Greg Fingar may vacate the Columbia County Republican chairman’s seat, and New Lebanon Supervisor Michael Benson may covet his seat cushion, according to three separate (and ideologically-distinct) sources.
GOP chair Greg Fingar with election law attorney James Walsh (Source: CC Scoop)
Fingar remains in the position for the moment, according to a fourth source familiar with the situation. It is not clear whether Fingar would step down voluntarily, or is coming under pressure to do so.
In addition to serving as the New Leb Supervisor, Benson is president of BCI, one of the Capital Region’s largest and most influential construction firms. The company is known for its uncanny knack for winning bidding wars on public projects, and has done extensive work for government within the County. For example, BCI completed renovations for the Chatham Central School District, and also construction on the City of Hudson’s new wastewater treatment plant.
In addition, BCI built A. Colarusso & Sons’ corporate offices, suggesting that if elevated to Republican chair, Benson perhaps would be sympathetic to mining interests which have been the source of some local controversy in the past.
Benson’s profile picture at BCI’s website
Earlier this year, a small controversy erupted after nearly 30 underage students were arrested in relation to a drinking party at a New Lebanon home while the parents were traveling. Initial State Police reports didn’t disclose the party details. But it eventually leaked out that it took place at the Bensons’ home—becoming the subject of reports in the Times-Unionand elsewhere—after the Town Justice had to recuse herself.
Benson contributed $250 to lobbyist, County powerbroker and former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso’s political action committee in 2001, and has donated similar amounts in the past two years to the Columbia County Republican Committee and Conservative Party. In November 2011, he donated $5,000 the State Republican Committee. All of these donations were made via BCI’s Loudonville Road address in Albany.
BCI Construction itself has donated a total of $17,890 to various political candidates over the past decade, according to New York State campaign finance records. Most of these donations were to Republicans, but a few were to Democrats in places such as Albany and New York City where the politics are heavily Democratic.
Though not necessarily over yet, Fingar’s tenure was colored early on by the intense controversy surrounding his party’s heavyhanded 2009 attempt to disenfrancise absentee voters in the hotly-contested Congressional race between Scott Murphy and Jim Tedisco. At the time, Fingar and Faso joined forces to sic lawyers John Ciampoli Jim Walsh (plus a gumshoe private detective) on second home owners who had legally cast absentee ballots. More recent primaries have brought to light various fissures among factions of the County GOP, which usually presents a monolithic front.
The ballot fracas, which was decided strongly in favor of the voters by fellow Republican judge John Nichols, focused heavily on the small Town of Taghkanic. Their challenges appeared to be backed in part by donations from racetrack developer Alan Wilzig—whose chef and manager Eric Tyree was on the ballot. Funds for the disenfranchisement effort came in part from the County Republican Housekeeping fund (to which Wilzig and a corporation he controlled had donated), a type of political action committee which is not supposed to be used for such purposes according to New York State election law.
At the time, numerous residents who were longtime customers of Fingar Insurance decamped to other insurers in protest, after noticing one of its key partners’ involvement. Ironically, the company’s Columbia County Chamber of Commerce blurb touted its work helping to insure second homes.
Consider just a few of the eyebrow-raising occurrences at Hudson Common Council meetings over the past decade or so:
A mayor’s aide audibly saying “fuck” when he got irritated at a citizen’s public comments;
An elderly alderman routinely falling asleep during meetings;
A less-elderly alderman appearing to surreptitiously suck his thumb during Council meetings, as well as periodically grabbing at his own groin;
Another alderman making a derisive Heil Hitler salute to emphasize his point;
The same alderman reading a thinly-veiled homophobic prepared statement; and
A mayor directing the flow of meetings from the hallway just outside the Chambers with hand gestures to the Council President.
Each of these events involved political figures who were plainly favored by Register-Star management in their endorsements and/or coverage.
Yet none of these occurrences got reported in the local paper at the time. (Two of them were, however, captured in the PBS documentary film about Hudson, Two Square Miles.) Some of the above predate the current management’s tenure; but the patently biased mindset persists.
This short trip down recent local history lane is prompted, of course, by the fevered-but-belated defense offered by Reg-Star management for its recent firing of reporter Tom Casey. Central to their rearguard action is the notion that if something unusual occurs at a meeting, it should be covered.
“Did it happen? Yes? Then go write it up,” wrote publisher Roger Coleman and executive editor Theresa Hyland in a joint statement released last Friday. Sounds sensible at first glance.
But when it has suited the paper’s interest not to make an issue of something, it is often kept it out of the Register’s pages. In this current case, because 3rd Ward alderman John Friedman is not an automatic vote for the status quo, it is hard to escape the impression that someone high up there wanted the alderman’s inobtrusive action in print.
Similarly, when certain factions—particularly that of Rick Scalera and Don Moore—have wanted Aldermen whom they consider disloyal shamed on the front page, the Register-Star has been all too happy to oblige. Some aldermen, for example Friedman’s 3rd Ward colleague Chris Wagoner, can hardly sneeze without the paper portraying his sternutation as rude and disruptive.
The crux of the paper’s dispute with Casey was not really whether real news should be reported, but whether a quiet action taken by an alderman—one which aroused no public outcry—was newsworthy at all... And secondarily, whether the reporter present would follow his bosses’ orders.
Rather than compromising like adults about a simple difference of opinion—by publishing the additional paragraphs coerced from Casey under duress, while respecting his wish to keep his byline off the story—Coleman and Hyland went nuclear and fired him. Then, the pair evidently took such a hard line with those who quite calmly and reasonably protested the firing, that three of Casey’s colleagues felt compelled to resign.
When I got into work Wednesday afternoon I was called into a
conference room meeting with Coleman and Hyland. Coleman had a copy of
the letter and asked me what my name was doing on it. I told him I stood
with my staff and said Tom’s firing was an outrageous decision.
I didn’t get a lot of opportunity for discussion. Coleman asked me
repeatedly if I was resigning, and when I said I stood with my staff he
asked if that meant I stood against him and Hyland. I said it wasn’t
really that simple. After it became clear we weren’t going to have a
reasoned and even-toned discussion about this I said I would resign.
This leaves a strong impression that ego—the desire to send a message to other reporters that they had better not disagree with management—not journalistic standards—was the key motivator here.
And even if one accepted the Register-Star management’s dubious assessment of this being newsworthy, that leaves two major questions: Why was the difference of opinion with a reporter in good standing worthy of firing? And, why doesn’t the paper actually apply its newly-expressed standard consistently across various political factions?
It’s not merely that events far more outrageous get played down if they do not reflect well on the establishment view—or blown out of proportion if it serves a factional purpose. In addition, anyone who’s attended even a couple Common Council meetings also knows that comments from the audience which contradict the official line often get erased entirely, or minimized by glossing them over in a blunted form.
If six citizens speak against an action being backed by City Hall, the typical Register-Star report will avoid presenting them verbatim, instead either omitting them altogether, or saying something like: “Some in the audience took issue with the Mayor’s position.” The more convincing detail and key substance of independent viewpoints cannot be allowed to reach the ears of more passive readers.
Another corrollary of this predictable media formula is that if a member of the public is the least bit passionate or intense in their manner of speaking, they will frequently be described as “strident,” “vocal,” “angry,” and the like.
Coming a full week after Coleman and Hyland’s firing of Casey drew media scrutiny locally, regionally and nationally, the paper had to say something. The Register-Star could not continue to remain silent, as it needed a document to provide the public and reporters seeking comment, as it did with Chris Churchill of the Times-Union. And as the blue chip Columbia Journalism Reviewnotes in their coverage today:
More than anything, Coleman and Hyland’s statement betrays a deep disdain for their (former) reporters.
That disdain is also for a large portion of their reluctant readers. The arm-waving and sarcastic tone of their explanation, coupled with its obvious double standard, is not merely unconvincing; it is all too typical locally. More generally, as the founder of The Aspen Daily Newsall the way over in Colorado wrote about the Hudson, New York controversy:
A gnawing discomfort lurks when higher powers at a media outlet try to
impose their will on a reporter [...] Differences between reporters and their bosses about stories are a very
touchy subject. Publishers, who normally have business backgrounds and
are considered inept at concepts such as news judgment, are supposed to
stay out of newsrooms. Some often stay away out of intimidation.
Publishers usually don’t write, and are often too cozy with politicians
and advertisers who are fond of being able to control them, writers
believe. The issue is particularly sensitive when an advertiser
threatens to boycott the paper if it doesn’t write what he or she wants —
or more to the point — omit what he or she does not.
Vainly attempting to position themselves above the fray, Register-Star management declares that there are two types of people “when it comes to the news business[:] those who will do anything to get something in and those who will do anything to keep it out.”
Unfortunately for readers and residents, the management of their City and County’s only daily newspaper seems to fit both of these categories. It just depends on which side of the political aisle the paper’s ally (or target) happens to stand (or sit).