FRANKLINVILLE — Cattaraugus County Conservative Party Chairman Leonard Caros said he expects to be interviewed by the FBI in Buffalo next week over his allegations that Republican Party officials in the county are trying to hijack the Conservative Party.
Caros told the Olean Times Herald that he was contacted by the FBI through an intermediary on Monday, asking to meet with him.
“They want me to bring my files,” he said, which he alleges could contain evidence local Republican Party leaders have violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
While RICO laws and their state counterparts were first instituted to fight organized crime, any collection of individuals — including political parties — can be, and have been, accused of violating these regulations by running organized attempts to circumvent the law.
Caros has accused Republican Party Chairman Robert Keis Sr., Republican Election Commissioner Michael Brisky and County Legislator Andrew Burr, R-Gowanda, of meddling in Conservative Party matters in a bid to oust him as party leader.
The allegations include Caros’ belief that GOP members have helped add members to the Conservative Party who are not loyal to the party’s beliefs — meaning those new members would be in violation of New York state election law.
Keis and Burr have denied the accusations. Brisky did not return a call seeking comment on Friday but has previously dismissed Caros’ charges.
Keis said last week the Republican Party was not involved in a takeover of the Conservative Party, but that some Republicans may have been involved in helping pass some petitions for the Conservative Party.
Meanwhile, Caros’ job may be on the line as more than three dozen new Conservative Party members — many who switched from the Republican Party last October — have submitted petitions to serve as members of the Conservative Party Committee.
The Cattaraugus County Board of Elections will hold a hearing today on specific objections filed by Caros regarding the Conservative Party Committee nominations. Caros objected to five petitions, some with more than one name.
IN DESCRIBING LOCAL Republicans’ recent actions, Caros has cited a federal lawsuit filed by the Westchester County Independence Committee in 2013, which outlines an alleged attempt by Republican County Executive Rob Astorino to hijack the Independence Party.
That year, nearly 4,000 Independence Party members — all of whom registered with the party after Jan. 1, 2012 — were purged from the group’s voter roles after leaders claimed they were part of the GOP conspiracy to take over the party. New York state election law allows a county political party chairman to petition a judicial court to remove members who are “not in sympathy with the principles of such party.”
The lawsuit charged Astorino and 89 other defendants with violating RICO laws, saying Astorino’s promise to “decapitate” the Independence Party involved racketeering and conspiracy. The suit alleges Astorino’s associates made an organized effort to convince some voters to change party affiliation and to register new voters who could then secure certain nominations during the Independence Party’s primary.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas dismissed the Independence Party lawsuit in 2015 “because the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege a pattern of racketeering activity,” according to the ruling.
The judge noted the alleged scheme to take over the party had been cut off with the disenrollment of falsely-enrolled party members.
CAROS ALSO CHARGED local Republicans with interfering in Independence Party elections in the past by packing the party committees with former Republicans who changed their party affiliation. Caros said he has been able to “connect the dots” in his allegations after asking for Republican and Conservative party memberships and changes in affiliation going back more than 10 years.
In county Board of Elections records, Caros said he found 79 Republicans and some voters who were not an enrolled member of any political party switched to the Independence Party in the last three months of 2009.
Before the first meeting of the Independence Party was held in 2010, many of those new party members had become members of the Independence Party Committee, including Burr. He challenged Independence Party leader Brenda Schmidt for the chairmanship and won.
“How many times do you see a change of nearly 80 enrollment, mostly Republicans, but with some with no party affiliation?” Caros asked.
Three years later, Burr re-enrolled as a Republican and became vice chairman of the Republican Party when Keis was elected chairman, Caros said.
Caros added Republicans also took over the Conservative Party several years ago in response to the late chairman Walter Schmidt endorsing former District Attorney Edward Sharkey, a Democrat.
Caros thinks the current pressure allegedly being exerted by the Republican Party stems from two years ago when the Conservative Party endorsed Democrat William Gabler for County Court judge over Republican Moses Mark Howden.
“I’ve endorsed more Republicans than Democrats, but sometimes the Democrats put out better candidates,” Caros said.
Caros said he expects a close election for Conservative Party chairman even if he is successful in knocking off the former Republicans seeking to serve on the Conservative Party Committee.
CAROS SAID HE last week asked state Conservative Party officials for help in preventing a Republican takeover of the county party.
“I said if you want a Conservative group here, we’re going to have to fight,” he said, adding, “It’s called interfering with the election. They don’t take this lightly when you start interfering with future elections.”
Caros added the state Attorney General’s Office could get involved in an investigation of Caros’ allegations as well.
The Conservative Party chairman said he’s looking at a two-prong attack: to hold the Republicans accountable for their attempt to hijack the party and to “get these guys off the (Conservative) rolls” because they enrolled without loyalty to the party.
“I’m not kidding around,” Caros said. “They are messing with a wrestler. I’m not going to quit until it is over.”
(City Editor Danielle Gamble contributed to this story. Contact reporter Rick Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)