. “It is even more shocking that he would blatantly disregard these rules just days after sending out slick political mailers calling for campaign finance reform. It’s another example of his ‘do as I say, not as I do’ philosophy.”
Ceretto’s late financial disclosure comes less than a week after it was revealed he has received over $70,000 dollars since 2010 in unitemized contributions, which Morinello’s campaign is referring to as “dark money.” Nearly 40 percent of all money that Ceretto has raised has been unitemized.
Morinello has called for reforms to the state’s campaign contribution policy. He wants full disclosure of contributions to any candidate or elected official.
“It is clear that whatever ethics legislation being touted in Albany is nowhere near sufficient to solve the deep-rooted corruption within our Legislature,” said Morinello. “Assemblyman Ceretto can send all the shiny mailers claiming he wants campaign reform, but until he starts practicing what he preaches it’s just another example of him saying one thing and doing another.”
To ensure political campaigns are as transparent as possible, Judge Morinello has urged that all contributions made to candidates be fully disclosed.
Ceretto’s disregard for the disclosure requirement comes a week after purchasing over $125,000 in television ad space.