It’s cute when a young child fibs. Most kids are very bad fibbers, so there is little risk of them fooling anyone. Plus their motives are usually harmless, and their alibis often hilarious. (“Did you eat all the cookies, Billy?” —No, the goldfish did.)
The same can’t be said of grown men, especially grown men being paid upwards of $150/hour out of public funds... So what’s the excuse of Andy Howard, the former County Attorney turned lawyer for the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC)?
At this week’s CEDC meeting, Howard told an obvious whopper. During Tuesday’s meeting, the topic came up once again of Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer’s request for legal confirmation that CEDC’s $1 land deal with Ginsberg’s food was aboveboard—free of any conflict of interest.
Previously, CEDC (via Howard) had declined to issue the certification Baer requested, vaguely claiming that the request was too vague.
But this time, Howard took things a step further, grossly embellishing the nature of Baer’s written inquiry. This misleading colloquy sounds a lot like an attempt to gin up fake outrage among the CEDC’s elite membership, who in the past have expressed reluctance to comply with ethics disclosure, training and oversight.
CEDC Board member Scott Wood raised the matter of the “letter from Supervisor Baer asking us to review the legality of certain issues we had done. And we had discussed it on here with our counsel, and we believed that everything we had done was legal and in conformity.”
But though Wood felt CEDC had fully responded—an opinion shared by few outside observers— he expressed surprise that another Supervisor found the response “evasive,” and wondered what they could do to clear up the matter.
That’s when Wood turned things over to Howard, who says:
You received a general request for a legal opinion that everything this Board has done has been legal and ethical standards. Not specifically with Ginsberg’s, not specifically with anything… It seemed very ambiguous and vague.
In fact, Baer’s request was hardly general, and was not aimed at “everything” CEDC had ever done. Rather, it specifically and narrowly dealt just with the Ginsberg’s land transaction.
The subject line of Baer’s August email inquiry was:
Ginsberg Land Sale
The body of the message featured a formal request for “a legal opinion from CEDC counsel and/or the County Attorney that all ethic and legal guidelines have been followed in this proposed transaction” [emphasis added].
The purpose of the request was clear to CEDC executive director Ken Flood, who spelled it out just as explicitly in an early September memo to Howard (attached here). Flood noted that CEDC “has received a formal request for a legal opinion that all ethic [sic] and legal guidelines have been followed in the proposed land transaction between CEDC and Ginsberg’s” and sought Howard’s response.
And indeed, at that time it seemed Howard understood the narrowness of the request. Two days after Flood’s memo was sent, Howard himself referenced Baer’s specific request about “the proposed land transaction between CEDC and Ginsberg’s.” While refusing to provide the assurance sought by Baer, Howard then proceeds to discuss details of that deal—and no other CEDC business.
Does that mean I start and look at each and every one of your appointments, to see if you were legally appointed? Does that mean I go to Lisa and look at every one of the legal notices, since I was appointed?
“We should be done with this!” Bartolotta is heard to exclaim on Cusano’s recording, followed by a loud sigh. (Earlier, Bartolotta said of the County’s request for reimbursement of $109,950 paid for the land that “it just makes me crazy... It’s just ridiculous!”
Wood suggests that CEDC “should take the offensive… Maybe that is a strong word… Take the initiative… Relying on counsel’s affirmation that we have been doing things correctly.”
A voice which sounds like CEDC Board member Mike Vertetis derisively says that responding further won’t “quiet the chance to run off at the lip a bit in front of the paper.”
CEDC Board member Greg Fingar chimes in that Baer and [Ancram Supervisor Art] Bassin are “both retired,” so they should be able to attend meetings. Bartolotta demands to know whether the two are up for re-election next year, echoing an insinuation from a previous meeting by CEDC President David Crawford—and Ginsberg’s project engineer—that “this is all political.”
Perhaps more illuminating than Howard’s whopper is that the rest of the CEDC Board did not utter a word of correction, though Baer’s specific request has been widely reported and commented upon in the past few months.