Political influence, taped conversations
Story by Eli Ruiz
MONTICELLO June 18, 2013 With Sullivan County District Attorney Jim Farrell’s first attempt at trying Village of Monticello Trustee TC Hutchins on two felony counts of coercion and two misdemeanor official misconduct charges last month abruptly ending in a mistrial, the DA’s office got its second shot at Hutchins starting last Tuesday at the Sullivan County Courthouse.
Farrell opened day one of the new corruption trial with an hour-long opening statement to the freshly picked jury. Farrell likened Hutchins to a “puppet master” who “bullied” two village police chiefs; as well as former Village Manager John LiGreci, for the purpose of securing his longtime friend, local businessman Kariem McCline, a job as a Village of Monticello police officer in the fall of 2011 and in August, 2012. Additionally, the veteran county prosecutor called the case “a story of cronyism at its worst.”
Defense attorney Michael McDermott countered Farrell’s claims, alleging that the DA’s office had “invented crimes out of spite,” and called the case against Hutchins “a bogus political prosecution,” relating to the jury that his client had in fact done nothing illegal. The case revolves around allegations that Hutchins and the former village manager acted in concert in attempts to suppress a background check on McCline, who once worked under Hutchins at the maximum security Goshen Secure Center (GSC).
McCline was found guilty last month of offering a false instrument for filing, a felony that carries a maximum of 11⁄34 years in prison. The guilty verdict stemmed from the fact that McCline lied on a county civil service application by neglecting to fill out the portion of the application packet that asked for the disclosure of prior arrests, youthful offender statuses and if he’d ever been detained as a juvenile.
Part of the single father of three’s defense centered on his claims that he did not believe that he had to disclose his youthful offender status on the application for a village police officer position. McCline also served time on a probation violation.
Farrell would later accuse Hutchins of “stonewalling” former village Detective Luis Feliciano, who was delving into McCline’s work history at the maximum security youth detention center. McCline worked at GSC for a total of three years.
During Feliciano’s investigation into McCline’s work history, Hutchins is alleged to have told the retired detective that McCline had resigned his post as an aide at GSC to pursue a business venture, when in fact McCline had actually resigned after a physical altercation with one of the youths under his care. McCline was also arrested while still at GSC for driving without a license.
Hutchins and LiGreci are accused of ordering former village Police Chief Doug Solomon to terminate the already-in-progress background check into McCline’s fitness, character and qualifications for the police officer position, and then later pressuring then acting Police Chief Mark Johnstone to answer approximately six questions allegedly penned by LiGreci regarding possible leaks in the background investigation.
McDermott maintained that Hutchins did not try to stall McCline’s background check and that LiGreci as village manager, and the appointing authority, had the authority to stop the background check if he saw fit.
The defense attorney also claimed that village Attorney Dennis Lynch reportedly gave LiGreci “specific” questions to ask Johnstone regarding his role in the background investigation in case a suit was brought by McCline against the village.
In July of 2012 McCline was actually appointed as a village police officer but was almost immediately disqualified from the post by county Personnel Officer Carolyn Hill due to protestations to the appointment by the Monticello Police Benevolent Association and the DA’s office.
Day two of the trial saw Feliciano take the stand and testify that Hutchins did not in fact pressure him to terminate McCline’s background check.
Meanwhile, Farrell would play a recording of a 2012 meeting which he claimed proved that Hutchins was working behind the scenes to interfere with the background check and that he pressured Solomon to stop the investigation once the red flags regarding McCline’s fitness for the police officer job arose.
On day three of the trial, 27-year New York State Police veteran Preston Felton took the stand. Felton, now retired from the State Police, owns a private investigation and consulting firm and was retained by the village Police Commission to review documents related to McCline’s background check. The Police Commission was comprised of Hutchins, Bess Davis and village Mayor Gordon Jenkins.
Felton claimed that upon review of the documentation related to McCline’s past he came to the conclusion that he “would not be suitable as a village police officer.”
Asked why he came to his conclusion, Felton offered several reasons, including McCline’s drug sale charges. “Hiring a known drug dealer as a police officer is just asking for trouble,” said Felton.
Felton would subsequently admit, though, that Hutchins was in no way “confrontational” or “emotional” toward him in regards to McCline’s potential appointment to the village police department. Additionally, Felton would agree with McDermott’s conclusion that it’s not unusual for a friend to “advocate” for a friend when related to a job appointment.
After lunch on Thursday, it was Monticello Mayor Gordon Jenkins’ turn to take the stand for the prosecution.
Jenkins admitted to being aware of McCline’s civil service application in the summer of 2011 but maintained that although he knew of McCline, the two were not friends.
At around the start of Jenkins’ second term as mayor, he testified that McCline approached him and told him that he’d passed the civil service exam and was looking to become a village police officer. Jenkins said that he agreed, in principle, to help McCline out as best he could with his endeavor. After becoming aware of McCline’s shortcomings in relation to his qualifications, though, the mayor said he no longer supported the appointment and expressed his misgivings to McCline. “He still thought he could be a police officer,” offered Jenkins.
Asked by Farrell who exactly was responsible for making the hiring decisions in the village, Jenkins answered, “The manager.”
Jenkins related that McCline believed that his “juvenile past” would not be unsealed for the background investigation. “I told him that it would all be opened up when you’re talking about a job that required carrying a badge and a gun,” offered Jenkins. “He still felt he could be a police officer.”
When the matter of the six questions asked of Johnstone came up, Jenkins said, “Johnstone came to me with some questions and wanted to know what to do with them.” Asked by Farrell what he told the acting chief to do about the questions, Jenkins replied: “I said straight off the bat that I wanted no part of this and was against the hiring,” said Jenkins. “I advised him [Johnstone] to bring the questions to his attorney.”
During a raft of questions regarding LiGreci’s performance as village manager, Jenkins said, “Terrible.” “The man just couldn’t stand on his own two feet . . . he was one of the biggest liars I’ve ever met.”
It was later revealed by the defense that at a 2012 meeting between Johnstone and Jenkins, Johnstone was wearing a wire and recorded the encounter. Asked if he had knowledge that his conversation was being recorded, Jenkins claimed that he had a feeling something was awry.
Additionally Jenkins admitted that he recommended to both Hutchins and LiGreci that McCline be offered a position with the village sewer or water departments instead of the police officer position.
“They wanted him to be a police officer, though,” explained Jenkins. “He was not a good choice to be hired as a police officer in the Village of Monticello,” maintained Jenkins.
In answer to Farrell’s question regarding how the mayor felt about Doug Solomon’s performance as chief, Jenkins said, “He was a pretty good chief, but he lacked leadership skills.” Asked to elaborate, Jenkins offered, “As far as being social and interacting with the community he was good.”
On Friday in court a couple of new tapes came to light. The tapes also recorded secretly by Johnstone featured LiGreci talking about McCline. The first tape a July, 2012, encounter by LiGreci and Johnstone in the manager’s office revealed LiGreci’s intention to hire McCline.
A separate recording from August of last year took place at a village department head’s meeting and featured LiGreci apparently explaining why he had pushed Johnstone to answer the six questions regarding his role in McCline’s background check.
Under questioning Friday, Johnstone admitted to having zero contact with Hutchins during this time period, but also claimed that it was “common knowledge” that Hutchins was behind the movement to hire McCline.
The July LiGreci tape featured the then village manager relating to Johnstone that he couldn’t find anything in McCline’s background that would hinder the hiring process. LiGreci additionally told Johnstone that the decision to hire McCline is “the popular one” amongst the village board, and offered that, “we know what we’re up against.”
On the August tape, LiGreci is heard urging Johnstone to answer the questions regarding his and other officials’ roles in the background check under the guise that he was looking into who had leaked confidential information about the investigation into McCline.
Johnstone related that he was of the belief that both LiGreci and Hutchins were colluding to pass on Johnstone’s answers to LiGreci’s questions to McCline in order to aid him in the civil litigation he was considering bringing against the village and county.
Regarding the hiring of McCline, LiGreci offered, “The decision [to hire McCline as a Village of Monticello police officer] is my decision to make. I will live with it one way or another.”
LiGreci was slated to take the stand on Monday. Read more on this week’s developments in Friday’s Democrat.