The war of words between County Executive Mike Hein and County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach escalated this week after Auerbach called on the state attorney general and the Ulster County district attorney to launch a “full-scale investigation” into the Hein administration’s handling of information stored on a county computer system. Auerbach’s call for action comes as the two elected officials traded allegations of misconduct and improper access of county records.
The dispute has been brewing since May when Jose DeLeon Jr. head of the county’s Information Services department launched an investigation based on a tip from the finance department that Auerbach’s staff had been improperly accessing the department’s files. DeLeon’s probe showed that Auerbach’s staff had obtained unlimited “read only” access to all county Finance Department files from a previous Information Services chief. Three members of Auerbach’s staff had used that access to view files without the knowledge of or permission from finance department officials, the probe found.
Among the files viewed were draft versions of responses to comptroller’s office reports and, in one case, communication between the Finance Department and the county attorney. DeLeon’s report also alleges that members of Auerbach’s staff tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to access records of the county executive’s office via a shortcut in the finance department folder.
DeLeon’s investigation also turned up a handful of recordings of phone calls made by Auerbach and a member of his staff. The recordings, which date to 2013, included conversations with county lawmakers, legislative staff and a member of the public which were made without their knowledge. Under state law, it is legal to record any conversation as long as one party to the discussion is aware of the recording. The taping system was installed by the IS department at Auerbach’s request; Auerbach said he made just a handful of recordings before abandoning the system.
In a strongly worded July 26 memo to county Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk, Deputy County Executive Marc Rider accused Auerbach’s staff of unauthorized data breaches of Finance Department information and surreptitious recording of phone conversations. Rider added that Auerbach had refused to turn over a list of network storage devices used by his office and that the office’s actions raised “concerns” over “labor issues and corporate compliance.”
County Executive Mike Hein, meanwhile, said Auerbach’s staff accessed finance department files without going through the usual protocol of informing the department — and outside the scope of any kind of formal auditing process. The files accessed, Hein said, showed a clear pattern of political skullduggery entirely unrelated to any legitimate function of the office. Hein said that county had invested over $1 million in a state-of-the-art financial management system that allowed for full transparency and provided Auerbach with full access to all records needed to fulfill his obligations under the county charter. Using the backdoor access to the finance department’s records, Hein said, was a way for Auerbach’s staff to secretly hunt for politically damaging information about his administration.
“This is not a matter of access to books and records,” said Hein. “It is now very clear to us that the comptroller has used his office for political purposes. That is borne out by the computer logs.”
In his own memo to county lawmakers dated Aug. 1, Auerbach argues that his staff’s peeks into the finance files were not “unauthorized” because the unrestricted “read only” access had been granted by a prior IS director. In an interview with Ulster Publishing, Auerbach said that permission was granted with the full knowledge of Finance Department officials. Auerbach’s memo goes on to note language in the county charter that gives his office access to all books, records and accounts kept by all county offices “at any time except where precluded by law.”
Auerbach has leveled his own allegations that Hein’s administration had acted improperly by extracting and playing for “unauthorized persons” the files from the 2013 phone calls. Auerbach said that his own computer logs show that the records were accessed 40 times over a two-day period between June 22 and 25. (Hein said the sound files were extracted by IS staff as part of their investigation into the alleged data breach and were entirely in keeping with IS’s mission.
In his letter to state Attorney General Barbara Underwood, Auerbach alleges that Hein, his staff and appointees had failed to protect information and had intentionally violated county confidentiality rules for “less than lawful purposes.” Auerbach wrote that the July 27 memo was part of an ongoing effort to discredit his staff and undermine his office’s ability to function independently. Auerbach had previously sued the administration and the legislature in an unsuccessful effort to undo staff cuts that he claimed made it more difficult to fulfill his duty as the county’s fiscal watchdog.
“This culture is permeated by a pattern of deflection and denigration rather than transparency, consensus and candor,” wrote Auerbach.
Auerbach said his call for outside intervention in his ongoing feud with Hein was an effort to bring an independent set of eyes into the conflict. The call for independent intervention was echoed by legislature Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez (D-New Paltz) who said last week that lawmakers were weighing whether to call on “outside agencies” to examine the hacking allegations.
Another county official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to become embroiled in the Hein-Auerbach feud said the dispute only underscored the toxic relationship between the two elected officials.
“It’s real spy-versus-spy stuff,” the source said. “Frankly, neither side comes out looking very good.”