By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Monticello officials confirmed this week that the Sullivan County District Attorney’s Office is conducting a grand jury investigation of the village.
Official comments were hard to come by, but Village Manager John LiGreci acknowledged that the DA’s Office had subpoenaed the village for documents pertaining to the potential hiring of an African-American candidate for the police department.
LiGreci would not identify the individual but said he’s being represented by well-known Orange County attorney Michael Sussman.
Sussman could not be reached, and DA Jim Farrell did not return a request for comment.
The village board discussed the matter both in and out of executive session at its Tuesday meeting, voting to hire Patrick Burke of the Goshen firm of Burke, Miele and Golden to represent the village in the investigation.
No rate was set, said LiGreci, who believes it’s the same as Village Attorney Dennis Lynch’s $175 an hour.
A different attorney from the same firm was hired last month by Mayor Gordon Jenkins to represent him in the case over his alleged striking of a police officer.
Lynch said that connection was disclosed to the board.
“This is beyond my expertise,” he explained to trustees, referring to the DA’s investigation. “When a DA within 24 hours subpoenas somebody and then gives them an hour and a half to appear before a grand jury, I’ve never had cases like this.”
Trustee Carmen Rue, however, voted “no,” saying, “It’s not clear to me who we’re hiring the lawyer for.”
“For what’s going down right now, the village has to have some kind of protection,” argued Deputy Mayor TC Hutchins, who subsequently told the mayor that the village may be at risk of a lawsuit.
Trustee Larissa Bennett abstained, but Hutchins, Jenkins and Trustee James Matthews approved Burke’s hiring.
On a related note
The board then focused on amending a village law that indemnifies employees and officials from personal liability in criminal cases.
Lynch had hastily drawn up the proposal that very evening, with the goal of clarifying the village’s current policy of paying for the legal costs of any employee or official, so long as it pertains to actions carried out as part of their village duties.
Based on an opinion from the NYS Comptroller’s Office that the current state law on which the policy is based might have “some limitations,” Lynch proposed requiring village employees and officials convicted of criminal wrongdoing to reimburse the village for the related legal expenses.
Hutchins and Rue, however, weren’t sure that language was wise, worrying that it might encourage wrongdoing by employees betting on winning their case and thus not having to reimburse the village’s legal fees.
“I don’t want to see the village being abused ... [by] renegade employees,” Hutchins explained. “This opens the village up for any employee to do something reckless.”
And Rue wondered if Monticello would ever see such a “reimbursement.”
“So the village has to sue to get that money back?” she said.
But Jenkins felt the proposed law has merit.
“With some of the things that are happening, it’s good to be indemnified,” he told his colleagues, “because just like I said before: today, it’s me, tomorrow, it’s you.”
Jenkins is currently fighting a misdemeanor charge of unintentionally striking a police officer during a heated argument with a villager at his Broadway store.
Jenkins has hired his own defense attorney, Michael Burke, from the same firm the board now has representing it in the DA’s investigation.
Lynch and LiGreci, however, said that if enacted, this proposed law would not apply retroactively, including Jenkins’ case meaning the mayor might still be on the hook for his own legal expenses.
Yet due to some of the board’s reticence, Lynch said he’d research and tweak the proposal, which frustrated the mayor.
“I have to be a fool to sit up here and not be indemnified or have any protection for what happens to me, and the board sits here and says they don’t want to do it!” Jenkins fumed. “... I feel insulted, but I don’t know if it’s a personal thing or not.”
Later, he added of the proposed law, “It’s just trying to protect the people sitting here being targeted.”
Ultimately, a public hearing on the proposal was set for the September 18 meeting (7 p.m. at the village hall), with Rue the only “no” vote.
Indicating he was willing to discuss it further, albeit with changes to the proposal, Hutchins joined Bennett and Matthews in approving the hearing, with Jenkins abstaining.
“We need to make sure we take care of our own,” insisted LiGreci. “... We shouldn’t be abandoned in our time of need.”
After the meeting, however, Rue argued that the law, if approved, would amount to giving out a loan.
“What the other board members have done is make what appears to me to be self-serving, interest-free loans to themselves and their friends who work for the village,” she stated. “We don’t even know what the charges may be, if there are any, or what the merits of those charges might look like.
“Not only does this smell to me like misappropriation of public funds (the interest-free loan is essentially a gift using taxpayers’ money!), but if one or more of the individuals are convicted, what guarantee is there that the village will ever see a dime of reimbursement from a convicted criminal?”
She called for the state to weigh in on whether this is “malfeasance in office.”