He shoved a cop and got away with it – maybe

Judge Mark Grisanti, whose political godfather is Andrew Cuomo, won't be prosecuted. But he could be disciplined by a judicial panel. He wouldn't be the first.
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

Back in June, acting New York State Supreme Court Justice Mark Grisanti shoved a Buffalo cop as police attempted to sort out an altercation between the judge and his wife, Maria Grisanti, and some neighbors.

Police body-camera video, obtained and published earlier this week by Law360.com, has drawn considerable media attention. In the video, Maria Grisanti stomps about screaming obscenities at her neighbors and the cops. An officer tackles and cuffs her, prompting the judge — his t-shirt torn and hanging around his waist — to run across the street and try to wrestle the officer away from his wife.

That’s just in the first three minutes of video that’s been posted. There’s more, much more, to the spectacle: some political and nepotistic name-dropping, a lecture from an angry cop, a contrite call with a detective.

We’ll get to all that. But first, a little pugilistic history.

Eight years ago, when Grisanti was a state senator representing the 60th District, he and Maria were caught up in a fight at the Seneca Niagara Casino. The February 2012 scuffle involved a Seneca businessman and his wife, Eric and Kristina White, and Seth Snyder, a grandson of former Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder. 

In the aftermath, Grisanti cast himself as a peacemaker interceding in a fight between other parties. But that night Grisanti admitted to Niagara Falls police he’d “thrown a few punches” during the altercation, according to the police report, and he later told the Buffalo News he’d done a “clothesline” maneuver to one of the two women fighting with his wife. 

He told the News: “I didn’t punch any security guards to my knowledge,” but witnesses to the incident, as well as video, suggested he did. And Grisanti seemed to admit to the News that he might have: “The security was grabbing me to pull me out of there. They weren’t comprehending that was my wife under two women hitting her.”

The Grisantis claimed Maria suffered a concussion during the fight.

No charges were filed against anyone involved in the 2012 incident.

Nor did Grisanti’s career suffer.

Appointed by Cuomo

Grisanti — a Democrat who turned Republican to run for State Senate in 2010 — was elected to a second term that fall. Republicans abandoned him in 2014, in response to his votes to legalize gay marriage and to pass the SAFE Act, two measures championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Grisanti lost the GOP primary and came in third in a three-way race that November.

But the votes that cost him Republican support earned him a consolation prize: In 2015, Cuomo appointed Grisanti judge on the state Court of Claims, which handles civil claims against state agencies. 

In 2018, Grisanti was appointed an acting justice of the New York State Supreme Court.

Appointed. Not elected. 

Grisanti has never been elected to the job that paid him $210,161 last year. As of the end of 2019, he’d made $907,753 since his appointment to the bench five years ago. With nine years on the public payroll, he’s nearly halfway to a fat state pension, too, in a job most incumbents hold as long as they want to keep it.

This was Grisanti’s reward for a couple votes the governor needed.

And then, on June 22, he put his hands on a cop.

Both Grisantis wound up in the back of patrol cars that evening, handcuffed. But police didn’t arrest or charge either of them — not for obstruction of justice, or assault, or creating a disturbance. Erie County District Attorney John Flynn declined to pursue the matter, too. 

The release of the body camera footage apparently hasn’t swayed Flynn.

“Our office has concluded our investigation into the altercation and will be making no further comments,” a spokesman for the DA said in a statement to the news media.

“I’ve had clients arrested for far less,” Samuel P. Davis, a Buffalo criminal defense attorney at Dolce Panepinto, told Frank Runyeon of Law360.com. Davis noted his clients have been charged with resisting arrest for mere muscle movement. 

“It’s very easy for people to be taken into custody for much less than touching the officer and pushing the officer,” he said. 

But Grisanti is a judge, not an average citizen. And he’s a prosperous white guy, not a person of color. 

Roll video

The June 22 incident began with the Grisantis taking exception to the way a visitor to Joe and Gina Mele had parked her truck. The Grisantis felt the back of the truck was too close to the apron of their driveway.

The Grisantis and the Meles live across the street from one another on Duluth, a one-block street in North Buffalo.

The Grisantis’ driveway apron, and parking cars, are the crux of a years-long dispute between the Grisantis and the Meles. The dispute has led to police intervention before.

I reviewed seven files of police body camera footage — about two hours in all — and about a half hour of security camera video belonging to the Meles. In the security camera video, Maria Grisanti is seen complaining about the truck, which belongs to Gina Mele’s sister, visiting from New Jersey. 

Foul language and threats quickly erupt from both the Grisantis and the Meles. And then the Grisantis charge across the street.

The security camera video is pretty low quality. But a police detective who looked at the Meles’ video later that evening told D District Lieutenant Karin Turello twice that the Grisantis “definitely initiated” the melee that ensued. His judgment is captured on the lieutenant’s police body camera video. 

The fight doesn’t last long. The three women and two men are all grappling. The fight moves into the street and then into the Grisantis’ driveway.

By the time the police arrive, it’s all over but the cussing, which continues apace. Maria Grisanti, in particular, can’t stop shouting, which is what prompts Officer Ryan Gehr — who is trying to interview the Meles — to move her out of the street  into her own yard and cuff her. In doing so, he knocks her down. Mark Grisanti then rushes across the street and gives Gehr a shove. 

Grisanti is restrained by another officer, who tells him, “We’re not doing this. We’re not fighting a cop.”

At that point Grisanti begins to tell officers there will be “trouble” if Maria is arrested. He begins naming the cops he knows, including his daughter and son-in-law. He mentions that Mayor Byron Brown is a friend.

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The name-dropping is finally too much for Officer Richard Hy, who is locally infamous for his satirical “Angry Cop” videos. Hy chides Grisanti for touting his influence for all the witnesses to hear, telling him he risks making the cops — including his daughter and son-in-law — “look dirty.”

“Is that a good idea? In this environment?” Hy says to the judge, cuffing him. “How am I helping you now?”

Hy’s brief outburst is the only flash of temper the police officers show. The rest of the body camera footage shows officers gathering testimony, reviewing video, trying to make sense of the confrontation — a task clearly complicated by the fact that two of the parties involved are a judge and his wife, who are both handcuffed in the back of patrol cars. 

Joe Mele, who works for the City of Buffalo, leaves for Sisters Hospital. He thinks his shoulder may be dislocated, and he has a wound where he says Maria Grisanti bit him. At one point, Turello — the lieutenant on the scene — allows the judge to use her cell phone to talk with his cousin, Buffalo Police Detective Mark Costantino.

She used to work patrol in the neighborhood, Turello tells the neighbors, and she is aware of the history between the Grisantis and the Meles. 

“I can’t,” she mutters to herself in frustration. “I just can’t.”

The possible consequences

So the state senator hit a casino security guard back in 2012.

And the state judge shoved a cop in June. 

The consequences to Grisanti thus far? None. No charges were filed in either incident. And he still has a job.

But Grisanti has reason to worry.

The state judicial system, which like all state agencies has been asked to cut costs, is retiring 46 judges across the state. The judges have been serving past the retirement age of 70, but their term extensions will not be renewed, in order to shave about $60 million from the state budget.

Furthermore, on Thursday, Grisanti recused himself from hearing three lawsuits against members of the Buffalo Police Department, according to Law360.com, the outfit that first obtained and published the police body camera video.

In the video, Grisanti repeatedly says he understands cops are going through a hard time right now.

“I’m 100 percent with you guys,” he says. “We’re all on the same page with everything.”

So Grisanti’s capacity to do his job is diminished, in a system seeking to shed salaries. And the governor who appointed him is distancing himself. A Cuomo spokesman released a statement Thursday saying, in effect, the governor will have nothing to do with anything related to the Grisanti incident.

Not a cheerful prospect for the judge.

The Meles have filed complaints with Grisanti’s immediate boss, Justice Paula Feroleto, the state attorney general, the governor’s office, and the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct

Since 1979, the commission has removed just four judges from the bench in Erie County. In the same period, four others were compelled to resign. 

The most recent state Supreme Court justice in the Eighth District forced to resign was Joseph Makowski, in 2009. Makowski was accused of compromising his office by trying to get an attorney out from under a drunk driving charge

In 1993, state Supreme Court Justice Anthony LoRusso was removed from office for allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.

In Niagara County, three judges have been removed and one made to resign since 1980. One of those removed was Niagara Falls City Court Judge Robert Restaino. Restaino jailed an entire courtroom — 46 people — because no one present would take responsibility for a ringing cell phone. 

Makowski is now an attorney in private practice. 

LoRusso is a West Side real estate developer. 

And Restaino is mayor of Niagara Falls. 

So maybe Grisanti’s prospects aren’t so grim after all.