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The Saratogian Newsroom blog, complete with thoughts and commentary from our newsroom staff and regular posts on happenings around town.

Thursday, April 26

Seeber appeal

The legal decision for Katherine Seeber's appeal is an interesting read (for those who like that sort of thing like myself).

Now, let me preface this by stating that I am not a lawyer (not that you would confuse me for one), but this decision strikes me as something that may set precedent.

Ok, first the legal overview.

Saratoga County Judge Jerry Scarano vacated Seeber's plea last year based on the State Forensic Lab's fiber analyst, Garry Veeder (yes, two R's in Garry).

In their oral arguments before the appeals court, Broderick said Veeder was acting on behalf of the prosecution when he faked the results of his tests and argued it amounted to a “Brady violation.”

A Brady violation is basically a legal term for when prosecutors suppress evidence from the defense in a case.

In their decision, the appeals court emphasized that “there is absolutely nothing in the record to suggest that either the Saratoga County District Attorney’s Office or the State Police were aware—prior to the time that the defendant entered her guilty plea – that Veeder cut certain procedural corners … nor are we suggesting that either the prosecutor or the State Police – save Veeder—did anything improper hear.”

However, they point out that Veeder had “effectively overstated the results” in Seeber’s case and the court agreed that he was “acting on behalf of the prosecution” in doing so.

While proving the prosecution’s collusion in misleading evidence is required for the Brady violation, the court pointed out that it “potentially sets the stage for a situation where a truly innocent person, whose conviction was obtained solely upon the basis of admittedly falsified, manufactured or otherwise unreliable evidence, might remain in prison simply because the people were unaware…of malfeasance on the part of a law enforcement representative.”

This, to me, smacks of precedent-setting.

First, the judge approves the Brady violation despite the fact that the prosecution was not aware of the suppressed or misrepresented evidence — generally a requirement of a Brady violation.

Furthermore, it lumps Veeder in with the prosecution, something it did not seem like the five judges in the appeals court were going to go for during oral arguments, but there you have it.

As for the prosecution, Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said he could not comment on the case, specifically, other than to say “we are prepared to proceed with a trial and will be ready when the court sets a trial date. Despite the fact that she opted not to have a trial initially does not mean she should not be entitled to one now.” (of course, that was before she pleaded guilty to manslaughter)

At the same time, he said that his office is “satisfied with the Appellate Division’s decision and are quite pleased.” He said his office only appealed the case the former Assistant District Attorney Richard Wendling’s “conduct and integrity (was) in issue,” and he maintained Wendling, who no longer works in the District Attorney’s Office is “an outstanding professional."

And sorry for how the decision is displayed below. I can't figure out how to make Blogger and Scribd get along. If you click "Full screen" though, you'll be able to read it.

Seeber Appeal

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Friday, April 20


Let me be clear about this now so there is no confusion in the future. I pre-moderate comments. That means that comments posted to this blog must come through me first. I have been pretty liberal with the posting. For instance, if you look back at some of the blog posts in the past, I have let through personal attacks on myself, but most of the time I do not post attacks on anyone else.

That worked for a time, but I'm finding myself having to filter more and more vitriol.

Things seem to have degenerated and I'm going to nip this in the bud.

My policy, from here on out, is this: If you have something constructive to say, I'll post your comment. If you are ONLY attacking someone, I will not.

For instance, I was just attacked for not covering meetings to an anonymous commenter's standards. I posted it, but then deleted it.

I didn't delete it because I want to bury anyone's opinion. If you don't like the job I do, feel free to let me know civilly and I'll post the comment. I have no problem with criticism.

What I will not be posting, though, are comments that are just attacks.

"I'm not saying your the worst reporter, but..."

I have a thick skin and have heard worse from people not hiding behind anonymity, but that's an example of something that I'm frankly just not going to deal with.

It doesn't have a place on this blog.

This policy is obviously subjective, so not everyone is going to agree with what I let through and what I don't, but err on the side of civility and we won't have a problem.

It's more than just a modified catch phrase from a (hilarious) movie:



Thursday, April 19

Late night issues driving away the tourists?

Here's a Sound Off the paper received some time in the last couple days that did not make the cut because this "fella" went over the allotted time (30 seconds).

Still, I thought it should be aired, particularly after three heads of Saratoga Springs business and tourism spoke out against the message that Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen has been espousing.

"I was out in Chicago on business the other day and I was having lunch with a client. They live in Chicago and normally they come to the track in August with their family and this fella said 'You know I've heard of all of the violence in the streets and all of the movement down there to try to clean up the streets and how horrible it is.'

So they are not going to take their vacation this year and come to Saratoga. Keep it up Chris Mathiesen, I think you're doing a great job. Unfortunately it's what you want and not necessarily what's best for this area. Stick to what you do best, which is dentistry, because you are really giving this town a bad name."

In this case, though, since Mathiesen, the city's public safety commissioner, was singled out, I wanted to give him the opportunity to respond to the Sound Off.

I sent him the message so he could respond to it verbatim. Here is what the Commissioner had to say:

"To the person who wrote this Sound Off, it is hard to understand why anyone who has been coming to Saratoga Springs would not now come because we are trying to clean up 'all the violence in the streets'. Such a person would know that we have been referring to late night activities in the nightclub district. One would think that such a person would not return to Saratoga Springs if we were NOT addressing these problems.

It is hard to understand how eliminating this blemish on our reputation as a safe, fun place for tourists, conventioneers and Skidmore students is 'not necessarily what's best for this area'.

And yes, I do provide excellent dental services for my patients. Thanks for the compliment.

I am also doing a really good job as I serve on our City Council as well as in my oversight of the Public Safety Department. It is the late night problems in our nightclub district that are 'really giving this town a bad name.'

Please feel free to have the Chicago businessman call me. (518 587 3550 X 2627)

Chris Mathiesen"

Anyone else have a comment on this issue? Leave them below.

And remember (particularly when leaving comments), stay classy Saratoga.

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Tuesday, April 17

Siro's never-ending sound saga

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Zoning Board of Appeals debated Monday whether to allow the wall around Siro’s Restaurant to be left up, at least partially, year-round.

Siro’s representatives asked the board in January to grant it permission to leave the wooden frame of its acoustic wall up all 12 months of the year — a modification to the conditions of the special-use permit granted to the establishment last June.

The board allowed Siro’s to erect a 6-1/2-foot acoustic fence atop its existing 8-foot wall last year. The fence’s wooden frame supports a black rubber sound-deadening material.

“You came to us for an exception, and we granted an exception with conditions,” Zoning Board of Appeals member Gary Hasbrouk said. “Now you are looking for an exception to the condition of the exception … . You are losing me here.”

Tom Frost, the architect handling the work at Siro’s, said removing the wall annually is
“major construction” and, because of the design of the wall, could compromise the fence’s structural integrity. He said it is held together by lag screws which, after a few years, would deteriorate the wood.

“I’m having a hard time with how taking it down and putting it up, compromising its structural integrity, is not a self-created hardship,” board member Adam McNeil said.

The Zoning Board of Appeals expects to render its decision at its next meeting Monday, April 23.

I am just curious, for the people reading this story, do people still care about the Siro's saga with noise? I was in a meeting for almost three hours last night to get this story, and not that it's unusual for me to be in such long meetings, but if I'm the only one who finds this interesting/entertaining/newsworthy, then I will find a better use for my time.
Let me know what you think.

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Nov. 2012 questions

I check the Board of Elections website frequently to see what is going on and who is officially raising money for their campaign and how much.

For instance, the website tells me Kathy Marchione is about $442,000 behind Roy McDonald who she seeks to unseat from the Senate as of the most recent filings (which were in January, so not exactly up-to-date).

It also tells me that there is no committee or funding (Yet) this year for Joanne Yepsen or John Franck to run for anything but their Saratoga Springs positions.

Franck has told me explicitly a couple times that he will not be running for anything but Commissioner of Accounts in the near future.

Yepsen, though, said a couple weeks ago that she was not sure yet if she would run for a seat at the state this year.

Seems late to me to not know. It seems unlikely she could make a run at someone like Tony Jordan or against the winner of the primary between Roy McDonald and Kathy Marchione this late in the game, but stranger things have happened in politics.

I mean, look at Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential frontrunner, a man who lost the 2008 primary to John McCain (and Mike Huckabee in some states) and we all remember how that turned out. But the man still continues to peddle his million dollar bike (you know he must have one, literally) toward the White House.

But anyway, we'll see if Yepsen gives it a go. The season (at least locally) is still relatively early and I'll do what I can to write about something other than the Housing Authority (IT JUST KEEPS GOING!).

Anyway, stay classy Saratoga.

PS, speaking of which, Anchor Man 2? 2012 just got great.

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Monday, April 16


John Kaufmann, the man who is responsible for blowing the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority story wide open from the beginning, has been feeding local newspapers and television news stations (including this one) with information on the SSHA for months.

Over the weekend, as every reporter in this area covering the SSHA sifted through the 55 page document from HUD to Sen. Chuck Grassley (available within this story), Kaufmann did his own sifting.

I agreed to let him post his analysis of the information on my blog as a guest blogger. This is a first for me, but given how much Kaufmann has driven this story in every newspaper in the area (with one notable exception) I decided to let him do it. I have personally used Kaufmann's information as a starting point, but he has never made an appearance in one of my stories

Below is Kaufmann's post. I have not changed any of it nor have I confirmed anything within it. Take it as you will.

There are a number of interesting things revealed by the HUD letter and supporting documents that was sent to Grassley:

1. On December 8, 2011 for some reason the Authority bookkeeper wrote to HUD rather than Ed or G. Hawthorne who heads maintenance on the issue of Bed Bugs. In her memo she tells HUD about making the steamers available to the tenants and asks “…BUT legally – are we responsible for more? Between the video and the steamer, are we covered? We thought we were until we read HUD 2011-20 – where it sounds like we might have to do more…BUT this following (sic) paragraph taken from the notice sounds like HUD will pay for it???” Consider this paragraph carefully in light of what subsequently occurred. It appears that they are trying to do is little as possible. She wants to know if they have “covered” themselves by just providing the steamers to the tenants and inquires whether they are legally obligated to do more. The HUD person then refers the issue to the in house engineer. These were not the kind of questions one would ask if one’s priority was the extermination of bed bugs.

2. The engineer advises them that they are indeed obligated to fully address the problem. The engineer goes on to express concern about the danger of having tenants using steamers and expresses grave reservations about the effectiveness of this approach. Further on she advises that “Most other housing authorities I speak to are covering the costs of professional exterminators so long as tenants follow their requirements of the
extermination…” Consider again that this memo to SSHA is dated on December 8.

3. On December 20 (you can see the video in the archive of city council meetings) Ed Spychalski tells the council that “we are all over this.” This is now about two weeks later and he has done nothing in terms of following HUD’s advice to hire a professional exterminator. In fact, it is not until John Frank drags the board in front of the city council on January 31, 2012 that they relent and hire an exterminator.

4. In another supporting document, Spychalski is quoted in the Times Union as saying that HUD would not let them properly address the bed bug issue. He told the same thing to Mark Mulholland in a channel 13 interview. The HUD cover letter specifically states that this is untrue and of course the supporting memos prove this.

5. Senator Grassley asked for the names, titles, and any salaries of the board members of any affiliated not-for-profits related to the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority. He was inquiring about the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group. In a very carefully crafted response the HUD letter says “Enclosed with this letter are copies of the latest available SSHA financial statements, which do not indicate that SSHA has any nonprofit affiliates.” Up until this last week the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group had as its board president, Ed Spychalski and its secretary was Gerard Hawthorn (head of maintenance for SSHA) . It currently has as its treasurer Dennis Brunelle. Sister Charla Cummins serves on both the SSHA and the SAHG. According to the new board president, Rocky Ferraro, the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group has no staff and relies entirely on the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority for its operation. An interesting question to ask is why HUD does not want to acknowledge the existence of SAHG. See item #6 on this.

6. As a private not-for-profit organization, the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group is not covered under the New York State Open Meetings Law and private citizens cannot have access to its documents under the Freedom of Information law. It has no traditional funding source over seeing it. The SAHG receives money from tenant rents and subsidies under the Federal Section 8 program which is administered by the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority. This kind of set up is ripe for abuse and in there are a number of national scandals (most recently LA and Philadelphia) where this has happened. Given the indifference to oversight that Mr. Spychalski’s boards exercise, this has the potential for becoming a convenient slush fund.

7. Most of the release from HUD is made up of the 2011 audit by Dickinson & Company which is a CPA firm with offices in Saratoga Springs and Greenwich. They have been doing the audits for the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority for many years. “Best Practices” used by many non-profits call for routinely changing auditors. The reason for this is that since the non-profit gets to choose its auditors and the fees can be quite substantial, there is the real danger of the relationship between the auditor and the non-profit too becoming too cozy.

8. I ran a non-profit for many years so I am familiar with such audits. I was struck by two things in reading it. First, how boiler plate it was. I highly suspect that if you had access to the previous years’ audits, with the exception of the tables for the expenditures and income and the dates, they would probably read exactly the same. The second and related thing is that there were no audit exceptions. This is a term for areas of problems that need improvement or correction. In the sixteen years I ran the agency I was associated with, I never had an audit that did have at least one exception and having served on other non-profit boards and reviewed audits, having a totally “clean” audit is highly unusual.

9. I believe that the purpose of including this audit by HUD was for filler to make the response seem extensive, to imply that their finances are proper, and to support the fiction that HUD does not know that the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group exists.

10. We know a number of things that should have come up with exceptions or at least questions in the audit. According to FOIL requests I have submitted, there is no record of the SSHA as reporting to the Internal Revenue Service the taxable benefit of the use of an Authority vehicle by the executive editor for his private use. We know that the executive director had his brother repair at least one Authority vehicle on a regular basis. We know that the board chairperson attended conferences in other states that were for four days but that the Authority paid for his room and per diem food expenses for a week. HUD strictly forbids its authorities from subsidizing operations of other entities. I foiled for any documents showing the use of HUD paid staff on work at the Saratoga Affordable Housing Authority. I received copies of the management agreements between SSHA and SAHG along with a stack of work orders for work needed in SAHG apartments. These work orders included no details as to the time the staff devoted to this work nor the materials used to do the work. There were no records as to general maintenance work such as mowing, snow removal, etc. Such records would be essential for insuring that SAHG paid SSHA for the work done on its behalf. In order to be safe, having received these documents, I followed up with SSHA asking if these were all the records they had and they confirmed that they were. I find it very troubling that their record keeping is clearly insufficient and that the auditing firm failed to note this.

11. In a memo from the bookkeeper to Ed Spychalski, she says: “Not that anyone from the city would understand, but as you would understand, the bulk of our travel is booked to the central office with non-federal funds.” She underestimates the people in this city and she surely underestimates the auditors from the Controllers’ office. They think they are being very smart by getting around federal/HUD oversight by using local money which comes from the rent paid by the tenants. This could be interpreted that they knew that the large amount of travel they were doing was excessive and so they thought that by using “non-federal” money they would get around any limits. I will leave it to the auditors from the New York State Controller’s office whether using non-federal money somehow limits their accountability for excessive travel.

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Friday, April 13

John Kaufmann has problems with Authority

Last weekend, local resident and Housing Authority critic John Kaufmann e-mailed me (as I'm sure he e-mailed every news agency in the area, judging by the fact that he frequently appears in stories about the Housing Authority in the Daily Gazette and the Times Union) about the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group.

They met Tuesday at Longfellow's Restaurant for their quarterly meeting. Kaufmann was encouraging newspapers to go and he, in fact, went himself to deliver concerns he has raised over asbestos at the buildings that the Housing Group tore down on Allen Drive for the new apartment complex.

Kaufmann, though, did not get to sit-in on the meeting. He was shown the door as soon as he came into the restaurant — by Housing Authority Executive Director Ed Spychalski who at the time was also the president of the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group.

And of course, that was the last meeting Spychalski was president of that group.

To be clear, though, the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group, while it receives public money through the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority and through grants and other avenues (and despite the fact that many of the same people are involved in both organizations), is a non-profit organization and thus is not subject to the same Open Meetings Law standards as the the Housing Authority.

"Ed told him it was a closed meeting," recounted Rocco "Rocky" Ferraro, the non-profit's new president, after the meeting. "He was not a happy person."

Ferraro said "It was felt the meetings were not necessary to be open to the public," but then added "We'll be evaluating alternatives for the future ... we want to have it as transparent as possible."

And he said being the president, he will make sure that happens.

As for the asbestos issue, Kaufmann was saying that it was improperly dealt with at the demolition and subsequent construction, something Ferraro denies.

"As far as I know everything went according to plan and met all of the OSHA requirements," he said, adding he recalls extensive conversation on the board about contracting with a company that specialized in asbestos removal because he remembers how expensive it was. "It was something we talked about a lot," he said. "We knew it going in."

I'll look into that further, just to confirm what Ferraro remembers, but that's what I know now.

That's all for now. Stay classy Saratoga.

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Friday, April 6

What the City Council thinks of the Saratoga Citizen decision

Members of the City Council may need to work with Saratoga Citizen in order to make adjustments to the petition in order to get charter change on the ballot in November.

The petition specified what dates the city should vote on it and when the plan would take effect, dates that are now passed. As a result, the City Council may be the only entity legally able to make the appropriate changes to the petition.

The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division for the third judicial district in Albany ruled Thursday that the petition to change the city’s charter did not require a fiscal note attached, which was why city officials rejected it.

Here’s what they had to say Thursday about the court’s recent decision:

Accounts Commissioner John Franck

“I’m going to vote for it,” Franck said of any support Saratoga Citizen needs to get the measure on the ballot.

He originally voted for the appeal, but said Thursday after the city lost its appeal “it’s time” to put the issue to voters.

Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen

“I’ve supported the efforts of Saratoga Citizen and have supported the rights of the citizens who signed that petition,” Mathiesen said Thursday. “It think it would be a good thing for the city and its residents. It’s been put off for too long.”

Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan

“I believe this needs to be on the ballot,” she said. “This has dragged on long enough.”

Madigan said she believes the city had been suppressing voters’ rights by stalling the process.

“Let the people decide,” she said, adding she would serve in any government the people voted for.

“My concern is that the mayor may set up a charter-change commission,” she said, which would prevent the measure from going on the ballot this year.

Mayor Scott Johnson

“I respect the process and will abide by the result,” he said, but noted that he disagrees with the court’s decision.

Johnson said he is unsure what the city’s next step could be but that he would work with Saratoga Citizen and the City Council to decide where to proceed.

“I always just wanted that group to put all the facts on the table,” he said, adding he was only doing his due diligence as mayor to ensure voters “knew the facts” before they voted on charter change.

However, Johnson said he is also considering setting up a Mayor's Charter Change Commission which would essentially bump the Saratoga Citizen proposal off the ballot in November. He said that may be the only legal recourse on how to proceed because of the issue over the dates.

Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco

“At this point I think it’s time,” he said. “We did our due diligence and I certainly wouldn’t support any more appeals. Let it go on the ballot in November.”

He said he would work with Saratoga Citizen to do whatever the City Council needs to do to make that happen. Scirocco said he does not think the mayor should set up a charter change commission.

“I think if the mayor was going to form a commission he would have done it by now,” he said.

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Wednesday, April 4

"All for the sake of a beer on Caroline Street"

What ever happened to the days of just getting someone who looked like you and using their ID (not that I would have any experience there)?

These IDs — and I've only seen pictures — are impressive to say the least, but I guess that's what you get when you turn to the international black market in the Eastern Bloc.

That may seem like a hyperbole, but check out the video that the SSPD and DA showed before the press conference on the kids who were arrested (and if you don't have any idea what I'm talking about click here)

Before the video, SSPD Lt. John Catone said: "I do not want you to interpret that the arrests we made today are terrorists that you are going to see in this video. What we are trying to show is the link and the damage that the whole counterfeit ID process can cause."

Of course, then he pointed out that the majority of the terrorists who boarded planes on 9/11 had counterfeit IDs and a number of times both Catone and Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III pointed out the IDs could fool the TSA.