District Attorney Holley Carnright is dismissing accusations of financial mismanagement by political rival Jonathan Sennett as a ploy concocted by a “desperate candidate” and fellow Democrat County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach in last-minute bid to win votes.
“He can’t talk about the issues, he can’t talk about his qualifications, so he’s inventing something that isn’t there,” said Carnright on Monday, four days after Sennett lobbed the allegations at a press conference.
At the heart of Sennett’s claims is a six-month standoff between Carnright and Auerbach regarding protocols for the handling and disbursement of so-called “confidential investigative funds” used by the DA’s office to pay informants and bankroll undercover operations. The two elected officials came to loggerheads in February when Auerbach launched an audit of financial controls at the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices following the arrest of former Kingston Police Detective Lt. Tim Matthews. At the time, Matthews was accused of stealing $9,000, including investigative funds, from a safe at police headquarters. He was later indicted on multiple felony charges alleging a decade-long pattern of theft of investigative funds amounting to more than $200,000 in taxpayer money.
After meetings in February with Carnright and Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum, Auerbach announced that he was freezing further disbursement of investigative funds until he was assured that effective written protocols for such disbursements were in place. In a series of written exchanges, Carnright asked Auerbach to detail any problems with the protocols he had showed him at the February meeting. Auerbach responded that without a copy of the protocols in writing, he would not release further funds. It was not until seven months later, on Sept. 21, Auerbach said, that he received the written protocols and released $1,000 in investigative funds which Carnright asked for in March. Carnright said he believed that he had adequately addressed the issue of financial controls in his February meeting and added that the protocols he showed Auerbach then — and which had been in place since 2008 — were the same ones he had submitted in writing last month.
“I had the protocols in place and frankly I got annoyed with the whole thing,” said Carnright. “I’m a busy person.”
While the county-controlled budget line was frozen, Carnright said that his investigative team was able to draw funds from a separate “off books” account containing about $14,000. The money was part of a settlement by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office regarding the retail sale of knives and other dangerous weapons and shared with prosecutors around the state. The account, Carnright said, was kept separate from county coffers — and Auerbach’s oversight — to comply with the conditions of the settlement which stipulated the money could only be spent on confidential investigations. Carnright said that Auerbach was aware of the account’s existence at least since the spring, when he advised him that the money needed to be moved from a local savings bank to a commercial bank. He added that Auerbach receives monthly bank statements from the account and money from it was used to fund a gun-trafficking investigation.
Auerbach, said that off-books — i.e., accounts that aren’t figured into or listed in the county budget — accounts are a throwback to the days before the new county charter. In most cases, their existence ran contrary to the principle that the comptroller have “care, custody and control” over every dollar coming in or out of the county. Auerbach, who has produced a report on the persistence of off-book accounts in numerous county departments, said Carnright had been especially resistant to his efforts to bring fiscal controls into compliance with the charter.
“It seems like we spend an inordinate amount of time getting the DA’s office to recognize where the care, custody and control should be,” said Auerbach. “We get the greatest amount of pushback from that office.”
Sennett, who is making his second run for the District Attorney’s Office, hit his opponent on this issue at his Oct. 13 press conference at his John Street, Kingston campaign headquarters, where he displayed the correspondence between Carnright and Auerbach (obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request) and tried to make the case that Carnright had mishandled funds and stonewalled the comptroller’s efforts to bring full accountability to Ulster’s finances. Sennett had the pertinent documents blown up many times their original size and pasted onto large pieces of cardboard, pointing to them often for both clarity and dramatic effect.
“This is not a radical requirement,” said Sennett, a former Bronx assistant district attorney. “This is simple standard operating procedure.”
Five large to Matthews
Sennett also displayed copies of a voucher signed by Carnright for a $5,000 check made out to Matthews in March 2008 labeled “emergency check for buy money-ongoing investigation.” Since April, Sennett has been calling on Carnright to recuse himself from prosecuting the case against the disgraced former detective on the grounds that Matthews’ close working relationship with the DA’s Office created a conflict of interest. The voucher, Sennett said, was smoking-gun evidence that Carnright was not just a close working associate of Matthews, but potentially a material witness in the criminal case.
“His stubborn and unnecessary refusal to recuse himself taints the entire case and calls into question the ethics of the Ulster County district attorney,” said Sennett.
Carnright rebutted the accusation, saying that in signing the voucher he was merely acting as a department head approving the release of funds which had already been earmarked in the 2007 budget, before he took office. Carnright, however, admitted that the voucher was pertinent to Matthews’ trial. In his written response to Sennett’s allegations, Carnright took his opponent to task for “disclosing documents to the public which is evidence in a trial which is pending.”
Carnright also sought to defend his record on financial affairs. Carnright said that each year he had been in office he had returned money to the county at the end of the year despite a series of technological upgrades including the introduction of BlackBerry devices, laptops and modern audio and visual equipment.
“How is that mismanagement of funds?”
Carnright and Sennett will meet at the polls on Nov. 8. No debates are currently scheduled between the candidates.