Clarkstown Supervisor Gromack and the members of the town board are being called upon to answer numerous questions raised mainly by the Clarkstown Taxpayers organization concerning a vote taken at the Town Board reorganization meeting in early January, 2012. With this vote the Town of the Town's tax certiorari matters previously performed by Deputy Town Attorney Marsha Coopersmith (whose employment was not renewed) to the White Plains law firm of Jay Savino.
These questions concern:
a) What criteria were used to evaluate law firms?
b) Was there a list of qualifications established that a firm must meet?
c) Why was a firm chosen that had no experience in municipal tax certiorari work?
d) Where and when did a public discussion of these questions occur that conformed to the requirements of New York State Open Meetings Law?
e) Why did the discussion to hire the Savino law firm need to take place in Executive Session?
An article appearing on the front page of the Journal News entitled Municipal Cases New For Clarkstown’s Tax Attorney reports Town Attorney, Amy Mele, as saying about the hiring of Savino: “If it is criticized, so be it”. She "wasn't worried" he had no experience in representing Towns in tax certiorari cases and "she is not concerned about criticism the Town has hired a person with political clout”. According to the Yonkers Tribune Jay Savino is operating to consolidate GOP power in The Bronx, Westchester and Rockland Counties.
Mele's 'so be it' attitude should be understood in the light of the facts with which she is "not concerned".
Coopersmith was Chair of the Independence Party and allegedly provided Gromack that line but was ousted by Debra Ortutay and Ortutay then allegedly supplied the line to Gromack and the rest of the Town Council. Ortutay, who resigned under indictment for perjury and fraud, is the mother-in-law of Frank Sparaco, a protégé of Vincent Reda chairman of the Rockland County GOP. Sparaco was elected to the Rockland County Legislature serving the 11th District.
On December 6, 2011, Ortutay pleaded guilty to perjury and falsifying records. The law firm representing her was that of Jay Savino. Savino, the Bronx Republican Party Chairman, contributed financially in 2011 to the Independence Party of Rockland previously headed by Ortutay. Coopersmith, who no longer could provide a party line, was removed and her work outsourced to Ortutay's attorney, Savino, for an annual 'retainer fee' of $87,000.
Clarkstown Town Board member S. Hausner, who Savino's retention, said: “There are individuals more qualified. They may not come with baggage”.
Tom Nimick, a Clarkstown resident, has made to have the Clarkstown Town Board how it has not violated the Open Meetings Law with respect to the decisions that were made to retain Savino. At the Board meeting on March 20,2012 Nimick read a statement in which he said:
I regret that I need to be persistent with you regarding Resolution #38-2012 concerning the retention of Mr. Savino and related violations of the Open Meetings Law. Your responses and public statements have resulted in contradictions. When I asked when this decision was made, Mr. Gromack AND Ms. Mele both replied that the decision was made in executive session. When I asked where the minutes reflecting the decision were, as required by the Open Meetings Law, I was informed that there were no minutes. So the resolution was based upon a decision having been made; the decision was made in executive session; but there are no minutes because no decisions have been made in executive session. The contradictions in those statements are the nub of the issue and I am asking for you to resolve these contradictions.
Supervisor Alex Gromack opined mid-way through Nimick's comments that "we have an answer". He subsequently went on to deny the wording of what Nimick had noted during a previous phone conversation with him and the Town Attorney by saying:
I do want to clarify and I apologize if you 'think' or 'heard' that I said that a 'decision' was made; it was a 'discussion'. I just want to clarify that. We had a 'discussion' in executive session.
How quickly Mr. Gromack's ‘decision’ became a ‘discussion’ when under the Open Meetings Law having made a ‘decision’ in Executive Session without minutes would have been a violation of the law. Emerging from this foggy labyrinth, Mr. Gromack then handed the matter off to Town Attorney Mele for further clarification without offering any explanation as to why the issue of hiring a legal firm to handle the tax cert matters for the Town was of such a sensitive nature that it had to be discussed in Executive Session with no minutes being recorded of the meeting.
Beginning with high praise of Supervisor Gromack for working from "six in the morning to eleven at night" and opining that Gromack, as the administrative head of the Town of Clarkstown, "need not get permission to do everything that he does from the Town Board in order to do his job". Ms Mele wandered off down a dark alley with a dimly lit flashlight illumining how in her view 'discussions' and not 'decisions' had taken place to retain Savino behind doors closed to public view.
I would like to point out for clarification that in addition to being able to discuss personnel matters in Executive Session the advice of counsel is not even a topic of the Open Meetings Law. In other words if this Board is convening to get the advice of their attorney it is exempt from the Open Meetings Law process. That said when we retire to enter into Executive Session with some reasoning it is an absolute exemption to the entire Open Meetings Law process. So I am going to advise the Board, and you may agree or disagree with me, but things that are discussed in Executive Session are discussed there for a reason. I think they should stay there. I am very confident and comfortable with the manner in which Ms Coopersmith's position was eliminated and Mr. Savino was retained.
And that's my answer on that!
While the Clarkstown Taxpayers admire Ms Mele's abilities as a legal tightrope walker in claiming that Supervisor Gromack has 'de facto' powers to do whatever he wants without permission from the Town Board, she again provided no answers to the questions raised concerning Savino's appointment. Questions about minimum qualifications required for a Town position, criteria against which qualifications of applicants are to be evaluated, etc are manifestly not 'personnel matters' requiring a discussion in Executive Session. Mele is simply dancing along a very high wire decrying any relevance of the Open Meetings Law as it applies to the deliberations of the Clarkstown Town Board. This balancing act revolves around a belief that when she is giving 'counsel' to the Board she can at any time declare absolute exemption from the entire Open Meetings Law process.
Ms Mele seems unable to understand that the Open Meetings Law is designed to prevent corruption of the political process by invoking the principle: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? - Who watches the Watchmen? That is a fundamental question! But that is not the question to which Ms Mele seems inclined to provide an answer.
And so at the Town Board meeting of June 19, 2012 members of the Clarkstown Taxpayers group presented a series of written questions to each of the members of the Town Board with copies of the public documents on which the questions were based. Councilman Borelli answered all of the questions directly while Supervisor Gromack indicated he was unaware of the materials, did not read the Yonkers Tribune, and said that Town Attorney Mele can “certainly answer” the questions at the next Town Board Meeting. Three Board members did not respond.
Accordingly, two further questions were posed to the Town Board at its meeting on July 10, 2012, on receipt of which Supervisor Gromack commented that from his “point of view they have been answered many times over”. Mr. Hoehmann offered a comment unresponsive to the specific questions that he had been asked and the meeting was later adjourned with no response from Town Attorney Mele to the questions posed by Nimick at two successive Board meetings.
The following is a transcript of the questions posed to the Town Board at the two meetings referenced above with the Board members’ responses.
Transcript of Questions to Town Board on June 19, 2012 with links to the hardcopy exhibits provided to the Board
Sabatini: For the record my name is Ralph Sabatini and I live in New City. Good Evening. Several citizens would like to ask each of you some questions about the decision-making behind the Board’s 4-1 vote on Resolution #38-2012 to retain Bronx Republican Party chairman, Mr. Jay Savino, to handle the Town's Tax Certiorari matters. All of the documents you will be given tonight for your reference are in the public record. All of the questions refer only to matters that are in the public record. The documents and the questions you will be asked have been provided to representatives of the press. I would like to begin with some statements of fact that underline the questions.
1) Town Attorney Marsha Coopersmith, who until December 31, 2011 conducted the Town's tax cert matters, was also Chair of the Independence Party. She controlled that election line and Mr. Gromack ran on that line.
2) Ms. Coopersmith was ousted from the Chair (of the Independence Party) by Debra Ortutay and Ms. Ortutay then controlled that party’s election line.
3) Ms. Ortutay is the mother-in-law of Republican, Frank Sparaco, who is currently serving in the Rockland County Legislature as minority leader.
4) Ms Ortutay resigned from the Chair of the Independence Party after being indicted for perjury and fraud and subsequently served a prison sentence in the Rockland County Jail having pleaded guilty to perjury and falsifying records.
5) The attorney representing Ms. Ortutay at trial was Mr. Jay Savino.
6) Mr. Savino is the Bronx Republican Party Chairman.
7) Mr. Savino contributed financially in 2011 to the Independence Party of Rockland previously headed by Ms Ortutay and Ms Coopersmith.
8) The Board decided not to renew Attorney Coopersmith's contract and then outsourced her tax work to Ms. Ortutay's attorney, Mr. Jay Savino, for an annual 'retainer fee' of $87,000. Mr. Gromack said that the decision was made to save money as part of an ongoing consolidation of government services.
9) On May 1, 2012, in response to Mr. Nimick’s question to Ms. Mele about how Mr. Savino's name came to her attention, Ms Mele replied that she was "not sure whether it was a Board member or the Supervisor who brought Savino's firm to her attention". Mr. Gromack followed up by saying "maybe it was someone that was proactive from his firm that contacted the Town Attorney's office and said if there was ever an opportunity please give me a call". Mr. Gromack then went on to remark: "And that's probably the way it is. It was an outreach from him to the Town".
We now have the following questions for individual Board Members. Since it is your practice is to first receive all questions and then answer them in sequence we will provide you, or have provided you, copies of the wording of each question and a copy of the documents that the documents reference so that each member of the Board can respond to the question as asked.
Exhibit 1 authored by Steve Lieberman
Exhibit 2 authored by Hezi Aris
authored by Robin Traum
Hull: For the record my name is Michael Hull. Mr. Hoehmann I have four questions for you. You proposed a resolution authorizing Mr. Gromack to enter into an agreement with Bronx Republican Chairman, Jay Savino, to handle all tax certiorari matters on behalf of the Town.
First, with regard to the discussions in executive session about the retention of Mr. Savino, Mr. Gromack told Mr. Nimick at the March Board meeting – and I quote: “I do want to clarify and I apologize if you think or heard that I said that a decision was made, it was a discussion. I just want to clarify that. We had a discussion in executive session.” Mr. Hoehmann: by the end of that "discussion" that was referenced by Mr. Gromack, had the Board reached a consensus to retain Mr. Savino?
Second, when did you and the other members of the Town Board authorize Ms. Mele to draw up the formal resolution to retain Mr. Savino on which you voted at the Town Board meeting in January 2012?
Third, I would now like to draw your attention to a particular appearance of Mr. Savino’s name in the public record. It concerns the criminal proceedings against Mr. Guy Velella, former Chairman of the Bronx Republican party, who served time on criminal charges that he took bribes. The proceedings introduced wiretaps that included statements by Mr. Savino. A federal judge had demanded the presence in court of several Republican campaign workers. The wiretaps picked up Mr. Savino talking about how he wasn't going to look too hard to find the campaign workers. Savino was heard telling another party aide on the wiretap – and I quote: "I would do what the Boss said. I would, I would call them, and if you reach them, you reach them; if you don't, you don't. You know, you might not reach them because your phone clicks off. I, I, I guess do what he says, I don't know what to say. That's what I would do, I would just forget about it maybe." Mr. Hoehmann: As part of the vetting process, were you aware of these alleged statements by Mr. Savino concerning the orders of a federal judge? If 'yes', would you please explain your decision to propose the retention of Mr. Savino in the light of this information? If ’no’ do you think you would have changed your vote and would you recommend that the Board should vote to undo its previous action?
Exhibit 4 authored by Tom Robbins
Exhibit 5 authored by Tom Robbins
Exhibit 6 authored by Editors of Wikipedia
Fourth, prior to your motion to retain Mr. Savino did you receive any advice concerning Mr. Savino from Mr. Vinny Reda, Chairman of the Rockland County Republican Committee or from any of Mr. Reda's surrogates on the Rockland County Republican Committee and did you know that Mr. Savino was the Chairman of the Bronx Republican Party?
Mr. Hoehmann did not respond to the questions.
Durbin: Mr. Borelli I have four questions for you. My name is Amy Durbin and I live in Congers.
First, with reference to the executive session in which the retention of Mr. Savino was discussed, were you made aware of any bids solicited from firms in Rockland County with tax cert experience? And when did you evaluate any such bids with your fellow Board members? And what criteria were used to evaluate the bids?
Second, in the Yonkers Tribune of January 07, 2012, it states that Jay Savino Jr. was – quote: “instrumental in steering the New York City Board of Elections toward choosing voting machines that are known to be the rationale for a continuing FBI investigation.” Mr. Borelli: As a part of the vetting process, were you made aware of Mr. Savino’s link to this continuing FBI investigation? Would you please explain your decision to second the proposed retention of Mr. Savino in light of this information?
Exhibit 2 authored by Hezi Aris
Third, in a series of articles published by the Journal News we learned that an attorney by the name of Anthony Mangone pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges. Mr. Mangone served as a lobbyist for Election Systems & Software, a company that was awarded a $40 Million contract by New York City to supply voting machines. But that company couldn’t get the contract until they hired Mr. Mangone. One of the NYC Commissioners awarding the contract was a person named Polanco. When you seconded the motion to retain Jay Savino to conduct the town's tax certs were you aware of any professional relationships between Mr. Savino and Mr. Mangone or that Mr. Polanco had served as Mr. Savino's deputy in Savino's position as the Chairman of the Bronx GOP?
Exhibit 7 authored by Jonathan Bandler, Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, and Journal News Editors
Exhibit 8 from Yonkers Rising - the official weekly newspaper of the City of Yonkers
Exhibit 9 from Google search
Exhibit 10 from Yonkers Rising
Exhibit 11 authored by Barbara Ross
Fourth, prior to Mr. Hoehmann's motion and your second of the motion to retain Mr. Savino did either of you discuss between yourselves or have any contact concerning Mr. Savino with Vinny Reda, Chairman of the Rockland County Republican Committee or from any of Mr. Reda's surrogates on the Rockland County Republican Committee?
Councilman Borelli replied as follows.
Borelli: I would like to answer the question that I was asked by Ms Durbin. The first point was during the Executive Session so I can't respond in public about that. The second one is a 'No'. The third one is a 'No'. The fourth one is 'No' to the advice from any other person and you asked me if I was aware of his position in the Bronx and the answer is 'Yes' I had met him prior to that date.
O’Rourke: My name is Gerry O'Rourke of Congers. Everyone will have their turn and I have some questions for Councilwoman Hausner.
First, you commented to the local news media after you voted against the resolution to retain Mr. Savino – quote: “there were other firms that were more qualified and came with less baggage.” Precisely, what did you mean when you used the word 'baggage' when speaking to the news media about Mr. Savino and his law firm?
Secondly, what are the names of the other law firms that you said were more qualified and came with such less baggage and would you tell us why was none of them chosen over Mr. Savino?
authored by Robin Traum
Exhibit 13 was an original article in the Journal News
Lastly, when you voted against the retention of Mr. Savino did you know that he was Chairman of the Bronx Republican Party and did you discuss this with Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky, (Chairwoman of the Rockland County Democratic Committee) and if you did, did she give you any advice concerning this appointment. Thank you.
Ms Hausner did not respond to the questions.
Grandel: Frank Grandel - New City
Ms Lasker, you voted affirmatively for the retention of Bronx Republican Chairman, Jay Savino, to handle tax cert matters for the Town of Clarkstown. Your colleague, Ms Hausner, stated that she voted against his appointment because - quote "there were other firms more qualified that came with less baggage".
First, what criteria did YOU use to select Mr. Savino?
Secondly, did you review a list of qualifications that a firm must meet?
Third, can you itemize a couple of them (the qualifications) for us and tell us why did you vote for a person who had zero experience in tax cert work for municipalities and did not advertise his experience on tax cert work on his website until after he was called by a member of the news media? Thank you.
Ms Lasker did not respond to the questions.
Hirsh: Mike Hirsch - New City. My questions are for you, Alex. In a March 2012 corruption trial in Manhattan two people, a Ms. Annabi and Mr. Jereis, were convicted on numerous counts of corruption following testimony under a plea deal agreement involving a disgraced White Plains lawyer named Anthony Mangone, who was indicted in an unrelated Yonkers bribery scheme.
First, were you aware of an article in the Yonkers Tribune in which it was stated that Savino - quote: "was instrumental in steering the New York City Board of Elections toward choosing the voting machines that are known to be the rationale for a continuing FBI investigation that connects Anthony Mangone and the New York City Board of Elections voting machine contract”?
Secondly, did you know when you voted for Mr. Savino's retention that Mr. Savino had links to Mr. Mangone and that Mr. Savino was subpoenaed in February 2010 along with the Bronx GOP's representative on the Board of Elections? If you were not made aware of these issues at the time of your vote, now that you know about these issues, would you have changed your vote?
Exhibit 2 authored by Hezi Aris
Exhibit 14 authored by Greg Smith and Frank Lombardi
Thirdly, on May 01, 2012 in answer to a question from Mr. Nimick addressed to Ms Mele as to how Mr. Savino's name had come to her attention Ms Mele said that she was quote - "not sure". You then added quote - "Maybe it was someone that was proactive from his firm that contacted the Town Attorney's office and said ‘if there was ever an opportunity please give me a call’. And that's probably the way it happened. It was an Outreach from him to the Town." At the Town Board meeting of May 15, 2012 in answer to a question from Attorney Kevin Hobbs of New City you said quote - "my recollection is that this individual some time ago made an inquiry and said if there was ever an opportunity to be interviewed he certainly would like to be considered." At the time of these inquiries were you aware that Mr. Savino was the Head of the Bronx Republican Party and if not were you aware of this fact when you voted in support of Mr. Hoehmann's motion? Thank you.
Supervisor Gromack replied as follows:
Gromack: Mr. Hirsch asked if I had read the Yonkers Tribune. I have never read the Yonkers Tribune. I don't know Mr. Mangone and most of the stuff from my point of view that we spoke about Mr. Savino ... a lot of that I have never heard of ... so I really don't know. The Town attorney I think has addressed numerous times you know, how she went about trying to make a decision or a recommendation for the Town. She's is not here tonight. She can certainly answer at the next meeting. As I recall she interviewed and did some outreach to a number of firms but it's best left to her to answer that at the next meeting.
Nimick: For the record Tom Nimick from New City. I was originally planning to address these questions to Ms Mele (Town Attorney Mele was not present at the Board meeting and Deputy Attorney Cornell was filling in for her absence) but Mr. Cornell you have the honor since you represent the Town Attorney's department if I understand correctly?
Mr. Cornell did not respond.
Nimick still addressing Mr. Cornell: Is that correct?
Pause during which there was no response from Mr. Cornell until Supervisor Gromack offered:
Gromack: Mr. Cornell is the Deputy Town Attorney
Mr. Nimick then continued with his questions directed to Attorney Cornell:
Nimick: It was stated that the Town Attorney's department had properly 'vetted' Mr. Savino for his appointment, or his retention I should say, in the Town of Clarkstown. Are you aware of what the list of standards and list of requirements were used to vet Mr. Savino and the other firms?
And second, when will your department release the documents that record those standards and requirements that were used in the vetting process?
Third, at the Town Board meeting of May 15, 2012 Attorney Kevin Hobbs of New City said he wished to know which firms the Town Attorney's department had interviewed saying that in his view the retention of Savino was one of the worst examples of political patronage appointments that he had seen in many years. Ms Mele replied that she couldn't recall the names of the firms that your office interviewed but the information was in your office. Speaking on behalf of the Town Attorney's office when will you release the list of the other firms that were considered in the vetting process?
Fourth, when your office vetted Mr. Savino were you aware of any relationships he had with Mr. Velella, Mr. Mangone, or Mr. Polanco and were you aware of his comments caught on Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's wiretaps where he seemed reluctant to abide by a Federal judge's request to locate certain individuals by saying - quote: "You know, you might not reach them because your phone clicks off" and "I would just forget about it maybe"? Would you please explain on behalf of the Town Attorney's office the decision to propose the retention of Mr. Savino to the Town Board in the light of this information?
Mr. Cornell did not respond to the questions and the Board meeting was adjourned shortly thereafter.
Since Mr. Gromack indicated that Ms Mele "could certainly answer at the next meeting" the following questions were posed at the Town Board meeting of July 10, 2012. As is its usual practice the Town Board received the questions before responding to them.
Transcript of Questions to Town Board on July 10, 2012 which was attended by Town Attorney, Mele.
Hull: My question is for Mr. Hoehmann. Mr. Hoehmann, I may have come a little bit suddenly on you last month when I asked you four questions about the retention of Mr. Jay Savino. I wonder are you prepared to answer the four questions this evening?
Nimick: Ms. Mele, I first would like to thank you for providing the names of the other law firms that were considered for tax cert work. My questions today turn back to procedures. At the last Board meeting, Mr. Borelli indicated that the information concerning Mr. Savino that was introduced by citizens was new to him. Thus I suspect that it was also new to other members of the Board.
First, I would ask Ms. Lasker, Mr. Hoehmann, and Mr. Gromack whether they were aware of any of this information when they voted on Resolution #38-2012, the retention of Mr. Savino for tax cert work?
Ms. Mele, Mr. Cornell received a printout of all the information that the Board received and I trust that he shared it with you. Were you aware of the information concerning Mr. Savino that was presented to the Board at the last meeting?
If you were aware of the information, why did you not make it available to the members of the Board?
If you were not aware, then why were you not aware? In what sense did you “vet” Mr. Savino for the position?
In either case it raises questions about the procedures for vetting firms and procedures for ensuring that the members of the Board were properly informed of relevant information before the vote – would you please explain what procedures for vetting firms you used in this case and how you decided what information you would provide, or withhold, from the members of the Board?
Gromack: There were two questions about Mr. Savino. Again from my point of view they have been answered many times over. I don't know if anyone else has anything to add.
Hoehmann: You know I just agree with the Supervisor. These have been asked. A lot of what was presented in your questions were (sic) citing blogs. Most recently this past week there was an email which came in which requested a return receipt to ensure that it was read that cited a New York Times Article (referring to Election Board Sets New High in Dysfunction July 2, 2012 New York Times) and the only new information that came from that New York Times article from what I could see was that Mr. Savino shared an office or was in the same building with somebody else and the rest of the information was things that you had put in blogs. I stand by what we did in terms of voting. We are saving, you know, $75,000. There was a process that was followed by the Town Attorney and we took the Town Attorney's, eh, you know, eh, recommendation on that and as far as I am concerned the matter is closed.
Councilwoman Lasker and Councilwoman Hausner then segued from the substance of the questions that they had been asked on two occasions by the Clarkstown Taxpayers into anecdotal remarks about perceived grievances caused by unnamed people who comment on blogs.
Lasker: I would like to say one thing though and that’s about the blogs. This is my personal beef. I think a lot of misinformation is out there on the Internet. I would like to see any of the papers – the Patch and the Journal News – make sure that nobody can put out an anonymous blog. When you put in a letter to the editor you have to put your name and address in it. I really think people shouldn’t be allowed to blog anonymously. I think they should have their real names on it – that’s my own personal …….
Hausner interjecting: The Journal News actually changed their policy and you have to log in through your Facebook account and it has the tone I think of the blog posts on the Journal News blogs have been a lot less inciteful. I mean there are people in this room that blog on the Patch, that you know come to these meetings and don’t necessarily listen to what is said at these meetings and then blog different things on the Patch and it continues to perpetrate some of these rumors that continue to go around town …..
Hull attempting to redirect the Town Board’s responses back to the specifics of the questions that had been asked interrupted Ms. Hausner …..
Hull: May I respectfully point out, Ms. Hausner, that you were the one who started the investigation about ‘baggage’ associated with Savino …….
Gromack interrupting: Mr. Hull you have already been recognized and we have answered the questions. If you have a question afterwards that you would like to ask Councilwoman Hausner if she can stay around I am sure that she will answer it. Any other comments by the Town Board?
Mr. Gromack then terminated the meeting leaving Nimick's questions to Town Attorney Mele again unanswered thus avoiding having her respond as promised by Supervisor Gromack in the previous meeting of June 19 when he said that "it's best left to her to answer that at the next meeting."
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the Watchmen? This is a question the Clarkstown Taxpayers suggest that the citizens of Clarkstown consider.
1) Further details on each of the Board meetings mentioned above can be read in , () the Rockland Times (http://www.rocklandtimes.com/2012/06/28/a-heated-debate-at-clarkstowns-town-board-meeting/) and the Journal News of June 28, 2012 (Clarkstown Defends Party Chief's Hiring to Skeptical Residents, Cites Savings.)
2) The authors of all exhibits presented to the Town Board were identified to the Town Board. They are again identified in this article. Articles in the Patch, Journal News, Our Town, Rockland County Times etc written by outside authors are known as ‘Blogs’ or ‘Opinion Pieces’. For the record, members of the Clarkstown Taxpayers write both Blogs and Opinion Pieces for these publications under their own names.