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Puppet On A String?

We supposedly elect those who serve us in the Town and County, but are they no more than puppets for those who pull the strings of power behind the scenes?


My contemporary at University, Phil Coulter, wrote many hit songs for the Bay City Rolllers, Elvis Presley, and British pop star Sandie Shaw.  I was reminded of his hit song 'Puppet on a String' as I read a series of news articles in recent weeks about the politics and political parties that lie behind the governance of Rockland County and the Town of Clarkstown.   Parts of the 'Puppet on a String' lyrics are:

may win on the roundabout - then I will lose on the swings 
In or out, there is never a doubt - just who is pulling the strings
I'm all tied up in you - but where is it leading me to?

In a Journal News article of July 3, 2012, 'Rockland County GOP Faces Coup', we read:

A group called the Rockland Republican Academy says it wants to replace the current Republican Party leadership (Vinny Reda and his cohorts) with “fresh, new blood” to revitalize the party and put an end to cross-endorsement practices it says hurt the GOP and voters. Lawrence Stone, a spokesman for the group said: “The aim is to restore competition and fairness to Rockland politics. We want to completely change the culture of the party and revitalize it.”  

According to the Rockland Times the group particularly condemns Chairman Vinny Reda’s policy of cross-endorsing Democratic candidates in return for favors to the GOP from the Democrats. One such favor is believed to be the appointment of the Bronx GOP chairman, Jay Savino, to conduct the Town of Clarkstown’s work for a retainer fee of $87,000. 

In a Patch article entitled ‘’ Stone reported that more than 60 potential new Rockland Republican Committee members submitted their petitions to the county Board of Elections last week and said: “What we’re trying to do is save the Republican Party. We have a leadership in this County that has made the voters not even want to come out to vote. They’re disgusted with party politics.”

Reda’s reply was Stone’s fellow Republicans “are not a recognized Republican committee” meaning, presumably, as recognized by him. Patch reported that committee representatives Jean Black of Orangetown, Joseph Ciardullo of Clarkstown, Anthony Mele of Ramapo and Stone sent a letter to fellow committee representatives calling for a whole new slate of GOP leadership which stated in part:

“We believe that 22 years of ineffective leadership has reduced our party’s relevancy. The erosion of Republican core principles led to the financial calamity we now have in Rockland County.  What is the long term impact on the taxpayer, when we no longer have an opposition party to challenge Democrats?  The role of the opposition party is to protect the taxpayers from uncontested power of the majority over the minority. The party leadership has forgotten that they work for us and not the other way around. As a result, we are forced to take this less than conventional route to restore these principles by replacing the leadership.”

Reda and his supporters are accused of co-opting the Rockland Republican Party by cross-endorsing non-Republican candidates of Reda’s choosing.  Stone offered several examples of the GOP’s cross-endorsement of registered Democrats, including Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack in 2007 and 2009 and Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence in 2009.  Stone said Reda had shut down efforts by Republicans to obtain their party’s endorsement. As Chairman of the Rockland County Republican Party, Reda is the main target among those to be ousted by the Rockland Republican Academy’s efforts.

The point being made by Stone seems to have validity when one finds the same name appearing on every election line.  For example, here is the election ballot for the Towns of Clarkstown and Ramapo in 2007 from which one can see proof of Stone’s point. Supervisor Gromack was the choice of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Independence Party, the Conservative Party and the Working Families Party. This cross endorsement also occurred in 2009. Stone’s asserts that there is something fundamentally wrong when five different political parties, that vary widely in their published political positions, converge on a single candidate and the only choice the voter has is which of the five levers to pull for the same candidate.   

Stone's complaints about Reda are echoed by the Tea Party. In an in New City Patch Jeanine Vecchiarelli accuses Reda of writing "a rambling letter filled with factual inaccuracies" which was mailed to the members of the Rockland County Republican Committee.  Vecchiarelli went on to say: Reda and his cohorts have brought us a Moody’s rating that is now virtually junk bond status; property taxes that were just increased thirty percent, with more to come; and the continuation of Republican line horse-trading in back room deals that have given us Democrat Janis Castaldi, who was never brought up to the committee to run as a Republican against David Carlucci. 

The Rockland County Times in 'Republican Leaders Launch Assault on Reda' stated: Former Congressional and Ramapo Town Supervisor candidate Anthony Mele has charged Reda with being less than loyal to Republican candidates. Mele pointed to Reda not actively supporting him when he ran against St. Lawrence in 2007, instead horse-trading for “bloc vote” support in another election.  Reda appeared to support Alex Gromack instead of GOP candidate Ralph Sabatini in the 2011 Clarkstown Supervisor race and helped Bronx County Republican Chairman Jay Savino get a “patronage job” in the Town of Clarkstown.

The push to have Reda removed seems to have accelerated after Reda made major headlines when he was arrested and charged with even though the matter was later resolved and the charges were dismissed. 

Guy Gervasi, President of the Clarkstown taxpayers in an article entitled '’ noted that there were numerous political party leaders employed by the Town and pointed to the hiring of Jay Savino as one of the most recent egregious cases.  

Gervasi wrote: Savino, who just happens to be the head of the Bronx Republican Party, was hired to handle the town’s tax cert cases. He has never represented a municipality in a tax cert case and then when the Palisades Mall challenged its assessment, Gromack chose another law firm to handle this case.  Such is the confidence that Gromack places in the ability of Savino, his most recent patronage appointment.

While Savino is the most recent patronage appointment, the history of patronage in Clarkstown is legendary.  Marsha Coopersmith, who headed the local Independence Party and gave the party’s endorsement to the incumbents, had a high paying job in Clarkstown until she lost the Independence Party leadership to Debra Ortutay and then she was let go.

Ed Lettre, co-chair of the local Conservative Party, has a high paying job in Clarkstown and Mary Loeffler, the other co-chair, also had a high paying job in Clarkstown. Also, the recently hired Deputy Town Attorney is the son of Harriet Cornell, the head of the Rockland County legislature.

To stop this regrettable behavior of patronage by the politicians of Clarkstown, the Clarkstown Taxpayers initiated a drive to introduce term limits in 2011 and collected on its petition. Yet during a discussion of this petition at a candidates' forum, Gromack insulted the intelligence of the 3,450 signees by saying that they would sign any piece of paper "just to get on with their lives". 

Gervasi commented: “What really matters and should be remembered by all Town Board members is that the vast majority of Clarkstown voters want Term Limits now and expect the Town Board to do something about this, which they can easily and legally do by passing an eight-year Term Limit resolution imposing Term Limits on themselves".

Councilman Frank Borelli (R-New City) said the idea had merit and suggested the Town board discuss different approaches.  Board Member George Hoehmann (R-Nanuet) agreed with Borelli’s recommendation but nothing was ever done.  The Board retreated to the default position that term limits were in place as people could vote on election day for whomsoever they wanted. 

But is that statement worthy of credence given the choice voters had on this ballot where five different parties cross-endorsed Gromack as the sole candidate for Town Supervisor in 2007 and 2009 and when in 2011 Republican candidate, Ralph Sabatini, who finally did make it onto the ballot found that Vinny Reda, the Head of the party line on which he was running, apparently was supporting his opponent, incumbent Gromack?

Thus the question that needs to be asked is what do we know about these parties and the real power brokers who control them from the background? Are our 'Elected Representatives' people who can make tough and independent decisions or are they simply 'Puppets on a String' who are manipulated by shadowy power brokers in the background accountable to no one?

Looking first at the Conservative party, which is led by Mary Loeffler and Ed Lettre in Rockland County, we find that there is a legal case before the Supreme Court for the State of New York County of Rockland under Index No: SU-2011-2758 entitled Marilyn Klubenspies and Michael Araneo against Town of Clarkstown, Town Supervisor Alexander J. Gromack and "John Does and Jane Does 1-5" in which there is an affidavit by Klubenspies. This affidavit indicates that Mary Loeffler, while a Town of Clarkstown employee, was a top party official in the Conservative Party and was involved with providing the Conservative Party Line to Supervisor Gromack. 

From 2009 through 2010 Loeffler was not at work and yet was still compensated by the Town.  A Town Board Resolution of March 2010 indicated that the Town Board was required to grant additional "sick time" for Loeffler after the Clarkstown Taxpayers group exposed the fact that Loeffler was in Florida and not in New York and was still being paid by the Town of Clarkstown at taxpayers expense. Loeffler, according to the affidavit, was involved in extensive political activities during the time that she was supposedly at work being paid by the Town $127,000 per year plus pension and benefits of about $45,000.

Recently, Loeffler and Republican bigwig Reda have apparently parted ways over the candidacy of former Democrat, Castaldi, who is to run against Democrat Carlucci in the November 2012 elections.  Castaldi is being tossed around like a rag doll over her views on homosexuality and lesbianism.  The New York Daily News reported that because Castaldi is a married lesbian (and hence supports gay marriage) she is no longer acceptable as the Conservative Party's candidate. 

She’s married to a woman? Oh boy,” Loeffler said. “That puts a little crimp in it right now. Reda, on the other hand, called it a non-issue. She’s changed her registration to Republican and is totally acceptable.”

The other leader of the Conservative party, Ed Lettre, is currently employed by the Town as the Clerk of Works where in 2011 he had a compensation of $167,747, an 11.1% increase over his 2010 income.  Lettre's son also had a job with the Town until he and another Town employee used a Town truck in a burglary. The  noted that Lettre is head of the town's public works programs and leader of the Conservative Party in Rockland County and that the two employees were part of clean up crews whose workers were overseen by Lettre's department.  According to Clarkstown's 2010 Salary Schedule Daniel Lettre was listed as a Senior Grounds worker, earning $55,084. 

According to Westchester Magazine: You wouldn’t think a third party would have much success winning elections. But New York is one of a handful of states that allows cross-endorsement. The Conservative Party, the Working Families Party, and the Independence Party rarely run their own candidates. Instead, they list a candidate from a major party on their own ballot line. 

The Democrats and Republicans have the first two rows on the ballot. In local elections, the Conservative Party usually endorses the Republican candidate, and Working Families usually endorses the Democrat. The Independence Party is the wild card.  The power of the chair of the party is largely a function of the cross-endorsement system. If the Working Families and Conservative parties remain reliably partisan, and if Democratic registration keeps rising, any fickle third party with votes to deliver can expect ring-kissing and a slew of campaign donations.

Not surprisingly, there have been many messy battles for the chairmanship of the Independence Party in Westchester while the Independence Party in Rockland County has a particularly sorry history of leadership. Marsha Coopersmith was an employee of the Town of Clarkstown until December 2011 earning approximately $127,000 plus benefits while Chair of the Independence Party and allegedly providing Supervisor Gromack that line. She was ousted from the Chairmanship by Debra Ortutay and Ortutay then allegedly supplied the line to Gromack and the rest of the Town Council. 

Ortutay, who eventually resigned under indictment for perjury and fraud, is the mother-in-law of Frank Sparaco who is said to be a protégé of Reda, the chairman of the Rockland County GOP. The law firm representing her was that of Joseph Savino, the Bronx Republican Party Chairman who contributed financially in 2011 to the Independence Party of Rockland. Coopersmith, who no longer could provide a party line, was and her work was outsourced by the Clarkstown Board to Ortutay's attorney, Savino, for an annual 'retainer fee' of $87,000. Board member Hausner, who voted against Savino's retention, said of this action: “There are individuals more qualified. They may not come with baggage”. 

The Rockland Journal News of February 28, 2011 in an article entitled 'Party Chair Sentenced for Petitions' summarized the criminal behavior of the leadership of the Independence party as follows: The former Rockland Independence Party chairwoman, whose son-in-law is a county legislator, was sentenced Monday to four months in jail on her guilty plea to forgery- and perjury-related charges involving nominating petitions for the minor party line in 2010. Debra Ortutay, 58, of Valley Cottage admitted lying to a grand jury investigating improprieties involving the signing of petitions for the party’s ballot line during the Assembly race between her son-in-law, Republican Legislator Frank Sparaco of Clarkstown, and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, a Democrat.

Ortutay faced a minimum of 1 1/3 years and a maximum of seven years in state prison under the felony charges brought by Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s office, which handled the case after Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe disqualified his office. Ortutay began her four-month sentence in the Rockland County Jail immediately after being sentenced at the Rockland County Courthouse. The conviction was the first for Ortutay, whose White Plains-based lawyer, Joseph J. Savino, the Bronx Republican Party chairman, didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.

Between July 20 and Aug. 6, 2010, prosecutors said, Ortutay falsely claimed to have witnessed voters signing her Independence Party petition for the 94th Assembly District race. At the same time, Sparaco wanted to oust the then-Independence Party leadership of Marsha Coopersmith and install his supporters. Ortutay and her husband, Michael Ortutay, won the party committee seats long held by Coopersmith and Cesar Perez. Coopersmith, a deputy Clarkstown town attorney, lost her job recently with the town.

Strangely, after DiFiore completed the successful prosecution of Ortutay, she was suddenly faced with a 'Nannygate scandal' apparently initiated by Dhyalma Vazquez, Head of the Bureau of Case Review in the Department of Social Services in Westchester.  DiFiore's tax returns were sought in a DSS food-stamp probe. The allegations made against her by Vazquez were outlined in the Journal News on June 25, 2012.

A Westchester County investigator is seeking a decade of tax returns for District Attorney Janet DiFiore, her husband and her housekeeper as part of a probe into claims that DiFiore used her influence to get food stamps and other benefits for her housekeeper. Dhyalma Vazquez, Head of the Bureau of Case Review in the Department of Social Services, also asked county officials in a June 7 email to subpoena immigration records for housekeeper Marina Buchanan because her “immigration status has been in doubt for much of the time. We have reached a point in our investigation where in order to confirm or negate the allegations of fraud, it is imperative that we be provided with state and federal income tax returns for Marina Buchanan, Janet DiFiore and Dennis Glazer for the time period 2000-2010,” Vazquez wrote.  

Dennis Glazer, DiFiore’s husband, is a partner with Davis, Polk & Wardwell in Manhattan. Vazquez also charged that DiFiore’s office had spoken to county officials “about terminating me from my position based upon my participation in the current investigation.”

Vasquez, in addition to being employed in a County job in Westchester, serves in a similar capacity as did Ortutay in Rockland - she is Chairwoman of the Independence Party in Yonkers. She is also closely linked to “Doc” Giulio Cavallo, chairman of the Westchester County Independence Party.  Where Cavallo is concerned, Legislator Sparaco has a convoluted explanation for this circus of accusations surrounding DiFiore and his mother-in-law, Ortutay:

“They hate each other,” said Rockland County lawmaker Frank Sparaco, of the relationship between Cavallo and DiFiore. Sparaco said he did not think the charges about DiFiore’s housekeeper were trumped up, but said he believed the feud between Cavallo and DiFiore had led to their public release.

Sparaco also claims that his mother-in-law, Debra Ortutay, who was the Rockland County Independence Party Chair before she pleaded guilty to forging petitions signatures in Sparaco’s 2010 Assembly was “collateral damage” of the fight between Cavallo and DiFiore. Sparaco, who sent out an email with a link to the Post story when the complaint against DiFiore broke, said he thought Ortutay’s 4-month jail term was a reflection of her beef with the Independence Party.

Ortutay’s attorney Bronx Republican Chairman by the Town of Clarkstown, which was proposed by Republican George Hoehmann and seconded by Republican Frank Borelli, has raised numerous questions by the Clarkstown Taxpayers about how for the tax cert position and were used to reject other firms.

In a New York Times article 'Election Board Sets New High in Dysfunction' on July 2, 2012, for example, it is stated: A few years back, the Westchester lawyer Anthony J. Mangone, who shared an office with Jay Savino, the Bronx Republican leader, earned a cool $100,000 lobbying the board on behalf of a voting machine company, Election Systems and Software. In 2010, the board gave the company a $50 million contract. The next day, federal prosecutors indicted Mr. Mangone in an unrelated bribery case. Mr. Mangone has pleaded guilty and is talking with investigators. Mr. Savino received a subpoena two years ago.

The New York Times continued by saying about the New York City Elections Board that: Employment is explicitly political; every employee is a Republican or a Democrat. The idea is that one party keeps the other in line. This is the theory of 'mutually assured destruction' applied to governance. 

As to the Working Families Party, what is one to assume will be the outcome if political leaders who enter into union negotiations on behalf of the taxpayers have previously accepted the endorsement of a party which is union oriented? Appearances are beginning to look very bad since negotiation with any union CSAE or PBA appears to be becoming an exercise in futility as was recently demonstrated in the case of the police union and its 'negotiations' with the Town of Clarkstown. 

In the recent negotiations with the PBA for the five year period January 1, 2013 through December 31, 2017 according to  the Clarkstown Town Board approved with the Rockland County Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association with 2.5 percent increases each year. The union voted on it late Tuesday afternoon, May 15, 2012 and passed it.  The resolution to approve the agreement was a “late addition” to the Town Board's agenda the same evening and was passed within hours without public notice. 

Today Rockland’s political leaders have led this County into the Top Five rank of most taxed counties in the USA. Rockland County is 5th in median property taxes paid on homes and also 6th in taxes as a percent of income while over the past five years home prices in Clarkstown fell by just under 25%.  Perhaps if politicians were not puppets and were required to leave office under a term limits local law they would have the courage to do what is right on behalf of the taxpayers who elect them rather than selling their souls to political patronage made to assuage the marionette masters who pull their strings of power from behind political curtains.

We may win on the roundabout, then we lose on the swings
In or out, there is never a doubt, just who is pulling the strings
I'm all tied up with you, but where is it leading us to?

Where, indeed, is it leading us to? Perhaps to the 'mutually assured destruction' of a vibrant political process in the County of Rockland.

 (Picture courtesy of http://mindyourbodyhealth.blogspot.com/2012/03/marionette.html)

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Brenda M July 27, 2012 at 06:26 PM
I am reminded of the cuckoo bird which lays its egg in another bird's nest and then takes over the whole operation.  The cuckoo is a nice bird but is a parasite nevertheless.  That's how I see the Conservative and Independence "parties".  They don't run candidates and I don't know what they stand for yet they grab another party's candidate and declare "He's mine!"   But this is the behavior of parasites and the ridiculous scuffling that goes on among this moulty mob makes me wonder just what is the electorate doing to tolerate this feathered nonsense. Next time I will vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate who is NOT on one of these cuckoo lines (assuming that the same candidate is not running as a Democrat AND a Republican on the cuckoo ticket). On another matter, if Gromack says that the electorate have term limits available to them every time they vote then he must have great confidence that a referendum on this matter would be rejected.  I say if 3000 plus people sign a petition for term limits they are owed the opportunity to have their fellow citizens vote on it in a referendum. I see local laws being proposed to take away the Highway Superintendent's responsibilities despite a referendum which rejected this last year.  But Gromack will not give the citizens a chance to vote on a referendum that may take away his own responsibilities? That's a cuckoo with a streak of chicken in my book.
amy durbin July 27, 2012 at 11:12 PM
Gromack could afford to say that people "were just getting on with their lives". He voted no to a pubic hearing on the issue. As I stood in front of almost every supermarket in Clarkstown, I personally spoke to a lot of those people when I was out getting signatures. They stopped and talked (most of them wanted the term limits retroactive). Even those against term limits had no problem with the referendum of let the people decide. No public hearing for term limits; no choice at the polls; no candidate that stands for the position of their party (whatever it may be). The people of Clarkstown have been ignored so long that they have lost faith in the system. After reading your article, Michael, I understand why. I hope the party leaders and politicians read this and take heed.Enough is enough.
Mary July 28, 2012 at 01:34 PM
Great article...after reading this it is undeniable that the corruption in this county is rampant.
Tony Mele August 12, 2012 at 03:33 PM
I have asked the Rockland County Chairman Reda, Clarkstown Chairman Axelrod and Ramapo Chairman Dolan; How does it honor the Republican Party by teaching young Republicans and the voting public to vote for Democrats on the Republican line? I explained that it is marketing 101, Coke does not sell Pepsi. I questioned the wisdom of the cross endorsement practice that has been rejected by 44 of the 50 States in the Union. The two party system is designed to fuel competition and, through the clash of ideas, craft public policy the voters can choose from. When there is no opposition or contrasting policy, the voter is denied choice. As this piece exposes the motive of the practice is not principle but personal gain at the expense of everyone else. I suggested that these Chairman step aside and help restore the integrity of good Republicans and encourage new leadership to rise. I believe in the adage, leadership is not measured by how many followers you have but by how many more leaders you make.

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