Consider the headlines from three of the area’s newspapers following the recent decisions by the Saratoga Springs Ethics Board:
From the Gazette: Saratoga Springs Ethics Board Dismisses Complaints
From the Saratogian: “No Reasonable Cause”: Saratoga Springs Ethics Board Dismisses Complaints
From the Times Union: Saratoga Springs Democratic Primary Fallout Continues: [Sub heading] City news release criticizes candidate challenging incumbent finance commissioner
The Times Union story was written by Wendy Liberatore. To belabor the obvious, where was the fact in the TU headline that the Ethics Board had dismissed the charges in the two complaints made against Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, Mayor Meg Kelly, Accounts Commissioner John Franck, Public Safety Commissioner Skip Scirocco, and Independence Party officers Eddy Miller and Joanne Foresta?
The fault really does not lie with the editor who created the headline because the headline accurately reflected Ms. Liberatore’s story. Rather than focus on the embarrassing rejection by the Ethics Board of the allegations made by Patricia Morrison, Bill McTygue, and Ann Bullock, the story instead provided a platform for the three to attack Commissioner Madigan for a press release that was put up on the city’s website.
I have great sympathy for Commissioner Madigan. She has been the relentless target of Patricia Morrison, Bill McTygue, and Ann Bullock along with their allies. They have been all over social media as well as mainstream media with ugly accusations challenging Commissioner Madigan’s integrity and even accusing her of corruption. Few of us could remain unaffected by being continually pilloried as Commissioner Madigan has been.
Unfortunately, Commissioner Madigan has often allowed her understandable anger to cloud her judgement in responding. Her critics in turn have exploited her lapses by highlighting them at her expense. They have had the added advantage of having a powerful ally at the Times Union in Wendy Liberatore.
Where Commissioner Madigan’s vindication by the Ethics Board should have resulted in public embarrassment for Morrison, McTygue, Bullock, et al, Commissioner Madigan showed the poor judgement of striking back at these people through a press release from the city on the city website. This allowed the focus to be redirected to her by Ms. Liberatore. The release included the following text:
The public has a right to expect a candidate for public office to know that it is legal for elected officials to accept campaign contributions,” Madigan said, “Morrison’s complaint sought not only to impugn my ethics and integrity, but to also damage the reputation of a highly respected community member with a long record of supporting local, state, and national campaigns from across the political spectrum.”
Much of Ms. Liberatore’s article, as the headline reflects, focused on the press release from the city website. While it was legitimately newsworthy in the context of the Ethics Board’s decision, it was grossly heavy handed in its disproportionality.
Even worse was the additional transparent effort Ms. Liberatore made to downplay the significance of the Ethics Board’s decision and provide a platform for McTygue, Bullock, and Morrison to portray themselves as victims.
Stretching The Limits Of Credibility
According to the TU story:
McTygue said he was not surprised by the decision, but he is surprised that Madigan would link the two complaints.
”Let me be clear, the ethics complaint filed by Ann Bullock and me had nothing to do with the earlier and unrelated ethics complaint filed by Commissioner of Finance candidate Patty Morrison,” he said. “It’s obvious that the city’s response and statement from Mayor Kelly and Finance Commissioner Madigan was meant to bundle these two unrelated issues to benefit their own political agenda by adding confusion to the issue.”
One does not have to follow local politics and personalities very closely to know that Ms. Morrison and Mr. McTygue are, or have been, quite close. They are also members of a small group that, among other things, have been closely associated with the contentious battles leading to the mass resignations from the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee as well as the movement for a city manager form of government. Does Bill McTygue really believe that anyone would take seriously the idea that the two complaints, made almost simultaneously by people with a close personal relationship and a shared history and interests, are unrelated?
Even more odd is the idea that linking the two would “add confusion to the story,” as Mr. McTygue asserts. If any of the readers of this blog could assist me in understanding how linking these stories would confuse people, I would happily publish their insight.
Just as surprising is the fact that Ms. Liberatore would not only print McTygue’s assertion that the complaints were unrelated but refer herself to the Morrison complaint as “the second unrelated complaint” as if this were not at least in dispute. For all my criticisms of Ms. Liberatore, I cannot believe that she really thinks that Mr. McTygue was unaware that Ms. Morrison was considering an ethics complaint and vice versa. I guess we are to believe that these two events were an extraordinary coincidence.
When Is An Ethics Complaint “Informal”?
Ms. Liberatore writes that Ms. Morrison’s charge against Commissioner Madigan “…was unofficial and made privately, while the second complaint (McTygue/Bullock) targeting the City Council members was public.”
I guess this distinction was meant to provide support to the narrative that the two complaints were “unrelated.”
Ms. Liberatore was kind enough to enter into a brief exchange over her idea that Ms. Morrison’s complaint was “unofficial.” A full text of our communications is attached below.
I pointed out first of all that neither Ms. Morrison nor McTygue/Bullock followed the proper procedure to submit their charges using the ethics complaint form. I also quoted from Ms. Morrison’s letter that, while addressed to Commissioner Madigan, was copied to the Ethics Board. In the letter Morrison writes:
“Additionally, by copy of this letter, I ask the Ethics Board to make a determination of fact as it relates to this issue.”
That does not sound “unofficial” to me. I would think that a reasonable person reading that would consider it a formal request for action. In fact, the Ethics Board took it as such and issued a subsequent determination.
Also, as I pointed out to Ms. Liberatore, I could find nothing in the Ethics Code that distinguishes types of complaints as “official” or “unofficial”. You are either submitting a complaint or you are not.
A less flattering possibility is that rather than purposely pursuing some “unofficial” route, Ms. Morrison was simply unaware of what the proper Ethics Board procedures were for submitting complaints.
Email Exchange Between Blogger and Liberatore
Aug 15, 2019 9:17 PM John Kaufmann To Wendy Liberatore
In your August 13 story on the Ethics Board decisions in Saratoga Springs, you state that Ms. Morrison’s complaint to the Ethics Board was “unofficial.” I have reviewed the city’s ethics code and can find no distinction in it concerning the types of complaints. Could you explain the difference between an official and an unofficial complaint?
Aug 15, 2019 9:43 PM, Wendy Liberatore <email@example.com> wrote:
Read the letter from ethics board.
[This is the text she refers to.
“The inquiry came to the board’s attention by receipt of a copy of a June 14 letter you sent to a City Council member. It concerns the campaign fundraising activities of that elected official. The inquiry is not submitted by way of the usual inquiry form, but the Board will not delay its review of the matter because of that discrepancy.”]
Aug 16, 2019 6:04 AM John Kaufmann To Wendy Liberatore
Ms. Morrison letter includes the following text:
Additionally, by copy of this letter, I ask the Ethics Board to make a determination of fact as it relates to this issue.
There is nothing casual or “informal” about this request. The Ethics Board clearly saw this understandably as a serious request for an inquiry.
Their response requested that in the future she use the proper form.
The fact that she failed to adhere to the proper procedures doesn’t make it informal in light of her request and by their own language the board viewed it as a very serious request.
Why did you chose to characterize her request as “informal” rather than a failure by Ms Morrison to properly follow procedure?
Aug 16, 2019 9:55 AM, Wendy Liberatore To John Kaufmann
If you would like to meet for coffee to discuss this, that would be best.
Our emails go no where.
August 16, 2019 6:04 PM John Kaufmann To Wendy Liberatore
We are both writers. There is no reason to believe that talking would produce any better clarity than a thoughtful email exchange.
I think Ms. Morrison’s request that the Ethics Board investigate her allegations is clear and straight forward. If by “informal” you are referencing her failure to follow proper procedure in making her complaint it seems odd to make her lack of attention in following the proper procedure into a virtue. This is a virtue also shown by Bill McTygue and Ann Bullock who similarly failed to follow procedure.
The central issue however remains the fact that the Ethics Code makes no distinction regarding formal vs informal complaints. As they say, you either are pregnant or you are not. You either are requesting an investigation or you are not.
I appreciate that you take the time to respond to my emails in light of how critical I am of your reporting. I also appreciate your gracious offer to chat over coffee.
Still I hope that you might take the time to address the points I have raised that it was a diservice to your readers to characterize Ms. Morrison’s request for an investigation as “informal” rather than as a failure to be sufficiently fastidious in following the requirements for submitting ethics complaints.
Ms. Liberatore did not respond further