Commissioner Montagnino Interferes with Criminal Investigation And Threatens Highest Ranking Female Officer With Dismissal

Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino has inappropriately inserted himself into a criminal case. He has compromised an ongoing investigation by going to the press. He has taken action against the senior-most female officer in the Police Department in a move that could likely result in her termination as he gets to choose the hearing officer who will decide her fate. He has struck yet another blow against the morale of his department.

Background: The Precipitating Incident

The incident that precipitated the case that has led to all these actions by the Commissioner took place on February 28, 2022. This account of the incident is based on information from multiple reliable sources. Although none of my sources were present at the event, the information they gave me was consistent.

A teenage party involving underage drinking took place at a local home. One of the participants, a white kid, had a cell phone with a blue flag sticker that is the symbol for “back the police.” Another youth of darker skin who has been described to me as possibly of Iranian or maybe Algerian descent took exception to the sticker and accused the person with the phone of being a racist. He shoved the white kid with the phone who then shoved him back causing him to fall and hit his head on the counter behind him. It was alleged to me that the kid with the phone never struck the fallen person again. Two other boys are alleged to have struck the victim on the floor.

The issue of assessing guilt in this altercation is complicated by the problem of determining which blows caused which injuries. The chaos of these kinds of fights involving kids fueled by alcohol often leads to conflicting eye-witness accounts and adds to the difficulty of determining who is culpable for what.

The patrol officer who investigated the incident recommended that a charge of harassment be brought against the youth who knocked the boy down. He consulted his sergeant who agreed with the charge and recommended it to the lieutenant in charge of the investigation. The lieutenant is the highest-ranking female in the department. She agreed with the assessment but nevertheless kept the investigation open.

At some point in early March, the parents of the youth who was injured went to the police department to complain about the incident. They then went on to meet with Commissioner Montagnino.

Commissioner Montagnino Acts

On Thursday, March 31, 2022, Commissioner Montagnino summoned the lieutenant in charge of the investigation to his office. He instructed her to raise the charge against the youth from harassment, which is a violation, to assault, which is a criminal offense and a misdemeanor. My understanding is that it was a directive and not a consultation.

I am told that the Police Department policy is that a harassment charge is used when an incident does not involve serious injury. A black eye or a split lip under this definition would not rise to assault. A more serious injury such as a broken limb or a damaged eye would constitute an assault. Who instigated the fight is also factored into the decision on what charges to bring.

Numerous sources report that the lieutenant declined Montagnino’s order to change the charge and asserted that she reports to the Chief of Police and not to the Commissioner. I am told, but cannot verify, that she told Montagnino, “James, I do not report to you, I report to the chief” and that he responded by telling her that in the future she was to refer to him as the “Commissioner” and that she “F#ing works for him” and that she was being insubordinate.

Montagnino later summoned the lieutenant again to a meeting and this time told her that he was pursuing disciplinary action against her. She could resign or she could take administrative leave pending a hearing regarding charges of gross incompetence and insubordination which, if found to be true, could result in her termination. Montagnino gets to appoint the hearing officer who would hear the case.

For as long as anyone I know can remember, no Public Safety Commissioner has interfered in a criminal case being investigated by the police. As politicians who must run for election, Commissioners are very much subject to pressure from constituents. The last thing this city needs is a Public Safety Commissioner helping out donors, party bosses, or anyone else with an interest in the outcome of a criminal matter.

I have no idea what Commissioner Montagnino’s relationship is with the parents of the youth involved in the case of a drunken altercation at a teenage party. What I do know is that he should not have met with them to begin with, and most importantly, he should not have interfered with the ongoing investigation.

Violating these norms is an invitation to cronyism and corruption.

Montagnino Makes a Disturbing Public Relations Move

In an effort to get ahead of the story, Montagnino, as is his practice, contacted WYNT television (Channel 13) about the case. Montagnino has appeared frequently on WNYT. He was able to dominate two stories over two days on his criticism of the handling of this case.

Here is a link to the first WNYT story.

As this is an ongoing investigation (as of this writing no one has been arrested and the investigation is continuing) it was shockingly inappropriate for Montagnino to be discussing this case publicly in the media. Normally, the standard protocol is to respond to inquiries by the media in a case like this by saying, “this is an ongoing investigation, and we cannot comment on it at this time.”

In addition, though, Montagnino went on to make a particularly disingenuous, reckless, and irresponsible statement suggesting race played a role in what charges the lieutenant decided to bring in the case.

“One of the aspects of the case that I find deeply troubling is that all of the other participants were White. The victim, himself was the only African American involved in the situation. I hope, I truly hope that racial animus played no part in the decision (to) not assess this as a crime,” said Montagnino.  [technically harassment is a violation and a violation is not considered to be a “crime”]

WNYT April 1, 2022

While Montagnino did not name the officer who decided the charge, the word was already out about the action he had taken against his lieutenant. Raising the specter of racism allowed him to establish a narrative that would work in his favor and against the lieutenant. He qualified his ugly accusation to WNYT with the smarmy phrase “I truly hope that racial animus played no part…”

It is important to note that the lieutenant is a twenty-one-year veteran of the police force. She rose from patrol officer to Lieutenant during those years. I spoke to Chris Mathiesen who served two terms as the Commissioner of Public Safety. He was appalled to learn of Montagnino’s actions. He told me that during his tenure he promoted her to sergeant. He described her as an outstanding police officer whose record during his term was unblemished. Others have given her similar accolades.

The District Attorney

In the system of justice in New York State, it is the county District Attorney who prosecutes criminal cases, and it is the District Attorney in the end who decides what charge to pursue.

In that context, given the disparity between Montagnino’s assessment of the case and that of his lieutenant, I am told by several attorneys, that the prudent route for Montagnino to have taken would have been to discuss the case with the District Attorney.

Montagnino’s failure to engage the DA could be considered either an unfortunate oversite or a conscious strategy to avoid a contrary opinion. Either way, it speaks badly for him that he failed to consult the DA but instead went straight to the media.

Ignoring The Chain Of Command

I have no direct knowledge as to what if any consultation Montagnino had with Police Chief Shane Crooks before taking his action in bringing serious charges against the lieutenant. What is clear is that rather than working through the existing chain of command, he circumvented his police chief and for whatever reason chose to deal with the lieutenant directly.

The city charter gives the Public Safety Commissioner extremely broad authority. Technically, it was within his authority to bypass the police chief, but the implication is that he did not have confidence in his Police Chief to carry out a proper review.

Anyone with organizational experience would understand that this sends a message to Montagnino’s officers and the entire force that the Chief has lost his confidence (if the Chief ever enjoyed that confidence).

Organizationally, this was a very damaging management decision.

An Extremely Damaging Precedent

The city charter gives the Commissioner of Public Safety extremely broad powers of civilian control over the Police Department. It states that the Commissioner shall have “jurisdiction, supervision, and control of the governance, administration, disposition, operation, and discipline of the Police Department and its officers subject to section 6.1 of this charter.” [Title 6] Section 6.1 states that “the police department of the City of Saratoga Springs shall be under the general control and management of the Commissioner of Public Safety.”

While commissioners enjoy this kind of broad authority according to the charter, previous officeholders have refrained from interfering in criminal investigations.

If this is how Commissioner Montagnino is going to operate, he is going to be very busy meeting with people seeking to affect charges involving themselves or their family members or friends.

What I want in the Commissioner of Public Safety is someone who if approached about a particular criminal investigation tells the parties, “I am sorry, but it would be inappropriate for me to intercede in an investigation. If you have important information about an ongoing case I urge you to take it up with the officer overseeing the investigation.”

A History of Alleged Misogyny Plagues Montagnino

Montagnino’s interference in a case led by the highest-ranking female in the Saratoga Springs Police Department and the charges he has brought against her that could lead to her dismissal has reminded those who know his history of some unfortunate incidents in his past.

For a number of years, Montagnino served as a “special referee” in Westchester, New York overseeing divorce proceedings. He was the subject of a number of complaints by women over what they characterized as his bias against them.

A story that appeared in the New York Post (not my favorite newspaper), seemed to add credence to their claim. Referring to women seeking divorce settlements he gave students the following advice.

At a 2004 Pace Law School lecture, Montagnino warned lawyers to “beware of the 10583 Syndrome,” a reference to posh Scarsdale’s ZIP code.

“The 10583 mentality . . . says that ‘I’m entitled and I ought to be able to get the house, I ought to be able to get support . . . I ought to be able to live with my son’s drum instructor happily ever after and it all should be on his dime,’ ” he (Montagnino) said.

New York Post April 10, 2006

Unfortunate remarks that are on the record.

20 thoughts on “Commissioner Montagnino Interferes with Criminal Investigation And Threatens Highest Ranking Female Officer With Dismissal”

  1. Who voted these people in?? What has become of Saratoga Springs?? More importantly what has become of the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee. These committe members get voted in by a small number of people. I visited their website to see if I could find out who these committee members are but it doesn’t list who the district representatives are.
    Is this a private club? Is there a way to find out who was responsible for this mess?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Duke, I can tell you firsthand that they will not share the committee list, per chairperson Pat Tuz. They did not want anyone petitioning to get on the committee, especially if god forbid that person was critical of the city council. The committee is just the world’s tiniest echo chamber, only yes men need apply.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I don’t agree with a lot of what the Democratic Committee does but I have to say that what Robin has said about the committee is false. They put out a news letter every Friday and a couple of weeks ago it had a link to the committee. The head line was find out who represents you on the committee. I did check to find out who represents my district. Pat Tuz is a good person.

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      2. Karen:
        While the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee names currently appear on the committee’s website, they were not there when Robin Dalton posted her comment.
        During the period when people interested in being on the committee could circulate petitions to be on the committee the names did not appear. It appears that Ms. Tuz did not want the general public to know which committee slots were vacant in order to better control who would get on to the committee.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Commissioner Montagnino and the city council are continuing to act with a dangerous combination of arrogance and total ignorance and clearly have forgotten their oath to represent the people of this city. It seems that they are incapable of hearing anything other than blind praise – all I am seeing are four very fragile egos that need constant stroking – four people hell bent on validation that they are the smartest people in the room and have all the answers, always, collateral damage be damned. And this is only 3 months into office, what will we be looking at 21 months from now? They are taking the SSPD down in front of our very eyes, as if our community does not need anyone to protect and serve Saratogians or maintain public safety – has Jim even spent a summer here? Have any of them?

    Then any internal pushback to their insanity is met with threats to employment, which is despicable. Mayor Kim, Commissioners Montagnino, Sanghvi and Moran need to put down their collective cool-aid and start thinking about what Saratogians would like to see from their city council, because it sure as hell isn’t this. The upcoming City Council meeting is this Tuesday in City Hall, time to speak up Saratoga.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have no problem with Commissioner Montagnino speaking with the parents who had concerns about the incident. The next step for the Commissioner would be to speak to the Police Chief and Assistant Chief. The Commissioner should not go directly to the Lieutenant. Only after the Chief and Assistant Chief have reviewed the manner in which the case was handled, possibly with input from the DA, would there be any consideration of lodging more serious charges. And only if the Chief and the Assistant Chief found that the lieutenant was acting in an insubordinate manner with regard to THEIR orders should disciplinary action be considered. Any disciplinary action would be determined by the Commissioner but only upon the recommendation of and in conjunction with the Chief and Assistant Chief.

    This is a very serious situation and I hope that it can be corrected soon.

    Chris Mathiesen

    Liked by 5 people

  4. This is exactly why Saratoga needs a legislative City Council with the power to hire and fire wayward department heads, including the mayor or other chief administrator, not a City Council whose members have both legislative and administrative powers. Under the current system, there are no checks and balances to remedy bad behavior.

    Over the past few months, several commentators on this blog have hypothesized that the incompetence of the new commissioners is a conspiracy to justify a new charter. I completely disagree. We’ve simply bumped into the worst case scenario and it was just a matter of time before it happened.

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    1. [JK This is a comment from Connie Woytowich]

      The commission form of government has the strongest checks and balances: the voters. In no other form of government do the voters have such power to vote out each person who fails to do their job.

      No buyouts or improvement plans to muddle through….residents can just vote them out. Come November of 2023 the voters will speak.

      PS – I fail to see how the form of government that you describe even exists…it’s not the Strong Mayor form or City Manager because in both of these the Mayor is elected….

      Liked by 3 people

    2. “We simply bumped into the worst case scenario and it was just a matter of time before it happened”
      Sid-Well, while I would agree that this group now in office is probably the worst since this form of government was adopted in 1915, the remedy and the check is as simple and direct as it has always been for over a century. They all have two year terms–VOTE THEM OUT next year. Much simpler and more direct, as Ms. Woytowich pointed out, than trying to elect a majority of a city council that would then have to do an expensive buy out to get rid of an undesirable city manager.
      PS I don’t’ think there is a form that lets a council hire and fire a mayor

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  5. Good God. We dont need our Commissioner supporting teenage drinking where fights break out. . instead working with our police to look into the matter he”s fueling the fires before he even knows the full details. Then he speaks to the media. How dare he throw our police office and our Cities people under the bus over a teenage keg party, gone awry 🙄🙄👎

    Liked by 2 people

  6. How sad he is talking about racism but at the same time we know he is specifically being discriminating against a female because of his past. Sad

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I disagree with how Montagnino has handled several things since taking office, but if appears you are glossing over the racial side of things, especially with recent reports that racial epithets were used while the victim was beating beaten by multiple assailants. I very much get the chain of command concerns, but at the same time saying “Raising the specter of racism allowed him to establish a narrative that would work in his favor and against the lieutenant.” really sounds like you’re downplaying a pretty serious part of the actual fight itself.

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    1. Mike—as reported in this blog racism was certainly involved in the incident at the underage drinking party. After all it all started with a kid of color shoving a white kid and calling the white kid a racist. My problem with all this is that Montagnino’s first response was to run to the media to accuse the police of racism because they didn’t bring the kind of charge he thought they should. This all gets confusing because now Montagnino has gone from complaining the wrong charge was being brought to telling the media the police are racist because no charges are being brought. So which is it—the wrong charge or no charges? This is an ongoing investigation. In my opinion Montagnino would have better served the community and everyone involved by waiting until the investigation was complete before getting in front of the cameras.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree that his process/messaging here is a mess, my only point was that “raising the specter of racism” could come off as being flippant about the racial components of the case. In a vacuum, I get questioning how the beating of a non-white student by multiple white assailants, all without material charges, could cause an elected official to inset themselves into a situation. That doubly true when there have been some valid questions raised about racism in the city, and how police handle interactions with nonwhite residents (not the Mount case, but fairly recent language used by some officers and tactics used against protestors). I don’t think Montagnino’s recent behavior gives him the benefit of the doubt in this situation, but I also get the core concern by some regarding how this case has/is being handled given what’s being reported.

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  8. In any organization, in particular the military, which has strict chain-of-command structures, it is considered bad form to give direct orders to people under your command by skipping links. Orders should flow downward through the chain because most people become accustom to taking orders only from direct supervisors. From a legal perspective though, the Commissioner can do this, and the Lieutenant should have complied after requesting the order in writing. Span of control is related to the number of effective working relationships humans can manage.

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  9. I am shocked and saddened to see some of our newly elected Commissioners going so rogue. I agree completely with Chris Mathiesen on this. Proper protocol was not followed here. Was the Commissioner in his right to speak with the family, absolutely. But did he speak to every single person he could that was at that party to get their version of events? How about speaking to the families of the other kids that were involved in the altercation? Did he review any video that may have been produced? Did he go to the house to inspect the scene and see how things could have transpired? I would bet a large sum the answer is NO to all of this. But…did the Lieutenant in question ensure all these things were done before handing down her decision….I would 100% wager YES! Having worked with this Lieutenant in the past I know that she is beyond thorough. She would not have made the recommendation she did if she felt she could have done more for the victim’s family. This Lieutenant, as John stated, has been on the force for over 21 years. She has given her life to serving this City. To have someone being so excessive, when they should not have pulled her in in the first place, and to immediately cry insubordination when she pushed back…to me speaks to the weakness of the Commissioner. His impulsive actions are going to cost the City greatly if he continues down this path, as he is clearly not looking at every possible scenario before taking action. Unlike this Lieutenant who I am hoping is currently looking at all of hers and seeing just what she stands to gain here for his recklessness.

    Liked by 1 person

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