"The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked and he has not been caught" - H.L. Mencken
In my previous article The Spineless Supervisor I described how in recent weeks the citizens of Clarkstown have suffered through the revelations of Sex, Lies and Videotapes followed by a manic press conference led by Clarkstown's Inspector Clouseau which resulted in a Nightmare on Maple Avenue. The "Brats", "Punks" and "Demented Uncles" are now engaged in what promises to be the first of many lawsuits while the average citizen wonders what has happened to the Code of Ethics in the Town of Clarkstown.
On August 20 in a public meeting to discuss changes in the Town's Code, Tom Nimick asked the Clarkstown Town Board if any of its members had considered referring the surreptitious recordings made by its $75,000 part-time Constituent Services Representative, Frank Sparaco, to the Town's Ethics Board for its review as to violations of the Town's Ethics Code.
Given that none had done so Nimick recommended that several items in the Ethics Code be added and urged the Board to continue the public discussion to the next meeting when two absent members of the Board (Lasker and Hoehmann) could be present to reflect on his proposals.
Here is the transcript of that Board Meeting ......
Nimick: I would like to suggest that recent events indicate that there is a part of the Town Code that likely needs revision and I would urge you to take that on. I am speaking of Chapter 18 – the Code of Ethics. The stated intent of the Code of Ethics is as follows:
“Establish high standards of ethical conduct for elected officials, covered employees and Town employees; afford elected officials, covered employees and Town employees clear guidance to such standards; promote public confidence in the integrity of Town government; facilitate consideration of potential problems before they arise; minimize unwarranted suspicion and enhance the accountability of government to the people.”
The events surrounding meetings between Mr. Sparaco, Mr. Borelli, and Mr. Malone, clearly fall outside of standard of Ethics defined in our Town Code. Before we discuss needed amendments to the Code it is first important to determine whether the current Code has been adequate to the situation.
So I am asking the Board now: Has any action been taken by the Town’s Board of Ethics with regard to the possible violations of the Code of Ethics?
Mr. Nimick paused awaiting a response from Supervisor Gromack or any member of the Town Board .....
Gromack: Finish your comments and then .....
Nimick: I am asking a question .....
Gromack addressing the attorney to Ethics Board: Mr. Millman, is there any response we need to this?
Millman: I would suggest that the Board not respond. Currently there is no charge of unethical behavior or violation before the Board of Ethics. If there were it would be investigated by the Board of Ethics.
Nimick: Mr. Millman, in the code it says that the Board has the power to take up any investigation that it needs to. I am asking if the Board has taken any initiative on its own to look into this matter?
Millman: No it has not.
Nimick turning back to the Town Board: Has the Town Board taken any action to refer these individuals to the Board of Ethics for investigation?
Mr. Nimick paused again awaiting a response from Supervisor Gromack or any member of the Town Board .....
Gromack: I have not - the other Board members can speak for themselves.
Nimick turning to Councilwoman Hausner: Ms Hausner have you taken any action to refer these matters to the Board of Ethics.
Hausner: Refer what?
Nimick: The reported conversations?
Nimick continuing to address the Board: If no action has been taken then there is direct evidence that the Town’s Code of Ethics needs amendment. Those actions were profoundly unethical and in direct violation of the intent of the Code of Ethics.
What actions have you as Board members taken to ensure that such actions are covered by the Code of Ethics and that they are investigated?
Have you identified the inadequacy in the Code and what are you proposing to do to fix it?
Have you any proposals at this point to fix the Code, Mr. Gromack?
Gromack somewhat petulantly: Mr. Nimick, just finish your statement and I will respond when I want to and not when you want me to.
Nimick: OK. Since you have not taken action, I looked at the Code and it is my opinion that Mr. Borelli needs to be investigated for violation of Section 18-5. The trading of influence for benefits is explicitly mentioned in the Code of Ethics. Mr. Malone needs to be investigated on the same account.
Now we come to Mr. Sparaco. I should clarify that claims of ignorance of the Code of Ethics are invalid. In the Code it states:
“Each elected official, covered employee or Town employee shall be furnished a copy of the Code of Ethics, Chapter 18 of the Code of the Town of Clarkstown, by the Personnel Administrator before entering upon the duties of his or her office or employment.”
I should note that this item was added to the Code on the initiative of Ms. Lasker in 2002. Mr. Sparaco needs to be investigated not only for violation of Section 18-5, but also for Section 18-11, which was also added at the initiative of Ms. Lasker in 2002. It reads:
“Any person [a definition that covers Mr. Sparaco] who induces any elected official, covered employee or Town employee to take any action or refrain from taking any action, which is in violation of this chapter, shall be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor as that term is defined in the New York State Penal Law and shall be barred from doing business with the Town for a period of five years from the date of conviction.”
I should note that there is no allowance for the role of amateur investigator that Mr. Sparaco has claimed. The Code is clear. Mr. Sparaco has provided the means for his own removal from Town employment and for his being barred from doing any business with the Town for five years.
Now the Board should have already taken action on this matter. After all it took only a couple of hours to call an emergency meeting to fire Mr. Savino.
Before proceeding further, I wish to ask if the Town Board and the Board of Ethics are prepared to proceed with these matters under the Code of Ethics?
Gromack: Finish your statement, Mr. Nimick!
Nimick: I am asking if you are prepared to proceed with these matters?
Gromack irritably: You may not get an answer tonight!
Nimick: Since there is no action, it is clear that the Code of Ethics needs to be amended. Therefore I have examined the circumstances in this case and drafted two amendments to strengthen the Code of Ethics and ensure that the Board of Ethics is well empowered to uphold our Town’s standard of ethics.
First, the Code needs to be updated to address the potential of new technology. I observed the surreptitious recording of elected officials and town employees and concluded that the practice is at odds with the ethical standards proclaimed in our Town’s Code of Ethics. Therefore I have drafted a proposed amendment to the Code and I was hoping Shirley Lasker would be here tonight to follow up with me on her work in 2002 and propose it, but I am willing for someone else to sponsor the amendment, to strengthen the Code of Ethics and sponsor this amendment to the Code. For the information of everyone here, it reads as follows:
18-5 I. No elected official, covered employee, or Town employee shall, without the consent of all parties, record or cause to be recorded conversations whether direct or through other communication devices. Recordings of public meetings may be made without explicit consent for the purpose of preparing accurate minutes and may be provided in response to FOIL requests. This requirement will not apply to recording that is done under court order or at the direction of a recognized law-enforcement agency.
Second, I considered the root cause of the unethical behavior in this case and determined that it is the circumstance of people being concurrently representatives of a political party and employees of the Town. In 1989 when the current Code of Ethics was adopted, there were multiple drafts and there was considerable discussion of a draft that included a prohibition of town employees concurrently being officials or representatives of political parties. That draft was not adopted and it is not in the current Code of Ethics.
The events of the past month have demonstrated that the Town Board was mistaken in failing to implement that prohibition. I propose that the Town Board now rectify that failure. If the prohibition had been in place Mr. Sparaco would not have been in a position to trade political favors for employment and Mr. Lettre, an employee under the supervision of the Town Board, would not have been able to summon his employers to a meeting that he organized.
Furthermore the Deputy Town Attorneys who serve as committee chairs for local political parties would not have had the inside track for employment in the Town.
And if this prohibition had been in place, the Republicans would not have been able to propose Mr. Savino for his job with the Office of Town Attorney.
Those practices have always been ethically problematic and it is time to ensure that they are specifically prohibited by our Code of Ethics. Therefore I propose the following amendment to the Code of Ethics. It reads:
18-5 J No covered employee or Town employee shall concurrently be an officer or representative of a political party organized within the State of New York. Those employees who are in this status at the time this ordinance is enacted will comply with its requirements no later than six months from the date of its enactment.
“Business as usual” we can now equate with violation of the Code of Ethics. I encourage all members of the public who are in favor of either of these amendments, or who wish to discuss them, to take the opportunity at this public hearing to speak – that is the purpose of a public hearing.
Councilwoman Hausner subsequently made a motion to close the public hearing; it was seconded by Councilman Borelli, and with the vote of Supervisor Gromack making up the majority of three, the hearing was closed.
This blog is authored by Michael N. Hull, a retired senior citizen who writes opinion pieces on local political issues. He is a Director of Clarkstown Residents Opposing Patronage with Tom Nimick and Ralph Sabatini. Hull contributes periodically to the Facebook page Clarkstown: What They Don't Want You To Know and on Twitter.