I decided to follow-up on the recent Times Union article that focused on Tom Lewis, member of the Saratoga Springs Planning Board, and William Moore, chair of the Saratoga Springs Zoning Board of Appeals regarding issues of recusal.
I contacted the chair of the city’s Ethics Board to better understand what the standards for recusal are for Saratoga Springs land use board members.
Justin Hogan is the Ethics Board chair. Here is a link to his biography from the website of J Strategies Link To Bio where he is employed. J Strategies appears to be a hybrid public relations/lobbying/media consulting firm. For a number of years Mr. Hogan worked for the New York Senate “members’ services” office. Both the Democratic New York State Assembly and the Republican dominated Senate have these offices. It is common knowledge that these two offices basically are political operations meant to help elect the members. They sail very close to the wind so to speak. Mr. Hogan was also the political director for Republican Jeanine Pirro’s 2006 failed campaign for Attorney General. Back in 2004 he was field director for the Bush/Cheney campaign in West Virginia and the head of media operations for the Republican convention that year. Most recently, and before taking his current job, he was Director of Development for the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany.
Lest my Republican friends think I am going after them, J Strategies president, Jaime Venditti was an analyst for Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver. Following that she was “the Vice President of a Central New York government affairs firm where she oversaw the management of all clients. Jaime was responsible for all client media campaigns ranging from media tours, event planning, press conferences, editorial boards, and media placement. In addition, she managed the firm’s lobbying, legislative affairs and public relations efforts for many of the firm’s corporate and not-for-profit clients.”
There is nothing partisan about J Strategies…
Mr. Hogan was originally appointed as chair of the Ethics Board by Mayor Scott Johnson in 2009. Most recently he was reappointed by Mayor Joanne Yepsen.
On Wednesday, January 27 I spoke with Mr. Hogan on the phone. As you might expect he is quite affable but trying to clarify the city’s ethics codes was something of a challenge. I was able to clarify a very few things. First, the Ethics Board’s opinions are only advice. The board has no enforcement authority. Second, they have subpoena power but it has never been used.
When I tried to clarify if there were circumstances in which the appearance of a lack of impartiality would require recusal I found myself in a verbal maze with Mr. Hogan. When I raised the question about whether a board member would have to recuse themselves if their best friend appeared before them, he responded about how it is a small town and everyone knows everyone, and in the famous words of Jerry Seinfeld: yada yada yada. So I asked him what he would do if he were on a board and his best friend came before that board. I never could get an answer. As for the issue of Tom Lewis, his house that Sonny Bonacio is building, and Bonacio’s appearances before the board that Lewis is on, Mr. Hogan’s first response was that we lacked the facts. I pointed out that it was unlikely that we would be able to determine whether Bonacio had done anything special for Mr. Lewis. I also noted to him, as proof of the “appearance” of a potential lack of impartiality, the front page story in the Times Union. He then indicated that the only way he would answer that question was if it was formally submitted to the Ethics Board.
So Wednesday, January 27th I formally submitted the appropriate inquiry form to his board regarding Tom Lewis and William Moore. This will at least clarify for me and for the public whether these cases involving Lewis’ and Moore’s refusal to recuse themselves have violated the city’s ethic code.
Subsequent to our conversation I received the following email from Mr. Hogan:
From: Justin Hogan [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 2:06 PM
To: John Kaufmann
Subject: Re: Board of Ethics
To follow up on your question regarding the code of ethics and the conduct of City employees and officers please see section 13-3 B. (d), http://www.saratoga-springs.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/3948. I have also pasted the section below. Please let
me know if there is any further information I can provide or if you have any more general
questions about the ethics board and procedures.
(d) The foregoing City officers and employees are listed due to the unique nature of their offices and positions which, in turn, raise ethical conflicts unique to those offices and positions. This list is not to be deemed all-inclusive. Every City officer and employee shall endeavor to pursue a course of conduct consistent with the spirit of this Chapter as well as the actual provisions and strive to act so as not to raise suspicion among the public that he or she is likely [my emphasis] to be engaged in activities that are in violation of his or her trust.