Two District Attorney hopefuls battle to the wire

Gwen Chamberlain

A letter to the editor from Casella was omitted from the Nov. 1 Chronicle-Express in error. It has been published here. 

Four years ago, as an independent candidate, Valerie Gardner defeated Republican incumbent Jason Cook to win the Yates County District Attorney race. Last year, she fell to Cook in the race for Yates County Judge, and this year she is being challenged in a heated campaign with independent Todd Casella, Steuben County Assistant District Attorney.

Their battle has included legal challenges that ended up in courtroom arguments over the validity of petitions. As a result, Casella was not allowed to challenge Gardner in the Republican Primary in September, but his name will appear on the Independence and Reform lines.

While Gardner points to her experience in private practice and over the past four years as DA, Casella says his own experience and relationships with law enforcement make him the stronger candidate.

Casella, who has been a Steuben County prosecutor for less than five years, boasts about endorsements from bargaining units representing New York State Police and Yates County Sheriff Deputies. Gardner says she’s proud of individual endorsements, including from a crime victim who never voted before and a former defendant who credits her with helping him get his life in order.

Casella says he has been responsible for prosecuting approximately 4,000 criminal cases, including over 600 felonies since moving to Steuben County DA’s office. He has handled cases in 15 different courts in Steuben County.

Gardner points out that the index crime rate in Yates County has dropped since she took office in 2014, and that 89 percent of all felony cases prosecuted by her office end with a conviction for the highest charge, with most reductions in charges are due to special circumstances with cases.

While there are no claims filed against Gardner in Yates County, one notice of claim has been filed in Steuben County against Casella and a New York State Trooper (see sidebar).

Both candidates say they have the experience to manage the staff and office of Yates County District Attorney. Gardner points to her 19 years of experience in private practice, 21 years as prosecutor in Yates County, and four years in the DA’s office, where she says she has saved Yates County taxpayers roughly $300,000.

Casella is confident he will be able to manage the office and a budget. He says he is familiar with the procedures within the Steuben County DA’s office, and he is excited about working with the technology available in the Yates County Courthouse. One of his goals will be to transition to a paperless system.

Gardner points to her historical knowledge of Yates County and her community involvement in multiple organizations, including Yates Substance Abuse Coalition as advantages that help her prosecute cases.

Casella, who grew up in Wayne County, and spent time in Queens and Long Island before moving to Steuben County, says coming to Yates County will give him an opportunity to see things without the potential for conflicts of interest. “Some people like the idea of a clean slate,” he says.

According to campaign finance disclosure information, Casella’s campaign raised over $22,710, most from outside Yates County, while Gardner’s campaign raised $25,421, including $2,000 from the Yates County Republican Committee. Most of Gardner’s contributions came from within Yates County, and she funded most of the campaign expenses herself.

As of Oct. 27, Casella spent over $19,200, with $8,500 going to a Republican campaign manager, Brightside Communications. Information about Gardner’s spending was not available at press time.

No matter what happens Nov. 7, Casella wants to make Yates County his home. He hopes to convince Steuben County officials to let him move here if he loses. And if that happens, he won’t be a stranger when the 2021 election comes around.

While Todd Casella’s tenure in Steuben County has been relatively short, he has drawn the ire of at least one former defendant who has filed a notice of claim against him and a New York State Trooper. The claimant, Thomas Thompson, formerly of Dansville, accuses Casella of malicious prosecution in five cases. Charges in four of those cases were dismissed, according to documents provided by Thompson, who was acquitted of some of the charges that were brought against him a second time.

Casella says Thompson’s notice of claim has not risen to a lawsuit, and insists the allegations are false. Thompson has also complained about Casella, state troopers, and a Steuben County Town Justice to various state agencies, including the state commission on Judicial Conduct. A representative of the New York Attorney Grievance Committee informed Thompson his complaint would not be investigated because Thompson’s indictment had been dismissed.

Thompson, who has an extensive history with law enforcement and the judicial system in New York and South Carolina, says he plans to file a federal lawsuit against as many as 14 parties, including Casella, claiming violations of his first amendment rights. His attorney did not return a call from The Chronicle-Express to confirm this assertion.

A lawsuit threatened