The decision of the county executive-appointed county ethics board to fine freshman legislator Joe Maloney $7,000 — half his annual salary — led to a session of ethical hot potato this week when the chairman of the county’s Conservative Party wrote to Attorney General Letitia James, imploring her to conduct a review of the board’s decision and what Conservative chair Jack Hayes is calling possible illegal activities carried out by the Hein administration. The board, after warning him not to do it, sanctioned Maloney for voting on and advocating for matters involving the office of Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, where Maloney’s spouse is employed.
Among potential allegations listed in the letter to the attorney general, all sourced from a widely-publicized letter to the editor defending Maloney written by Democratic legislator David Donaldson, include collusion between the executive’s office and the ethics committee; repressed ethics complaints; nepotism; a relationship between the awarding of county contracts and Pilot tax-break deals with contributions to Hein; and political retribution against those who paid close attention to that relationship.
Maloney not only paid close attention, but has been vocal in interviews with local news publications about his suspicions, most notably when he accused Hein of engaging in “pay-to-play politics” in June after voting against providing tax breaks for a proposed New Paltz resort. Hein retorted, telling the Daily Freeman that Maloney was a “clown.”
“The private citizens who currently serve on the County Board of Ethics are of the highest integrity and have been vetted and unanimously approved by the entire County Legislature. It is also important to note that New York State Law requires that in a Charter County, like Ulster, the county executive must appoint the members of the Board of Ethics and the County Legislature must vote to confirm or reject,” said Deputy County Executive Ken Crannell on behalf of the Hein administration. “The Board of Ethics found that Legislator Joseph Maloney, after seeking and receiving a clear ethics opinion not to do something, not only did the unethical act but he compounded it with multiple additional unethical acts. That said, there is a dangerous and unfortunate dynamic that currently exists.”
Maloney’s fine, announced by the board on Dec. 31, is derived from three charges: voting on a CSEA labor contract which included his wife, voting on that same contract in the full legislature and appearing before the Laws and Rules Committee to advocate for the restoration of a confidential secretary position within the comptroller’s office.
“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 1,000 employees,” wrote Donaldson in his letter. “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 also insists that other legislators have been fined during his 26-year tenure on the legislature, but that those findings have only been publicized in this instance.
Hayes declined to take a stance on the ethics charges against Maloney, asserting only that such serious accusations should be investigated by the State of New York.
“I’m not saying that Mr. Maloney or Mr. Donaldson are right [in their accusations against Hein] — there are quite a few allegations out there and none of them are being looked into. With Mr. Donaldson’s letter with pointed allegations, there’s smoke. We would like to see where the fire is,” said Hayes this week. “I believe we’re on the outside looking in. It’s been a very public, fish bowl kind of thing. I would like the courtesy of a response [from Letitia James]; I wrote to President Obama during his administration and got a response.”
Maloney told the Saugerties Times earlier in January that he intended to fight the ruling with an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court. This week, he said he’s touched and emboldened by the support shown by Hayes, Donaldson, and other local political figures at the town and county level. He said the ethics charges, along with his unfavorable portrayal in the local media, are a classic case of “kill the messenger.”
“[It] isn’t unusual, for Republicans to go after a Democrat, or vice versa. But for high-ranking local Democratic elected officials and the entire conservative party to be united in concerns and ask for things to be looked into and calling corruption on the ethics board, I think that’s something worthy of being reported,” said Maloney.
“Every time I make a point where I bring something up or I put legislation up that makes sense, rather than debate me, they think that if they just make people not like this guy then people won’t listen to what he has to say,” said Maloney. “I just wanted to have a debate. We don’t have to keep diving into it, it never had to get into that — why [doesn’t Hein] just stop taking donations?”
Crannell, however, said that this bipartisan support of Maloney may be more due to his status as a swing vote in the legislature than a belief he’s in the right.
“A single vote decides control of the Ulster County Legislature, and as a result the very real possibility exists that legislators could be tempted to both ignore and/or defend Legislator Joe Maloney’s inexcusable behavior. I am disappointed that some would try to placate his unethical behavior and would hope that his colleagues would not sweep important issues like this under the rug. This is precisely what causes people to lose faith in the County Legislature.”
Both Donaldson’s and Hayes’ letters can be found in their entirety in the letters to the editor section of this issue.