Quintana’s political social distancing

Former city councilman, running for Assembly seat, disavows knowledge of his daughter's fraudulent petition signatures
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

In this season of social distancing, Robert Quintana, candidate for the 149th District Assembly seat, may have set a new record last month.

Quintana, the former two-term Niagara District councilman, is attempting a political comeback by running for the seat held by Sean Ryan, who is running for state Senate. One of his opponents, Jon Rivera, challenged the validity of Quintana’s nominating petition. 

Among the allegations, Rivera’s campaign accused Quintana’s daughter of fraud — of faking signatures.

Quintana’s response: In a court hearing last month, Quintana claimed not to know his daughter, Keila Sabala, had been collecting signatures for him.

He also claimed not to know his wife, Lillian Quintana — with whom he lives and to whom, he told the court, he is “happily married” — had done the same.

The stakes in that hearing were high for Quintana: In March, his campaign submitted 928 voter signatures on his nominating petition. The Erie County Board of Elections quickly ruled 681 of those invalid. That left 247, far fewer than the 500 usually required for an Assembly candidate to qualify for the ballot. 

But it would be enough this election season. In the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, Gov. Andrew Cuomo shortened the petition period and reduced the number of signatures required — in the case of Assembly races, to 150.

The Rivera campaign went to court hoping to whittle down Quintana’s 247 signatures below that 150 mark. Rivera’s attorney challenged 99 more signatures — 29 of them by arguing Sabala’s alleged fraud rendered every signature she witnessed suspect.

In the end, state Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo — and, subsequently, the Fourth Department of the state Appellate Division — agreed Sabala had engaged in fraud. 

But both courts left Quintana enough signatures to stay on the June 23 primary ballot.

Hands-off candidate

“Absolutely not,” Quintana told Colaiacovo in an April 24 hearing, when asked whether he knew his own family members had worked to get him on the ballot. 

“I kept my distance entirely from beginning to end with petitions,” Quintana said.

He said he did not go door to door himself to collect signatures. He claimed he did not talk to anyone who did, including his wife and his daughter. He said he never examined his nominating petition before it was submitted to the Erie County Board of Elections.

“I have a copy. I never reviewed it. It’s still sitting in my garage. I never looked at them,” Quintana told the court.

If he had, he might have noticed at least one of the irregularities that led to the Rivera campaign’s allegation of fraud against Sabala. On one page, Sabala submitted the signatures of two residents of a house on 15th Street, a mother and daughter. The problem is, they didn’t live there anymore. The mother sold the house last October and moved to Florida a month later.  The daughter, now living in North Buffalo, testified that neither she nor her mother had signed Quintana’s petition or been asked to do so.

The purchaser and current occupant of the property: Keila Sabala. 

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Quintana acknowledged to the court that he knew his daughter owned the house on 15th Street, that he’d visited the property on “[t]he first day she moved in.”

Rivera’s lawyers produced another witness, a Columbus Parkway resident, who disavowed his signature, also witnessed by Sabala. He testified he’d never signed anything in Sabala’s presence, though he allowed that his wife may have done so.

Sabala herself was subpoenaed by the court to respond to the allegations of fraud. She didn’t show. Attorneys representing Quintana asked the court to consider whether, due to COVID-19, the subpoena had ever reached her.

Regardless of the reason, Sabala’s failure to appear permitted the court to throw out all the signatures she collected, under state election law. That’s what Rivera’s attorney hoped for. Further, if it were demonstrated that Quintana was aware of the fraud, the entire nominating petition could be tossed. 

Thus, Quintana’s extraordinary act of familial distancing: His attorneys apparently wanted him on record saying he knew nothing of his daughter’s activity.

Quintana’s political rehabilitation

Quintana is a former two-term Niagara District councilman and retired Buffalo police officer. Both careers closed in ignominy. 

His terms in office were dogged by charges of nepotism and arrogance and ended in a swirl of harassment charges. 

After leaving the Council in 2000, he returned to active duty with the Buffalo Police Department. In 2012, he was accused of fraudulently collecting disability pay — $60,000 a year — for an on-duty injury suffered in 2005. The FBI arrested Quintana after observing him working at his family’s restaurant when he was supposedly disabled. 

After six years of legal wrangling, he avoided jail time by entering a court-ordered diversion program in 2018. 

Quintana has run for office occasionally in the 20 years since he left the Common Council but gained little traction. Now, Quintana is hoping to complete his political rehabilitation.

Affirmation of fraud

Colaiacovo didn’t seem to believe Quintana’s story, but the judge also declined to invalidate his petition. In his decision, Colaiacovo wrote:

While it is hard to believe that a candidate would not know that this daughter circulated designating petitions on his behalf, Quintana testified that he had no knowledge of his daughter’s actions and Petitioners submitted no proof that he did. In the absence of such proof, the Court cannot find that the candidate participated in, or can be charged with knowledge of, the fraudulent activity.

Colaiacovo did strike the three signatures Rivera’s campaign had questioned with witness testimony, as a result of Sabala’s “fraudulent activity.”

Last week the state Appellate Division’s Fourth Department ruled Colaiacovo should have thrown out 26 more signatures Sabala collected, “because the subscribing witness, Quintana’s daughter, committed fraud.”

Despite the explicit findings of fraud by the two courts, Quintana has claimed publicly that the rulings exonerated his daughter. 

They didn’t. But the courts’ rulings did keep Quintana on the June 23 primary ballot.

Quintana’s original petition contained 928 signatures. More than two-thirds of those were ruled invalid by the Erie County Board of Elections. He lost three more in Colaiacovo’s court, and 57 more in the Fourth Division, due both to Sabala’s alleged misdeeds and other faults. He thus ended with 187 — far fewer than the 500 signatures ordinarily required, but enough in this year’s COVID-curtailed petition period.

Quintana will square off against two other Democrats on June 23.

The Democratic Party has endorsed Rivera, who currently works for Erie County Department of Public Works and has a long political pedigree, beginning with a stint in Congressman Brian Higgins’ office. He helped elect (and re-elect three times) his father, David Rivera, to the Niagara District Council seat. He has worked on numerous other Democratic campaigns, including that of the district’s incumbent, Sean Ryan, who is leaving the office to run for the 60th District state Senate seat. Rivera and his family live on Buffalo’s West Side. This is his first run for office. 

Also on the ballot is West Side resident Adam Bojak, an attorney who specializes in tenant advocacy. Bojak has strong support among the city’s progressive activist community. It’s Bojak’s first run for office, too, though he flirted with a run for Common Council last year.