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Buoniconti defends record, Spelman defends comment

Date: 9/7/2010

Sept. 8, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- The format of the debate sponsored by the Springfield Democratic City Committee Thursday night allowed the five Democratic candidates for district attorney to directly respond to issues and accusations brought by one another.

Assistant District Attorneys Stephen Spelman and James Goodhines, State Sen. Stephen Buoniconti, former Assistant District Attorney Brett Vottero and former Assistant District Attorney and former Assistant Attorney General Michael Kogut spoke to approximately 100 people at Central High School.

Moderator Kathy Reynolds of WGGB frequently allowed the candidates time to address charges from others.

As expected, the issue of whether or not Buoniconti had failed to follow state ethics requirements in reporting outside income was one of the key topics of the night.

While addressing a question about how they would handle corruption in government if elected district attorney, Goodhines express concern about the report on Buoniconti. Earlier in the day Goodhines had released a statement to the media calling for Buoniconti to withdraw from the race.

Goodhines's remarks were followed by a request by Spelman directed at Buoniconti that he should release his tax records and ethics forms as both he and Goodhines had done.

Considered to be the frontrunner in the race by many observers, Buoniconti had deflected criticisms calmly at other forums. Showing some emotion here, he called the accusation "political grandstanding."

He said the additional income he had made as the counsel to the Hampden County Retirement Board was never hidden and called his role and how he reported the income as "very open, very forthright."

He surprised some in the crowd that he would comply with Spelman's request that evening and after the debate he gave this reporter a copy of his and his wife's combined tax returns for the past three years. In 2009, he and his wife reported an income of $136,462, $133,365 in 2008 and $126,035 in 2007.

He explained after the debate that a precedent had been set by his predecessor concerning the interpretation of the phase "government positions" on the ethics document.

He said he had been told that because he was hired as a private attorney to work with an entity that was not part of the state, he was an "independent contractor," rather than a government employee.

The ethics report notes that Buoniconti's wife is a physical therapist and that he is the sole owner of his private law firm. He claimed no gifts received, no honoraria and no reimbursements. He reported he made "$20,001 to $40,000" from his law firm.

Goodhines also made accusations that Buoniconti had claimed in Spanish language campaign literature that he supported CORI reform legislation, but he had actually voted against it. Goodhines also accused Buoniconti of accepting campaign contributions from convicted felons, which he later returned to them. Buoniconti did not address either of these charges.

Spelman also came under considerable scrutiny for his remarks expressed at an earlier debate comparing Springfield to a "war zone." Goodhines asked him to retract the statement and apologize. Spelman stood by it.

He said it wasn't just Springfield that he considered a war zone but other parts of the county as well because being in a war zone you consider your personal safety before leaving your home.

Using the example of an elderly lady wanting to take a walk in her neighborhood, Spelman said she wants "safety, freedom and peace."

"She wants to be safe. She wants the freedom to go where she wants. She wants to go in peace," he explained.

He repeated that he would employ tactics used in Iraq he learned during two tours of duty as a colonel in the Army Reserve to achieve a decrease in crime. He later explained those strategies are looking at a neighborhood house by house and block by block and he would involve local neighborhood leaders, business people, the state police and the local police in a collaborative effort as is currently being done in one North End neighborhood in Springfield to accomplish a reduction in crime.

Vottaro said that Spelman's remarks had made "great headlines," but the issue is one of perception versus reality and that efforts must be made to restore the reputation of communities.

Buoniconti said, "war analogies are damaging" and added Spelman's remarks conjure up visions of "tanks coming down the street."

Kogut, who has twice toured the neighborhood by Kenefick Park that was initially referred to by Spelman as a "war zone," said he rejected the phrase as "political rhetoric."

When asked how each man was "uniquely qualified for the job of district attorney," Goodhines said he had "far more" experience as a prosecutor than any of his opponents. Spelman noted he has already led a large legal organization before.

Vottero also spoke of his prosecutorial experience and having the judgment on how to handle cases.

Buoniconti said his time in government has given him "a blend of experience."

Kogut noted he is the only candidate running who has no personal involvement in the district attorney's office and holds no political allegiance to it.

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