County GOP Defends Gross Party

February 15th, 2012


By Mark Scheer 
Niagara Gazette

NIAGARA FALLS — Organizers said they held the party to support local charities and say good-bye to a man who has admitted to committing several crimes but has also done a great deal of good for the community.

Critics charged that last week’s send-off for local plumber John Gross — who will soon be heading back to federal prison — delivered an inappropriate message about the way business gets done sometimes in the city of Niagara Falls.

Gross and dozens of supporters gathered Friday at the Lewiston Fire Co. No. 2 fire hall for the $35-per-ticket affair,  which was organized by the Niagara Falls Republican Committee with help from Laborers’ Local 91. The event was held just weeks before Gross is scheduled to begin a 33-month prison term for evading income taxes and rigging bids.

Falls GOP Chairman Robert Krause said the party — which sparked outrage from local Democrats, including Mayor Paul Dyster — raised about $2,000, all of which he says will be donated to three local charities, including Community Missions, Opportunities Unlimited and a local soup kitchen.

“Not one penny is going to be set aside for our committee,” Krause said. “It wasn’t so much for John as much as it was for the charities involved.”

Invitations for what was billed as the “first annual ‘It’s a party’ were delivered earlier this month and clearly noted that the function was a “cocktail event with John Gross” with “all proceeds” to benefit local charities. Participants were asked to make checks payable to the Niagara Falls Republican Committee with the return address on the invitations listed as the Seneca Avenue office of Laborers’ Local 91.

Plans for the event prompted criticism from Dyster and Falls Democratic Party Chairman David Houghton, both of whom questioned the local GOP’s decision to throw a party where the guest of honor is a man like Gross who has confessed to several crimes in recent years, including one involving bribery of an elected official from Niagara County. Gross was sentenced for his most recent guilty plea to single counts of mail fraud and aiding in the preparation of a false tax return. It was the third time he has been convicted of a federal crime and the second time he’s been sent to prison.

“These are felonies that, in some cases, are directly involved in the political process,” Houghton said. “I think it should call into question their judgment.”

Dyster, who has been cooperating with federal law enforcement officials on an ongoing investigation involving Gross and a group of city inspectors, agreed, saying he believes the event helped reinforce the image of the city as a corrupt place, an image he insists his administration is trying to erase.

“There is this image of corruption in Niagara Falls already and anything that perpetuates that, it seems to me, takes us in a wrong direction,” Dyster said.

Dyster also questioned the Republican party’s involvement in the fundraising aspect of the event, suggesting the individuals who attended the event did not need the local GOP to make donations to the charities in question.

“If you want to give money to charity why would you write a check to the Niagara Falls Republican Party?” Dyster said. “They have to show those funds passing through their account in a transparent way. I don’t understand the motive for that.”

Dick Palladino, business manager for Laborers 91, accused Dyster and Houghton of “trying to make something out of it that it’s not.” Palladino said Laborers 91 got involved because Gross did much to support members of the union during his decades of service to the local plumbing company, David Gross Contracting. Palladino said Gross also donated generously to local charities over the years while helping many down-on-their-luck city residents by giving them reduced rates for plumbing jobs they otherwise would not have been able to afford. While Palladino said those good deeds do not excuse Gross for his crimes, he also said he thought his generous nature should count for something.

“That was done for a man who has done so much for this community,” Palladino said of Friday’s party. “Nobody condones breaking law. Absolutely nobody. Least of all, us.”

“He took whatever was coming to him,” Palladino added. “He’s never disputed the fact that he did something wrong. My point is, what about all the good that he did? Is that to be overlooked?”

Among those in attendance was Niagara Falls City Councilman Robert Anderson, a registered Democrat who received the endorsement from the city Republican committee during last year’s election. Anderson said the event featured a lot of “familiar faces,” including local Republican committee members, a couple of retired judges and several prominent attorneys. He said he elected to attend because the charities involved were worthy and he’s donated to them in the past. As for Gross, Anderson said he didn’t know him well, but knew of his reputation of being a generous businessman in the community.

“I’m not God,” Anderson said. “I’m not the one who casts judgment. What he did was wrong. I’m pretty sure he knows what he did was wrong. I went out there because of the things I heard from other people, that he’s done some kind things for a lot of people in this city.”

In defending his decision to throw the party, Krause said he viewed Gross, a well-known and in some circles well-liked and respected businessman, as a “draw” to help spur interest in the event itself and its stated purpose — helping local charities. Krause agreed with Palladino that while Gross has admitted to criminal conduct in the past, the generosity he has shown to the Niagara Falls community should not be dismissed because of it.

“We’re not honoring John,” Krause said. “We’ve got to take that out of the equation. There’s no way the Republican party can honor a three-time felon. The guy’s been in business here for 50 years. He’s done a lot in the community and we wanted to recognize that somehow. He did what he did but, on the other hand, he’s given to charities throughout his whole career and he’s helped tons of people in this city.”

John Conklin, a spokesperson for the New York State Board of Elections, said he could not comment on any specifics regarding the Falls Republican Party, but said, in general, political committees are allowed to use donated funds to make contributions to charity provided, of course, the donations and contributions are reflected on financial records filed with the state.

“A political committee can make contributions to charities,” Conklin said. “That’s allowed. That’s not a violation of election law, assuming the committee does the necessary reporting.”

Krause said all of the funds collected during Friday’s event as well as the follow-up charitable donations will be noted in the Republican committee’s financial reports as required by law.

“Politics is like doing business,” Krause said. “To do business in this city, you have to reflect well on your charities as well as the community. There’s just no around it. We want people to recognize that we’re not just all about the politicians and that we want to be involved in the community.”

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