The suit by the Mouzon House against the city was originally supposed to be heard by Supreme Court Justice Thomas Nolan. Judge Nolan recused himself attributing his decision to the fact that his clerk had been appointed to the city’s Civil Service Commission.
As one who is concerned about the problems of conflict of interest in government I respect Judge Nolan’s decision. It seemed like a rather remote conflict but I will take the highest standard I can get.
There is, however, an extraordinary irony that his decision resulted in Judge Robert Chauvin taking on the case. In 2013 Brendan Lyons, investigative reporter for the Times Union, published an article which documented the sordid history of the incestuous world of developers and town officials focusing particularly on Robert Chauvin. It is important to note that in 2015, subsequent to this article, Halfmoon Supervisor Melinda Wormuth was convicted for bribery. She was caught in a sting set up by the FBI. She subsequently cooperated with the government which resulted in the conviction of Bruce Tanski, a major developer in Halfmoon.
This is an excerpt from a story by Brendan Lyons in the December 11, 2015, Times Union.
The FBI’s probe also examined a $50,000 payment that Wormuth and her husband received from Bruce Tanski, a Halfmoon builder and longtime financial supporter of the town Republican Committee. Tanski said the $50,000 payment was a loan that the couple later repaid. Wormuth did not disclose the payment to other town officials or the public, and her husband, Larry, received the money at a time when Tanski had projects pending before the Town Board.
Tanski was not charged in connection with the loan, but was convicted of using his employees and business associates to illegally funnel campaign donations to Wormuth. The office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman prosecuted the state case. Tanski is Halfmoon’s most active builder and a longtime financial supporter of the town Republican Committee and state Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon.
This is from a Times Union article written by Brendan Lyons and published on August 12, 2013.
State Supreme Court Justice Robert J. Chauvin, who was a town attorney in Halfmoon for 25 years until 2011, took steps to conceal his financial interests in numerous large housing developments by recruiting a close friend as the “public face” of the projects in exchange for a share of the profits.
The arrangement, which was never made public or examined by the town’s ethics committee, lasted years and involved several large subdivisions built between the 1990s and mid-2000s and at least one private sewer corporation.
Gregory S. Mills, a Halfmoon attorney who was listed as the owner or applicant of the projects in public records, acknowledged that he did little or no work but received 25 percent or more of the profits to pose as the primary owner. Mills claims Chauvin, who also was a Saratoga County assistant district attorney, misled the public about his stake in the projects because of “political concerns” by town leaders and opposition from residents. “Bob did not want his name being used as part of that because we would have 50, 60 or maybe 100 people show up at these meetings and it was a decision, maybe in conjunction with others in town government, that it was best that his name not be used,” Mills said.
The secret arrangement, Mills said, may have been fueled by Chauvin’s interest in keeping his government jobs and preserving political connections.
“He built a power base in the Republican Party in the town of Halfmoon, and that’s where all his contacts were,” Mills said. “He made a significant effort to keep those positions so that he could ultimately maintain that level of influence or control, and then he later used that very effectively to get the nomination for Supreme Court.”
Mills and Chauvin met while attending Albany Law School and remained close friends for more than 30 years until their business partnership soured in 2008. The breakup led to a lawsuit that lasted five years until February, when a state appellate court issued a ruling vindicating Mills in a series of business disputes. The decision cost Chauvin about $860,000, Mills said.
The Times Union learned of the lawsuit after the appellate ruling and in March began examining Chauvin’s business dealings dating to the 1990s.
Chauvin declined to be interviewed for this story. He was an assistant district attorney for 30 years until 2011, when he was elected to the bench following a campaign buoyed by his strong political connections in Saratoga County.
In a 2009 deposition, under questioning from Mills’ attorney, G. Kimball Williams, Chauvin initially indicated his decision to give Mills a share of the projects was simply about friendship and loyalty.
“I am the person who negotiated the deals. He didn’t have any part of it,” Chauvin said. “I didn’t need him as a partner. I was doing it as a favor. I was doing it because he was my friend. He didn’t do any of the work. He didn’t do any of the producing. He didn’t go out and look for properties as I was. He was not a benefit to me. I didn’t need the money. It was a favor.”
But when pressed by Mills’ attorney, Chauvin said that having Mills serve as the face of the projects was for what he called “ease of operation” in the public planning process.
Chauvin said that by removing his name from deeds and planning applications, it made it “easier to go through the process rather than going through disclosure every time you are there.”
Chauvin’s investments in at least six major subdivisions were also tied to his long-standing partnership with builder Peter Belmonte Jr., who purchased lots and built most of the homes in Chauvin’s subdivisions, records show.
Belmonte declined a request to be interviewed.
In the lawsuit with Mills, Chauvin acknowledged that he borrowed money from Belmonte and that they were involved in “real estate ventures and other ventures” that he refused to disclose.
Records on file in the town of Halfmoon, and court records, show that Mills was listed as the owner or applicant in at least six housing projects spearheaded by Chauvin, including developments later named Prospect Meadows, Summit Hills, Christopher Glen, Halve Maen Manor and Dater Woods.
Chauvin claimed that he filed conflict-of-interest letters for the projects, although the letters were never made public or placed on the record at town meetings, according to minutes of the meetings.
“Did you explain to the public what that conflict was?” an attorney asked Chauvin during a 2009 deposition. “Not unless I was asked, no,” Chauvin said.
The town clerk’s office, citing poor recordkeeping, said it believes Chauvin filed letters for each of his projects. But a deputy clerk could locate only two letters in which Chauvin cited conflicts related to subdivisions he owned — one from 2002 involving a large subdivision off Farm To Market Road and another in 2010 related to a project called Harvest Bend.
Chauvin recused himself at town meetings where his projects were discussed. But Mills, who often attended the hearings as the applicant, said it was unclear whether all town officials voting on the projects understood Chauvin’s financial interest in the projects. He said Chauvin implied that his recusals were due to his friendship with Mills and legal work.
“He would say he represented me and we were friends,” Mills said. “I never heard him say:’I’m recusing myself because I’m an owner.'”
During his 2009 deposition, Chauvin explained it like this: “When you got to a planning board you have a number of members, then you have the public present because you have public hearings and public proceedings, and if it’s in my name then there would be questions ‘why is Bob Chauvin here?'” he said. “We never put my name on it because it would just raise more issues with the public and they would say what is going on even though we disclosed all of that. So it was for ease of operation.”
Documents filed in the lawsuit between Mills and Chauvin indicate Chauvin regularly used his town letterhead for private business dealings and to contact other town officials on personal matters.
In early 2008, Chauvin enlisted help from Councilman Walter Polak, who has been the Town Board‘s liaison to the Planning Board for years, on a plan by Chauvin and Mills to get the town to abandon and give them property next to a commercial building they owned east of the Northway on Crescent Road.
Chauvin, in a deposition, acknowledged that acquiring the property “would have made our piece substantially more valuable.” He characterized Polak’s assistance as critical: “He was the town councilman who was the liaison to the highway committee, so he was the person through whom any abandonment petition had to be cleared before it could get to the town board.”
The land acquisition, Chauvin said, would have made it easier for he and Mills to expand their commercial property, where Mills’ law office and other tenants are located.
Polak, in a Feb. 29, 2008, email, told Chauvin that other town officials assisting on the request included Supervisor Melinda Wormuth, then-assessor Ed Pearson and Highway Superintendent John Pingelski. The town informally approved the abandonment, Chauvin said, but it fell apart due to an “uproar” from neighbors at a public hearing.
Chauvin also described feeling pressured to grant Polak’s request for the town to install a “Welcome to Halfmoon” sign on their Crescent Road property. Chauvin said he did it because they needed Polak’s cooperation to expand their commercial property.
The town ethics law, which until this year had not been updated in more than 40 years, did not previously require town employees to file financial disclosure forms.
In 1995, a town ethics committee cleared Chauvin and a former town official of allegations that they violated the ethics law by working for the town and a private sewer corporation partly owned by Chauvin. It’s unclear from public records that town ethics leaders were aware that Chauvin had a financial interest in the subdivisions or the sewer corporation that served them. Mills was listed as the sewer corporation’s president.
Robert Hayes Jr., who chaired the ethics panel, said the town’s outdated ethics law at that time left town employees and the public “in a vacuum as to what is the right thing to do,” according to published reports.
In a recent interview, Hayes recalled the panel’s call to strengthen the ethics law was ignored. Chauvin was town attorney at the time.
In 2005, the city of Mechanicville unsuccessfully sued the town of Halfmoon trying to block the town from taking a 22-acre plot of city-owned land for a water distribution system. The city accused Chauvin of pushing the water project because of his interest in a housing subdivision near Route 146 that was later developed by Belmonte.
Kenneth DeCerce, who resigned as town supervisor in February 2007, said he confronted Chauvin about his land deals prior to taking office in 2000. DeCerce said he was unaware Chauvin was involved in any property transactions during his administration.
“He and I had an agreement that he wasn’t going to be involved with purchasing any further properties and I believe he stuck to that agreement,” said DeCerce, whose family owned lands that were later sold to Chauvin for at least two subdivisions. “I don’t know that he never did anything illegal or wrong. … Bob Chauvin was an extremely important person in my administration; I made sure to ask him about everything that I wasn’t sure of but he kept me straight and that was very important to me.”
Mills said the arrangement to conceal Chauvin’s interests predated DeCerce and began in the 1990s when now-state Sen. Kathleen Marchione was town supervisor. Chauvin began buying large tracts of land in central Halfmoon that were later subdivided and sold to Belmonte. When DeCerce became supervisor, Mills said, Chauvin grew more concerned about keeping a low profile. One of his projects off Farm To Market Road included land that had once been owned by DeCerce’s father.
“He was very, very concerned that there was an appearance of impropriety with the supervisor having a potential interest and the town attorney having a potential interest in a major subdivision,” Mills testified during a 2009 deposition. “It was a significant problem for the town, and although Bob had not asked me if I wanted to be a part of the project up to that point, he now needed me to be there for that purpose.”
Like other deals, Mills said, Chauvin asked him to contribute 50 percent of the development costs “but I would only get 25 percent of any profit.”
Chauvin, whose son Matthew is a deputy town attorney in Halfmoon, left his jobs with the town and district attorney’s office in 2011 to become a judge. His top salary as a town attorney was in 2005 when state records show he was paid $79,890. His top salary as a part-time prosecutor was in 2010, when he was paid $58,102, the records show.