Hugh Reynolds: Political skulduggery as old as Ulster itself

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?

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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

Emerging strategy

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.

All?

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.

Mixed blessing

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. 

There are 4 comments

  1. Bruce E. Woych

    The members of the Charter Revision Commission are as follows: Rod Futerfas, Esq., Dare Thompson, Thomas Kadgen, Albert Cook, Fred Mayo, Butch Dener, John Quigley, Laurel Sweeney, Gary Bischoff, Dr. Gerald Benjamin, and Donald Gregorius https://ulstercountyny.gov/news/executive-press-releases/county-executive-mike-hein-convenes-ulster-county-charter-revision.
    Isn’t there some question of a “Conflict of Interest” ?
    Gerald Benjamin has been ‘tapped’ to analyze Hein’s new budget with a 5 year contract worth $327K.
    The county budget includes allocations for consultant fees. But Benjamin not only helped draft the County
    charter http://lwvmidhudson.org/files/FAQ_Proposed_UC_Charter.pdf , but he also sits on the Review Commission that, as noted above, might find cause “to focus on the paradox of an independently elected watchdog (the comptroller) being placed under the budgetary authority of the executive and legislative branches. Aside from the personality clashes that are highlighted all too often, the real meat and potatoes are not clear when the comptroller can not have full access; or, when questions are raised and not answered. According to a simple summary of the job for comptroller: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comptroller
    “A comptroller is a management level position responsible for supervising the quality of accounting and financial reporting of an organization. A financial comptroller is a senior-level executive who acts as the head of accounting, and oversees the preparation of financial reports, such as balance sheets and income statements.”
    in that regard, how does it make sense that (quoting from above) “Hein made it clear from Day One he doesn’t want anybody, especially the comptroller, looking over his shoulder?”

  2. Steven L Fornal

    This County Executive scuffle is seen through the lens of prejudice; most of it anti-Heinites baying at the moon.

    Think about it. Auerbach has been complaining about Hein cutting his budget. Was that a judicious cut? None of us, in the reading public, know. However, it’s established fact that Auerbach brought Hein/county to court in protest. Auerbach lost.

    Now, as the facts have been established (via this Freeman article: http://www.dailyfreeman.com/general-news/20180808/ulster-county-comptroller-accused-of-unauthorized-access-to-county-computer-files ) Auerbach is claiming the Executive’s charges are in retaliation of an April audit. Trouble with this is that the documentation shows an audit alert was given in July with the planned audit coming later.

    Also, the Information Services department found unauthorized breaches made by Comptroller’s office. When the IS Director Jose DeLeon requested a person in his department investigate, that person “abruptly resigned.” The ensuing investigation also found the Comptroller had recorded various conversations with a system feature he had ordered. “One was of a conversation with a county legislator, one with the clerk of the Legislature, and one with a member of the public. The County Executive’s Office shared those recordings with legislative leadership.” As stated in the article, NYS law allows such surreptitious recording when at least one party has knowledge that the conversation is being recorded.

    Now, as it looks, Auerbach has his back against the wall on a number of fronts. He fights back with counter-charges. The problem for Auerbach is the Executive has very damning documentation of all that transpired. It is pretty clear cut. “A printout provided by the Hein administration shows DeMarco, Weredyk and Derella [employed in Comptroller’s office] accessed dozens of Finance Department files hundreds of times between March and May of this year. Other files opened by the trio included information on Airbnbs, letters and memos between the Finance Department and former County Attorney Bea Havranek, individual employee compensation records and draft responses to the comptroller’s own audits. The printout also shows employees tried unsuccessfully to access the executive’s files via a shortcut in the Finance Department folder on the county computer system. Derella and Weredyk could not be reached for comment. Weredyk is the wife of Legislator Joseph Maloney, D-Saugerties.”

    Ahhh…Now it seems to become clear vis-a-vis Joe Maloney’s half-baked charges of “pay-and-play” between Hein and New Paltz’s Wildberry Lodge owner donating to Hein’s campaigns during 2008, 2011 and 2015; averaging out to $10,000 per and this was through two different donor/entities ergo well within the county’s election finance limits. Maloney tried to tie the donations to the IDA PILOT proposed for the Lodge. Of course, Mike Hein doesn’t sit in the IDA board nor does he choose the board members.

    But, my take is that something Maloney said alerted Hein’s office of a breach; information that shouldn’t have been public knowledge. Ergo the investigation which found, in fact, breaches by the Comptroller’s office.

    This looks very bad for Elliot Auerbach. He went fishing due to his pique re Hein’s cutting his budget and hoped to find something to use against the Executive.

    Inexcusable. And, I liked Mr. Auerbach a lot…

  3. See you 6 days a week on the golf course Mike and I'm retired

    Mike Heines has not had an original thought since the day he told his wife. “Section 8 rental income is were its at.”

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