Monday, October 14, 2013

County Ethics Board Behaving Unethically

Report by Ken Dow

Taghkanic Town Board Member Debora Gilbert was recently the target of a politically-driven ethics complaint filed with the Columbia County Board of Ethics by two political adversaries—Taghkanic Supervisor Betty Young and Town Board Member Richard Skoda. I was her attorney.

The County Board of Ethics ultimately issued an Opinion that cleared Ms. Gilbert, finding no basis for most of the complaint. Nevertheless, the inquisition Ms. Gilbert had to endure, and the inappropriate insinuation, suggestion, and invasion of privacy that characterized the written Opinion of the County Board of Ethics, inflicted upon Ms. Gilbert undue stress, humiliation, and financial burden. She believes that if something good can come out of the fiasco, it will be to bring to light the way in which the County Board of Ethics can be an instrument for pernicious ends.

We discovered, first, that basic procedures of the Board of Ethics are done improperly. The Board ignored quorum requirements, claimed a scope of jurisdiction that it does not have, and acts in complete secrecy, in violation of the Public Officers Law.

More troubling was the Board’s hypocrisy. The Board chairman continually harped on “appearances” of conflict or bias, yet the Board relied, despite our strong objections, on counsel who is employed in both a county position and in private practice by a boss whom Ms. Gilbert was instrumental in replacing as attorney for Taghkanic.

More troubling, still, however, is how the Board’s written opinion—presumably drafted by the counsel we objected to—misconstrued and distorted the law to insinuate and suggest improper conduct where there was none.

At one point the Opinion asserted that a crucial state statute “specifically prohibits” an official’s participation where there is “the appearance” of a conflict of interest. This is false. The statute does not “specifically prohibit” actions where there is “the appearance” of a conflict;; in fact, the statute makes no mention of “appearances” at all.

The Opinion also claimed that a key provision in the Taghkanic Code says that a person must recuse herself when she “is reasonably believed” to have an interest in the outcome of a matter.

Again, this is completely untrue. The Code actually says, perfectly clearly, that recusal is required when acting may financially benefit the officer’s “spouse, minor children and dependents, and members of his or her household,” none of which applied.

There is more, and worse, but not enough room here to address it.

There is obviously a huge difference between being held responsible for what you do and for what someone thinks you have done. While appearances can be relevant at times, the Board of Ethics cited specific provisions of law, and then distorted language to claim that those laws say things that they do not. What is especially disturbing is that these misrepresentations in the Board’s Opinion aren’t omissions that might be attributed to oversight. They are statements that fabricate language that simply doesn’t exist. By distorting the law, the Opinion inappropriately cast Ms. Gilbert in a negative light even as the ultimate determination was one of exoneration.

We know that politics can be ugly. What Ms. Gilbert endured however, was the use of the County Ethics process as a device to cloak a political hit job under a veil of impartiality, a deceit which is uglier still.

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Columbia County Democratic chairwoman, Cyndy Hall had this to say about the matter:

"The outright partisan behavior of Supervisor Betty Young and Town Board member Richard Skoda has been outrageous," said Ms. Hall. "To be still raking Ms. Gilbert over the coals after being exonerated is nothing short of cruel. They should be ashamed. After hearing chair of the County Board of Ethics chairman Richard Washburn speak at the last Taghkanic Town Board meeting, I am calling for a complete investigation of the Board of Ethics, their rules of operating and criteria for membership.This is not the way elected officials or any citizen should be treated by town or county government."