Hugh Reynolds: He shot the sheriff

Hugh Reynolds.

Before astonished and perplexed Ulster County legislators last Wednesday, an obviously agitated Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum put a beating on Comptroller Elliott (“BS”) Auerbach unheard of (by me, anyway) in the annals of county government.

Was this the classic case of the sheriff killing the messenger, or was the comptroller’s report on drug-cops project URGENT something more than BS? At this point only The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and he ain’t talkin’. But it looks to me as though mayhap the sheriff protesteth just a little too much.

That the normally coolheaded and easygoing Van Blarcum was feeling feisty could be seen when he took the podium. The legislature’s monthly session, scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. was, due to the Republican majority’s inability to get its act together, called at 7:34 p.m. Democrats took their seats at least 45 minutes earlier. Assuming courtesy counts, this level of contempt for the public, with no explanations or apologies offered, was annoying. And Van Blarcum was already worked up over the Auerbach report.

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Van Blarcum, as sheriff, was given the privilege of the floor to speak to a resolution pertaining to his department, specifically, Auerbach’s report on URGENT, short for Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team. Opening with an edge in his voice, Van Blarcum said, “You’ll be happy to know at the sheriff’s office when we have a meeting at seven o’clock we meet at seven o’clock.”

Ignoring chuckles from clueless legislators, the sheriff launched on the comptroller.

Waving some papers around, he accused Auerbach of being “unethical, unprofessional and self-serving.” Van Blarcum pulled no punches. “This draft report” about which Auerbach had released a brief press release a few days earlier, “is 12 pages of BS,” he said.

Auerbach, for the second time this year, has raised questions about how the drug-fighting task force called URGENT, was established five years ago, how it was governed and how the booty it confiscated in drug raids was accounted for and distributed to URGENT members. The last is the crux of the matter.

Van Blarcum dismissed the comptroller as being without authority under the charter to investigate URGENT. URGENT’s directors were fully capable of managing their affairs without outside interference, he said. The sheriff also asserted that the comptroller had no authority to impound federal funds, though allowing perhaps that the charter-designated financial watchdog did in fact have the authority to oversee county operations outside federal control.

Division of spoils

Under the rules of engagement, URGENT and other police agencies turn over confiscated property, including cash, to the federal government, which takes 20 percent as a handling charge and determines whether transactions under investigation were in fact drug-related. The monies Auerbach held up briefly in the aftermath of the Tim Matthews probe referred to by Van Blarcum last week amounted to “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the sheriff said.

Auerbach has also questioned how District Attorney Holley Carnright had worked out an arrangement with the feds whereby he too gets 20 percent of proceeds for services rendered, leaving only 60 percent for the rest of URGENT, which is to say the cops who put their lives on the line raiding drug dens and arresting suspects.

There may be a king-of-the-hill syndrome at play here. The sheriff, district attorney and the comptroller are all independently elected “constitutional officers,” which Van Blarcum has to appreciate given his careful reading of the county charter. The key word here is “independent.” No outside force, except perhaps the county executive (who approves their budgets), has the right to interfere with, much less ask about, internal operations. There is of course long-standing precedent from Washington to Albany that speaks to a separation of powers and a system of mutual oversight.

While the URGENT debate, one complicated by lawyers on both sides, will continue for a while, the sheriff in attacking the comptroller has raised a fundamental issue of civilian control over the armed forces — in this case, the police.

No doubt, the experienced officers supervising URGENT were fully capable of administering the program. “It’s what cops do,” the sheriff said. But that does not suggest that responsible elected officials, town supervisors, mayors, county legislators, the county executive and yea, even the comptroller, should not have oversight.

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