The City of Saratoga Springs has an Ethics Code which the city’s Ethics Board is charged with “enforcing.” I put enforcing in quotes as the Board is only authorized to offer opinions and has no disciplinary or enforcement powers.
In a letter dated June 14, 2019, a little more than a week before the Democratic primary, Patty Morrison, then a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Finance Commissioner, made the following accusation against her opponent Michele Madigan and requested the city’s Ethics Board investigate.
Your [JK: Commissioner Madigan] participation in a political fundraiser for your Commissioner of Finance campaign hosted by Saratoga Hospital attorney, Matt Jones at his home on March 8, 2019 along with his personal donation of $1,000.00, is a direct conflict of interest and can be viewed as clear violation of the City’s Code of Ethics.
Now there is an argument to be made about the problem of the influence of money in politics. How much donations like the one made by Jones might impact a legislator’s vote is a matter of legitimate discussion. I would also note, though, that in light of Ms. Morrison’s outrage over Commissioner Madigan’s campaign donations it is odd that she apparently does not have similar concerns regarding Joanne Yepsen who also received donations from Mr. Jones when she was running for Mayor and is now supporting Ms. Morrison’s quest for Commissioner of Finance.
The central issue here, however, is Ms. Morrison’s claim that Commissioner Madigan has violated the city’s Ethics Code and Ms. Morrison’s then use of this claim to seek publicity meant to damage her opponent.
While the city’s ethics code cites gifts or financial benefits to public officials as potential violations, it specifically excludes campaign contributions. Here is the language:
GIFT and FINANCIAL BENEFIT — Includes anything of value including, but not limited to, money, services, referrals, discounts, licenses, permits, contracts, authorizations, loans, travel, entertainment, hospitality, or any other gratuity or promise thereof. A financial transaction may be a financial benefit but shall not be a gift unless it is on terms not available to the general public. “Gift” and “financial benefit” do not include campaign contributions authorized by law. [JK: Emphasis Added]
So what does this tell us about Patty Morrison’s own ethics in this matter.
First, Ms. Morrison either did not actually take the opportunity to read the city’s ethics code before making her accusation or she made the accusation knowing it was false. Bear in mind, this is a person seeking to handle the city’s finances.
Secondly, even if the issue of the influence of campaign contributions on a legislator’s behavior were addressed in the city’s ethics code, there would have to be some actual incident that would link a vote to a contribution to make a case. There has been no such vote on the hospital which Mr. Jones represents.
But with the primary only a little over a week away Ms. Morrison’s problem was she needed to generate publicity about her accusation before the election. She could not wait until there was an actual vote on the hospital to make her complaint to the Ethics Board.
Ms. Morrison has every right to challenge Commissioner Madigan regarding who contributes to her campaign. What she does not have a right to do is to abuse the city’s Ethics Board procedure to smear her opponent.
I suspect some readers will dismiss these criticisms as nit picking but aside from the ethical issues of misrepresenting the city’s Ethics Code, the ability to carefully analyze regulations and statutes is central to functioning effectively as the Commissioner of Finance. There is a place for moral outrage, but if one is to serve as Commissioner of Finance, outrage must be tempered by a commitment to adhere rigorously to the “details” that managing the public’s finances require.
11 thoughts on “Patty Morrison: Weaponizing the City’s Ethics Board”
“in light of Ms. Morrison’s outrage over Commissioner Madigan’s campaign donations it is odd that she apparently does not have similar concerns regarding Joanne Yepsen who also received donations from Mr. Jones when she was running for Mayor and is now supporting Ms. Morrison’s quest for Commissioner of Finance.”
I would add that while mayor Ms. Yepsen also had Mr. Jones accompany her to at least one (if not more) social events which I suspect (based on my own experience with Ms. Yepsen) Mr. Jones paid for.
I think it is important also to note that, in the past, Commissioner Madigan has voted against projects, other than the hospital, that were represented by Mr. Jones so claims that his donation of $ 1,000.00 is going to impact her vote is seriously reaching for a candidate that has not platform of her own and her only base was to run a dirty and attacking campaign. This unfortunately, it what we have more to see in the coming months. Other than what Ms. Morrison is against – mostly Commissioner Madigan because her McTygue/Yespen/etc. group has put her up to this – and NOT one thing she is really for or what she thinks she can actually bring to the table. It seems one thing she won’t bring to the table is ethics or due diligence in getting her facts before speaking. As a wise mentor once taught me – “It is better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Something, perhaps, Ms. Morrison would be wise to consider.
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Most everyone who has held office or has sat on a land board realizes that we live in a small city and most all elected officials or land board commissioners routinely find themselves in front of familiar applicants, their agents or political colleagues and yet that doesn’t necessarily require recusal from public vote. These public officials and appointees execute their charge and are not routinely subject to desperate and petty political motives. I think those who once sat on the Council and on land boards and now support this challenger would agree.
I am not sure how a lawful contribution to a candidate’s campaign committee could be a violation of the City’s Ethics Code.
My my, there is a clear conflict and I’m surprised Mr. Kaufmann that you are at least not a little upset as you would be a a candidate from another party did this. This action appears to be a conflict, so if Commissioner didn’t want to realize the money that would come from the developers attending this party at Atty. Jones home she would have probably not done this. Also the small town mentality shouldn’t come into play here because 90% of Jones work comes before the various boards most of whom owe Commissioners in some way or another. Also, wow, you take the loss of your hand picked candidate who can no longer run on the Democratic line as a personal loss, grow up.
Nigel—“the various boards most of whom owe Commissioners in some way or another”? All land use board members are appointed solely by the Mayor. The other commissioners have no role. Many if not most of the members serving now were appointed by Joanne Yepsen.
Except me and a few others. We were appointed by Mayor Kelly.
Oh come on. Just about every person who donates to a campaign -whether they have a professional role or not – do so because they like the positions that candidate takes – either in past votes or votes they expect them to make in the future. That is as true for someone like me who has NO items coming directly in front of the council or a board as it does for developers, etc. That’s how it works and if we start nit-picking then no one would be able to contribute. So until money is taken out of elections this will simply be a fact.
Those with intelligence will listen (and actually take the time to either attend city council meetings or read the minutes) will be able to tell if a council member is making an educated vote or a biased one. Each one can then be judged on its merits not on a bunch of assumptions and accusations.
please, Nigel, explain the conflict. What specific matter before the council? Why not all other council members and County Supervisors, since Mr. Jones donates to just about all local campaigns.
The conflict? Why not all others? Does Mr. Jones hold a donor party at his house for every candidate he gives money to? No! Only the candidate that is in league with the builders Jones deals with and the hospital is one of them.
Actually , Nigel, Mr. Jones has held house parties for other Democrats including now Judge Vero. And the candidate who you characterize as “in league with the builders Jones deals with” has hardly been a reliable supporter of his projects– witness Commissioner Madigan’s most recent refusal to support the Racino project on Crescent. Ave.
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so now the hospital is “a builder”, the only candidate Jones has ever hosted an event for is Madigan, and she is a crooked pol in league with some of our unscrupulous fellow community members. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Ah, the gaslighting, misdirection. and rewriting of history coming from the charter change / Morrison brigade.