With all the back and forth about ethics in Washington, Albany, Ulster County, yea, even unto the City of Kingston, I’m beginning to wonder if government ethics isn’t some kind of oxymoron.
Last week Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with the usual annoying self-righteous pomposity, announced another of his “sweeping” ethics reforms. In Ulster, County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach’s call for ethics overhaul fell mostly on deaf ears, except that the chairman of the legislature opined that the comptroller might have better things to do. Kingston is currently wrestling with the punctuation on its years-long administration-spanning ethics reform efforts. Woodstock and New Paltz, places where these things matter most seriously, are probably due for some ringing rhetoric on the subject.
Under our system, government officials promulgate and enforce the rules of ethical conduct. Typically, these rules frown on too-obvious conflicts of interest and require some kind of financial disclosure, as though someone taking bribes is going to list it on their income taxes.
Sometimes, but rarely, the courts address issues of criminal behavior. How rare? By latest count, 30 state legislators since the year 2000 have either been convicted of criminal acts or resigned in plea deals to keep their pensions. An estimated 300 legislators have served since then, which is not to say the rest were necessarily 99 percent pure.
Ethics review boards, appointed by the people they’re supposed to watch, are in place at every level. Rarely do they meet, much less act. According to reliable sources, Ulster’s executive-appointed board of ethics has met once in the past year; for what reason has been difficult to determine. Kingston’s mayorally-appointed board met a few times over a period of months recently to address a conflict of interest involving a former alderman so blatant as to be obvious even to casual observers.
Perhaps the question comes down to this: Does anybody trust the foxes that guard the henhouse? Certainly not us chickens.
We are now approaching the first anniversary of what some residents of Greene County call “waterholegate,” the September 2015 confrontation between Ulster County Legislator Chris Allen and a group of schoolchildren and teachers at a swimming spot in the Town of Hunter, not far from Palenville.
Details, mostly he said-she said stuff, remain sketchy since the case has yet to be heard in open court under oath. It would seem, however, that Allen, who repeatedly swore that only he was telling the truth, was vindicated in the court of public opinion. He won re-election on Democratic (his party) and Republican lines by a better than two-to-one majority last fall, despite a scurrilous campaign by opponents.
But the fact remains that this misdemeanor charge, involving an alleged physical altercation, hangs over the head of a county legislator almost a year after the incident. Allen, for his part, says only that his lawyers have told him to say nothing. For Allen, that’s never easy.
Reporters, here and elsewhere, have done due diligence in attempting to update readers. I know of one who motored to Hunter Town Court from Kingston last fall only to hear the case adjourned to a later date. I have phoned town court and the Greene County District Attorney’s Office numerous times over the past year. None has ever returned a call.
There is in my trade nothing like shoe leather. On a pleasant afternoon last week with humid temperatures inching past 90 degrees, we motored up to Hunter Town Court in quest of first-hand information. Was that a Deliverance banjo tune playing from the woods as we crossed the Greene County line north of Saugerties? In sleepy Haines Falls, where town offices are located, I asked Hunter’s court clerks, those who had never returned a call, about the status of the “Allen case.”
“It’s not here,” a clerk told me. “It’s been transferred to county court for reassignment.”
She informed me that both Hunter town judges had recused themselves. Why, she didn’t say.
“This is a most remarkable case,” I said. “This was not a felony. Nobody stuck up a bank. It’s a misdemeanor, delayed for almost a year with two judges having recused themselves.” I couldn’t read the clerk’s mind, of course, but from her dour look I suspected something like, “Go back to Ulster, jerk.”
The Greene County court clerk the next day told me they didn’t do misdemeanors and had no record of the Allen case. She suggested I try the district attorney’s office. I left a message there. Predictably, there was no call-back.
We will continue pursuing this case, if only to clear the good name of legislator Allen, but I can’t promise anything. Eventually, courts may decide or dismiss. But if a tree falls in the (Greene County) woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?
Winds of change
News that former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders planned to campaign for congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout this fall would have been news only if he had said he wasn’t. Recall, fellow Vermonter Sanders, with a flick of an email finger, solicited some $250,000 from thousands of supporters for Teachout’s primary campaign. Teachout came out for Sanders last December and is hoping to rally what’s left of his base to her campaign. Sanders, who turns 75 this month, said nothing about Teachout in an AP interview, but called Donald Trump “the worst candidate of a major political party in my lifetime.” Did he forget Nixon?
The big news from the Teachout campaign is that the hard-charging candidate found time to marry her beau, Nick Juliusberger, a software specialist. Nuptials took place in Dover Plains last Saturday, where the couple briefly once resided. After a reception with family and close friends, the candidate hit the campaign trail.
Sensitive Zephyr supporters may take issue with this, but I suspect a political component to the timing of this unannounced wedding. Since last winter, John Faso, Teachout’s Republican opponent, has been playing the family card, repeatedly citing wife, kids, roots in Kinderhook, etc., in part to call attention to Teachout’s allegedly footloose, vagabond ways. And now she’s married and settled into a home in the Town of Clinton, east of Rhinebeck.