By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO September 30, 2005 Jonathan Lovett promised and delivered powerful testimony from top current and former county officials on Tuesday in the ongoing hearing into the suspension of suspended Sullivan County Deputy Commissioner of Public Works Phil Nicoletti.
Lovett, the attorney for Nicoletti, subpoenaed Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen, Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunningham, former Sullivan County Manager Dan Briggs, Sullivan County Legislature Majority Leader Kathleen LaBuda, her brother Desmond Wisniski and retired and criminally charged Commissioner of the DPW Peter Lilholt.
Lungen and Wisniski were both on vacation, but the others testified in an awkward yet clearly defining moment in this ongoing hearing.
Lovetts goal was apparently to link the Legislature with having made a decision on the fate of the two accused DPW employees Nicoletti and Director of Parks, Recreation and Beautification Richard Caraluzzo before the hearings were held, thereby depriving his clients of due process.
Regardless, the Legislature may not be making the final decision in their ultimate suspensions. Just who will do so is anybodys guess at this point. The chairman and Briggs all said they did not know who has the final say in the employment of Nicoletti, and thus Caraluzzo, who has also been suspended with pay (DPW Senior Fiscal Administrative Officer Amy Winters is on paid leave).
Lovett said that current DPW Commissioner Bob Meyer has the authority to do so. He said the Legislature cant do so because they already found Nicoletti guilty.
Hearing Officer Michael Wittenberg said his duty was to provide a record and advise the Legislature on how to act. His recommendations are not binding, though.
Lovett is also accusing the whole hearing of being a sham, accusing the labor relations consultant overseeing the process Wittenberg of being improperly hired.
Lovett said the consultant was chosen by Briggs, who did not have the authority to do so because he was never appointed to replace Lilholt.
The chairman testified that there was no vote by the Legislature to hire Wittenberg.
But Briggs testified that he was in charge of the administrative duties of the DPW after Lilholts abrupt retirement following the release of evidence against him and Nicoletti in February.
Cunningham admitted that there had been steering committee meetings held in private between himself, Briggs, Sullivan County Attorney Sam Yasgur and other legislators over the employment of Nicoletti and others associated with the scandal. He said that none of the legislators expressed any disagreement with the conclusion that Nicoletti should be fired.
LaBuda has been dragged into this because her brother, Wisniski, was allegedly having an extramarital affair, and several of the accused DPW employees used the alleged affair to try to blackmail LaBuda into keeping their jobs, according to repeated testimony throughout the hearings. Caraluzzo, Lilholt, Nicoletti and Winters are all alleged by the county to have met with LaBuda at the Bloomingburg Diner this past spring in an effort to save their jobs by threatening to expose the alleged affair.
Lovett accused Wisniski of stealing county-owned stones and marble from the DPW facility in Callicoon for his own personal business. (Wisniski does not stand officially accused or charged with anything.)
Yasgur attempted to block the questioning of LaBuda by Lovett. Wittenberg defended the questioning in order for him to determine the awareness of county officials as to other possible wrongdoings by county workers and how they reacted.
Nicolettis attorney also sought to locate a link between the appointment of Meyer and the employment of his wife Rosemary Meyer as the stenographer during the initial questioning and investigation of the DPW employees last spring. Lovett aimed to show that the testimony given was inaccurate due to a conflict of interest.
But at the time of her reporting, Meyer was not yet married to the new DPW commissioner. In fact, he was not appointed until this past July. And Wittenberg indicated that he would not be considering the testimony recorded by Meyer to be inaccurate, although he then said he wouldnt rule against its submittal.
Yasgur said he would bring in witnesses, including Albany attorney Mary Roach, who conducted the initial questioning, to prove the transcripts were correct. Wittenberg said that such testimony was unnecessary, thus indicating the issue was dead.
Another issue which appears to have been stricken is the assumption that Lilholt was granted immunity for his extensive testimony in June, in which he admitted to the theft of a number of pieces of county-owned equipment, his involvement in the break-ins at the county personnel office, and the meeting with LaBuda in which she was allegedly blackmailed.
That would explain the reasoning behind asking Lungen to testify. But the County DA recently unleashed a flurry of criminal charges against Lilholt and Nicoletti, including 24 felonies each. In addition, Lilholt testified on Wednesday and over the summer that he had not been granted any immunity.
Lilholt would not answer any other questions by Lovett into his alleged theft of county-owned property, per the advice of his attorney Michael McGuire.
Afterwards, Briggs characterized the questioning as benign. Cunningham described them as anti-climactic.
The hearing has dragged on for more than three months now and has been criticized by Lungen for its extremely slow pace. The next hearing has been scheduled for October 12, although there could be a hearing on October 11 where Yasgur will close out the countys case against Caraluzzo.
Lovett rested his case in his defense of Nicoletti on Wednesday.