Some may have been surprised at the spy-versus-spy revelations between the county executive and the county comptroller, but this stuff has been going on forever. Accurate, timely intelligence on the enemy — and sometimes on colleagues — has been a vital component of politics in these parts since settlers sent a bilingual Dutchman to spy on the Esopus Indians back in ’65. That would be 1665, the signing of the first peace treaty between the Europeans and the Native Americans.
The gathering of modern intel takes many surreptitious forms. There’s cocktail-party gossip, chatting over coffee in the morning, pillow talk, conversations overheard in restrooms, whispers in barrooms, muffled phone conversations, internet cyber-stuff. It’s literally in the atmosphere. Spies are routinely assigned to rival fundraisers and other gatherings to report who’s there, who isn’t and how many. One wonders what pols do with the rest of their time.
Of late, we have learned through the investigative reporting of Jesse J. Smith that County Exec Mike Hein and Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, physically separated by only a ceiling in the county office building, have been spying on each other to varying degrees. Surfing e-mails, phone, recordings, it’s all in the arsenals of these two. Who knew? Who would have thought?
Upon reflection, one wonders why it took this long for this ugly stuff to surface. But then, spies don’t work in daylight.
Democrats Hein and Auerbach have been spying on each other in one form or another since on or before January 2009, when they took their separate offices.
There were what might be called natural conflicts. Auerbach was given specific oversight authority of county government finances under the charter approved by voters in 2006.
Hein had budget authority over the financial activities of all departments, including those, like the comptroller’s, separately elected by voters.
There was a political component. Isn’t there always a political element in politics? Hein wasn’t particularly interested in running for comptroller, which would mean a $30,000 cut in pay and an enormous reduction in power. For Auerbach, moving to the top floor would have been the pinnacle. Though Auerbach has not expressed interest in running for executive, the two are potential rivals.
If Auerbach, who isn’t up for re-election until 2020, were to take Hein to primary next year, he might lose, but cost the executive all kinds of time and money. He might maybe even embolden a deep-pocket Republican to come to the fore.
Access to information
Meanwhile, as the he-said-he-said goes on, I think we’ll need to learn a lot more about what one headline writer called a “cyber-mystery” before assigning white or black hats. The story broke, as some do, in a curious way. Legislature Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez of New Paltz submitted legislation that would require both sides of a recorded government phone message to be informed of the recording. What? Further inquiry uncovered the spy-versus-spy scenario.
Rodriguez’s suggestion that both sides be notified when recordings were in place defies logic even as it avoids the issue. If both parties are connected, it’s not spying. Right? By that logic, maybe the legislature should have its own spying equipment. That buzzing in county phones isn’t just homeland security.
State law requires only one party in a conversation to be aware of its being recorded. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out which. Investigative reporting revealed that the comptroller, for what he called purposes of record accuracy, recorded phone messages from other departments and from the legislature. Auerbach in turn accused the administration of accessing confidential documents from his office for perusal by legislative leaders.
There are bigger fish to fry. Auerbach, citing the charter, claims oversight on virtually every activity of the Hein-controlled finance department, if only to reconcile the hundreds of thousands of vouchers his department reviews and approves every year.
Finance is the heartbeat of the executive wing: Hein made it clear from Day One he doesn’t want anybody, especially the comptroller, looking over his shoulder. One could question whether the comptroller is exceeding his authority. Does he really need to know everything going on in finance on a day-to-day basis?
Control of and access to information has long been an issue in the Hein administration.
A 2014 resignation letter from audit and control director Ronald Clum, one of the faceless beancounters in Auerbach’s office, spoke to the conflict between executive and comptroller. “The level of professionalism of the administration in ignoring written inquiries and denying access to basic books and records has been beyond anything I have ever seen in the professional world, public or private,” he wrote. Clum’s successor, Alicia DeMarco, expressed similar concerns in her resignation letter last month.
Is this the kind of government Ulster County adopted in 2006?
Meeting off stage as these two mini-titans clash is a county charter review revision commission, tasked with updating and revising a document now a decade in practice. It might be useful for commissioners to focus on the paradox of an independently elected watchdog (the comptroller) being placed under the budgetary authority of the executive and legislative branches
It would now appear that Republican Congressman John Faso’s primary-night attack on Democratic nominee Antonio Delgado was but the first shot of a well-considered strategy. Within weeks came another round: Faso “challenging” all his opponents to a series of debates.
Typically, incumbents avoid any direct exchange with challengers. It gives challengers access to a platform the office-holder already occupies and name recognition money can’t buy.
By opening up debates to every opponent, including independents Diane Neal, Luisa Parker and Dal LaMagna, and Green Party candidate Steve Greenfield, Faso advances several purposes. He enables candidates who can only hurt his opponent and he gives the appearance of being open to public scrutiny.
Delgado, quick on his feet and battle-tested after a grueling primary, was having none of it. This, from a congressman who has faced his constituents only at a single town hall meeting over a period of 20 months was the gist of the challenger’s harrumph. Via a press release, Delgado said, “I will continue showing up across the district and listening [to people] at picnics, potlucks, local meetings and town halls.” Showing up. Town halls. Get it?
Meanwhile, a Delgado campaign contributor from Rhinebeck has filed formal objections with the state board of elections to those independent petitions. It figures. Smart politics means eliminating the negatives even if it deprives voters of choices. Formal review begins on Thursday.
Faso’s offer of inclusion is neither charity nor civic virtue. With six people in a debate, discussion of issues, points and counter-points between major players would be sharply limited. That plays into the hands of the incumbent, who while perhaps better informed than his challenger at this point and more combative than his easy-going public persona might suggest, really can’t relish the intense scrutiny a one-on-one exchange could produce.
I know Faso took Zephyr Teachout to the cleaners in open debate two years ago, but Delgado ain’t Teachout and this isn’t 2016.
This not to say independent candidates should be tuned out. With nothing to lose other than time and money, some might come up with useful ideas. Sorry, folks, but the real show is Faso and Delgado.
Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum’s fund-raiser at Olde Savannah restaurant in Kingston last week turned out at least 100 attendees, maybe 150 in and out, at $50 a head. That’s good news for the Republican nominee who faces Democratic endorsee Juan Figueroa in a Sept. 13 Democratic primary. Less positive, for primary purposes, was that almost everybody there was a Republican. Republicans can’t vote in the primary.
“We had some Democrats and quite a few independents, too,” a campaign insider told me. Independents can’t vote in a primary, either, but they’ll vote in November.
Meanwhile, Figueroa will host a fundraiser in the cozy confines of the popular Rosendale Café on Aug. 17 from 8 to 10 p.m. At the bargain price of $20 and lots of interest in this campaign, early arrival is recommended.