GOP celebrates 3 Time Felon

February 12th, 2012


 

Party toasts Gross prior to his latest prison stint

Falls GOP hosts event after tax fraud conviction

NEWS NIAGARA REPORTER

Published:February 10, 2012, 11:22 PM

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Updated: February 10, 2012, 11:22 PM

In some communities, convicted felons are avoided.

In Niagara Falls, sometimes they're celebrated.

John J. Gross Jr., sentenced to his third stint in federal prison in January, was the toast of a party Friday night, an event organized by the Niagara Falls Republican Committee and supported by Laborers Local 91, the construction union once known for its intimidation and racketeering.

"My life has always been like that," Gross told The Buffalo News. "I help people, and they help me back. I'm not a selfish guy."

City Republican Chairman Robert A. Krause expected a few hundred people at the event.

"All right, he got convicted of tax evasion," Krause said. "But the citizens of Niagara Falls consider [John Gross] like a Robin Hood type of guy. He was friendly to us, so we're friendly back."

Not everyone was raising their glasses to toast the well-known Falls plumber who has been convicted of mail fraud, tax evasion, racketeering, stealing and bribing officials.

"It's almost beyond belief," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster, a Democrat who campaigned on reversing decades of corruption in the Cataract City. "On the one hand, you have an administration trying to clean up the city's image and eliminate corrupt relationships between unscrupulous businessmen and public officials, and on the other hand, you have people who seem to be flaunting their defiance of law and order."

Dave Houghton, chairman of the city's Democratic Party, said in a news release that "even if the local Republicans claim they are distributing the money to charity, they apparently don't see the problem with honoring a convicted felon."

The $35-per-ticket "It's a Party Cocktail Event with John Gross" at Lewiston Fire Company 2 was thrown to honor Gross before he begins his prison sentence, which will start in the next 30 days. Participants were instructed to make checks payable to the Niagara Falls Republican Committee. Invitations were mailed out with the return address label of Laborers' Local 91.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara sentenced Gross to 33 months in federal prison in January for rigging bids and evading income taxes while running his son's plumbing business, David Gross Contracting.

"We just want to say goodbye to John Gross," said Krause, the Republican chairman. "John is not an ax murderer. But, yeah, he deserves to go to jail -- the judge made that clear. He's in poor health, so we're all concerned about that as well. We just hope he's going to be fine and comes out."

Despite his criminal activities, Gross has attracted a loyal following in the Falls because of his charitable donations and plumbing business.

"A lot of people needed help with plumbing work," Krause said. "Sometimes, he wouldn't even charge them. A lot of times, he just cut them a break."

Gross said he was approached by members of local unions and churches, who wanted to have a send-off party for him.

"I didn't ask for it," he said. "They came to me."

Krause said the Republican committee will pay the bill for the party, and Gross said the money will be donated to three organizations: Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, which serves the needy and those with mental illnesses; Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara; and a Niagara Falls food pantry.

"We understand the sensitivities and we've got people who are in very severe need," said Don Luce, development director at Community Missions. "We'll take all the help we can get, and we appreciate the support."

A representative at Opportunities Unlimited said she was unaware of the party or the donation.

Fifteen years before Gross' latest crimes, Arcara sentenced him to three years and five months in federal prison for racketeering, stealing, bribing officials and cheating on his taxes. He also served jail time in 1974 for grand larceny and conspiracy, and was the FBI's star informant in a bribery investigation in the 1980s.

Dyster said the donations to local charities are no reason for the party's attendees to salute Gross.

"[They're supporting] people who, despite any charitable things they do for the community, are criminals," Dyster said. "Glorifying criminals is always the wrong thing to do."

Gross, 75, has donated to many Niagara County politicians over the years, including Dyster, but worked unsuccessfully to unseat the mayor in November by making donations to Republican mayoral candidate Johnny G. Destino that exceeded the state election limit by nearly $3,700.

Dyster welcomed the 2009 probe by the FBI, which accused Gross of having illegal dealings with Niagara Falls city inspectors. He worried about the message being sent by citizens who overlook Gross' wrongdoings.

"It's like the Roaring '20s where criminals [have] a plan to try and stir up the sympathies of people against law enforcement," the mayor said. "Now we're fighting a battle for the hearts and minds of the citizens, and that's frightening to me."

In July, Gross admitted his recent crimes cost the Internal Revenue Service $161,000. As of July, he also owed $222,000 to the government from the 1997 judgment.

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. declined to comment on Friday's event, though he has prosecuted Niagara County figures like Gross and the former leadership of Laborers Local 91.

Eighteen men in the Local 91 case were sentenced to prison terms for crimes including death threats, a firebombing and extreme vandalism against non-union workers and contractors.

"All my cases are important to me, but with Local 91, it was a situation where an entire county was held hostage for decades because of the actions of a few people," Hochul said shortly after becoming U.S. attorney.

The government began arresting the union members in 2002, and the organization was placed in trusteeship before new leaders were elected in 2004. Krause said he believes Local 91's problems with the law were behind it.

"The reason we are aligning with the unions is that there is a lot of work being done in Niagara Falls without unions," Krause said. "The work that's going on in the city should be done by the people who pay taxes in the city."

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