The Ulster County Board of Ethics has fined freshman county legislator Joe Maloney of Saugerties $7,000 for, it said, voting on and advocating for matters involving his spouse, who works for county comptroller Elliott Auerbach’s office.
In its order, released Dec. 31, the board found Maloney violated county ethics law in three instances. In its nine-page decision, the board recommends that Maloney be suspended for three months in addition to the hefty fine. The report is harshly critical of Maloney, asserting that he “is either unwilling or unable to differentiate between ethical and unethical conduct.”
The board has offered to lift the fine if Maloney resigns his legislative seat by Jan. 10.
But Maloney said this week he has no intention of stepping down, and vowed to challenge the board’s ruling with an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court. He said in an interview this week that the decision was “all for a nasty headline on [County Executive Mike Hein’s] way out the door.” He said the board, which is appointed by the county executive, has leveled the charges as retribution for Maloney’s efforts to expose what he alleges is pay-to-play corruption in county politics, as well as “to deter people for listening to the questions that I’ve been asking.”
Since taking office at the beginning of 2018, Maloney has clashed with the Hein administration, local media and others in county government. In June, Maloney accused Hein of engaging in “pay-to-play politics” when Maloney voted against providing tax breaks for a New Paltz resort. In response, Hein shot back. A Daily Freeman story quoted Hein calling him “a clown and an embarrassment to the wonderful people of Saugerties.” During his time on the legislature, Maloney has championed legislation that has banned public officials from using their names in public service announcements, fought to overturn the county executive’s veto of a proposed term limits bill which led to the first override of a veto in the legislature’s history, introduced, along with Legislator Tracey Bartels, legislation to ban plastic bags in Ulster County and fought to raise the healthcare insurance contributions of elected officials to match those of other county employees.
“I’m not going to let what I see as politics at its worst change anything that I do or the way that I think. I’m no perfect person,” said Maloney. “I’ve tried to be as good of an elected official as much as I could possibly be…The idea that a handful of people are going to change my approach out of fear is outrageous.”
Article 44-7 of the County’s Ethics and Disclosure Law states the ethics board has the power to fine an individual up to $10,000 per violation. According to board chairman Derek Spada, no offending public official has ever been fined before.
“I believe that each member of the board found the conduct here to be rather egregious and repeated,” said Spada “It was not just a one-time incident and Mr. Maloney also asked for an advisory opinion before any of this occurred. The board gave an advisory opinion to him and he totally disregarded it on three occasions.”
It is unclear who made the allegations against Maloney — any county citizen has the right to do so. Of five original charges leveled, only three were found to be violation-worthy: voting in March 2018 on the new CSEA contract, which covered his wife, who works as an auditor in the Ulster County Comptroller’s Office; voting again later that month to approve that contract; and for appearing before the Laws & Rules Committee and “arguing for funding to be restored for the position of confidential secretary in the Office of the Comptroller, where his wife is employed.”
The board’s complaint notes that Maloney sought its advisory opinion in December of 2017 regarding which county matters he should recuse himself from due to his wife’s position. The board recommended at the time that “[he] recuse [himself] from any discussions and voting on any related matters pertaining to the Ulster County Comptroller’s Office, including those that concern funding.”
According to Maloney and other county legislators in Ulster’s tight-knit community, it’s commonplace, if not unavoidable, for legislators to have relatives affected by large-scale union contracts. They note that members of the legislature don’t negotiate the terms of the labor agreements, just vote to approve the final contracts.
“In regard to the facts, Joe Maloney voted on a contract that was negotiated by the county executive and the CSEA union and was unanimously supported by the 23-member legislature for the approximately 1000 employees,” wrote Legislator David Donaldson of Kingston in a letter to the editor. “The fact that a legislator with a relative in the CSEA Union may vote on CSEA contracts is an exception for a conflict of interest under state law since they do not negotiate or take part in the negotiations seemed to be ignored by the [ethics] board. During my 26 years on the legislature, I witnessed various legislators with CSEA relatives voting on these routine contracts repeatedly with no impunity. It is part of their fiduciary responsibility.”
Donaldson was able to name half-dozen instances where legislators with family members working for the county voted on contracts that would affect those relations.
But ethics board chief Spada said this week any legislator who did vote on something involving a family member did the wrong thing. “Based upon the board’s view of ethics, those legislators should not be voting on matters that would affect funding for their spouses or a spouse,” he said. “In our decision in pages four to five, there’s a series of attorney general things that we cited that just repeatedly say that a legislator or elected official should not vote on any matter that would effect their spouse’s compensation or employment.”
The decision states that Maloney “[knew] that the contract would provide a personal or financial benefit to an immediate family member,” but Maloney asserts otherwise, insisting that he was unaware he was voting against the board’s 2017 recommendation:
“The board’s recommendation never mentioned union votes,” said Maloney. “The CSEA covers every department in the county. Their recommendation only mentioned the comptroller’s office. Voting on the CSEA contract is like voting on the budget — it encompasses the entire county.”
“He didn’t ask about union matters, but secondly, a new contract for the employees in that office would then have more funding, which includes his wife,” said Spada in response. “At the very least there’s an appearance of impropriety. By voting on a matter that concerns what his wife’s salary is going to be, it’s not just the appearance of impropriety, it’s an actual act of impropriety.”
The Ulster County Ethics and Disclosure Law specifies that “A county officer or employee shall promptly recuse himself/herself from acting on a matter before the County when acting on the matter, or failing to act on the matter, may benefit [a family member or spouse], financially or otherwise, or give the reasonable appearance of a conflict of interest or impropriety. Whenever a county officer or employee is required to recuse himself/herself, he/she must refrain from further participation in the matter (as officer or employee, but not as a private citizen).”
However, Maloney said he’s confident that the board’s ruling won’t hold up in the court, citing a portion of the New York General Municipal Law’s definition of “interest” in Article 18, Section 44-3, which specifically precludes votes on contracts of employment with the county: “Direct or pecuniary or material benefit accruing to a county officer or employee as a result of a contract with the county which such officer or employee serves,” the law reads. “For purposes of this chapter, a county officer or employee shall be deemed to have an interest in the contract of: His or her spouse, domestic partner, minor children and dependents, except a contract of employment with the county which such officer or employee serves.”
The third instance of alleged impropriety, according to the ethics board, was when Maloney went to the Law and Rules Committee meeting on March 19, 2018, between the other two listed offenses, and lobbied for the restoration of a confidential secretary position in the office where his wife works.
“I stayed out of that debate until [Legislator] Jim Maloney went on and on about the confidential secretary,” said Joe Maloney. “I asked if there were confidential secretaries and other offices. I said that we should have a broad conversation about confidential secretaries throughout the county and create a [blanket definition of what they’re supposed to do]. I stayed away from it and I didn’t vote on that.”
Saugerties town councilman Paul Andreassen stuck up for Maloney. “As a county legislator he has the best interests of his constituents at heart. The public ridicule of him in the press and the endless maligning of his reputation seems the work of desperate men,” said Andreassen. “He’s a good man and the railroading of him appears poorly orchestrated and held upon shifting sands. I hope on appeal the allegations he’s facing will be found baseless. The whole debacle is a most unfortunate distraction to the hard work we expect of our elected officials and, I might add, the hard work Joe Maloney has been trying to accomplish as a first-term legislator.”
“I’m very confident and I look forward to a judge taking a look at this,” said Maloney. “It all comes with being an elected official at times when you’re fighting the things I’m fighting.”