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DiFiore chairs NY ethics board amid allegations

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore says she

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore says she did not use her influence to get welfare benefits for her maid. (May 29, 2012) Photo Credit: News 12

Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore chaired a meeting of the state's ethics board in Albany Thursday morning, even as she fights off allegations that she pulled strings to get her housekeeper disability benefits.

The meeting of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics comes after relevations that DiFiore was being investigated by the county's Department of Social Services for allegedly trying to obtain subsidized benefits for her maid.

There was no mention of the allegations during the meeting, part of which was held in executive session to discuss ongoing investigations, and state officials have told board members not to discuss the allegations against the chairwoman.

"I have done nothing wrong on anyone's behalf, let alone someone who was an employee for me," DiFiore told reporters after the ethics board meeting. "This is generated as a politically motivated attack by a political operative in Westchester County, and I'm just not going to speak about it any further."

On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he has "total confidence" in DiFiore and stood behind his decision to appoint her as chairwoman of the commission. He said there were "political overtones" to the allegations against her.

In a yearlong investigation, Westchester County's Department of Social Services has been examining why DiFiore's ex-nanny/housekeeper was approved for food stamps and Medicaid benefits after having been rejected three times, the New York Post reported. Allegations have also surfaced regarding the citizenship status of DiFiore's housekeeper and if proper taxes were paid on her income.

The Post cited several internal emails from Dhyalma Vazquez, a county anti-fraud investigator, alleging that the application by Maria Buchanan, 58, a Bronxville housekeeper and Jamaican immigrant, was given the benefits due to DiFiore's political clout.

Vazquez also is the vice-chairwoman of the Westchester County Independence Party, which backed DiFiore's 2006 campaign but has clashed with her since then over appointments she has made and her decision to switch to the Democratic Party.

DiFiore, a Republican-turned-Democrat, maintains the allegations are part of a politically motivated attack.

"I've done nothing wrong in any respect," DiFiore said Tuesday in a statement. "The person quoted in this illegally leaked email has a well known political agenda that she has been carrying on against me for at least a decade and this appears to be more of the same."

Vazquez has denied that the investigation was a political smear campaign.

Giulio Cavallo, head of the Westchester Independence Party, also denied that he or other party officials were involved in a smear campaign, and lashed out at DiFiore for suggesting that the investigation was politically motivated.

"She's trying to put a spin on this as politically motivated," Cavallo told Newsday. "We didn't have nothing to do with that."

Cavallo said Vazquez told him she didn't leak details of the investigation to the media but that she had provided a packet of her initial findings to County Executive Rob Astorino, the county attorney's office and other officials several months ago. "Now all of sudden somebody wants to leak these things out," he said.

A spokeswoman for Astorino has declined to comment on the investigation, citing confidentiality laws.

Reginald LaFayette, chairman of Westchester Democratic Committee and a longtime DiFiore supporter, said he believes the investigation is a "hit job" by her political enemies in the Independence Party, specifically Vazquez.

"It doesn't look good with the vice chair of the Independence Party conducting the investigation," he said. "But it's not surprising. She's up for re-election next year and I don't hear anyone's name mentioned to run against her."

The 14-member ethics commission DiFiore heads is also under fire over its handling of an inquiry regarding Sen. Tom Libous (R-Binghamton), the second-highest ranking senator in the State Legislature.

Earlier this year, Libous' name came up in a tangential way at the Westchester County corruption trial focusing on Yonkers Republican Party chief Zehy Jereis and Democratic Councilwoman Sandy Annabi. At the trial, a political operative said that Libous sought a position for his son at the operative's law firm and offered to help direct business its way. Libous' son was hired, but later left the firm. The senator denied any wrongdoing.

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