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Thursday, 14 April 2016 12:54

Recusal Or Refusal?

By | News

Mayor/Hospital Communication Submitted to Board of Ethics

Introduction: This is a story about transparency in government, overlaid on a timeline. 

The supporting documents that will be discussed have been placed online –HERE

- for the reader’s consideration. After discussing this with management, before press time, I contacted Mayor Yepsen and invited her to respond to this story, and we pledged to print her response verbatim, in next week’s issue. 

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS — According to correspondence (emails and letters) and documents obtained by Saratoga TODAY, between officials at Saratoga Hospital and Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen, Mayor Yepsen opened discussions with the Hospital about fundraising work for her private company in October 2015, after the Hospital’s Planned Unit Development (PUD) amendment application was presented on the Mayor’s agenda earlier, at the August 18 City Council meeting. 

 

After about three months of sporadic discussions between the two parties, Saratoga Hospital wrote to the Mayor, declining to “pursue a working relationship” while she was in office, citing concerns expressed about “… a position that could imply or suggest a conflict of interest in any way” and other concerns, on two occasions: January 14 and 15, 2016. Four days after the Hospital’s second email, on January 19, Mayor Yepsen, at the City Council meeting, announced that she was recusing herself from discussions and votes about Saratoga Hospital’s expansion, citing that she “discussed a possible private contract between me and the Saratoga Hospital Foundation,” after that possibility had been terminated by the Hospital a few days earlier. 

 

The documents detailing these events, is a portion of documents submitted, and currently under review by the Saratoga Springs Board of Ethics.

 

This correspondence has been verified by an official from Saratoga Hospital, who stated, “…we are aware that these documents might someday reach the media.” The packet was originally sent by Amy V. Raimo, Vice President for Community Engagement and Executive Director of The Saratoga Hospital on March 1, in a response to a January 30 request for information letter from Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan to President and CEO of Saratoga Hospital, Angelo Calbone. 

 

This entire packet of correspondence has been placed online (see the set labeled Document 1), and is one of six packets of documents related to the timeline of events that was submitted to the Saratoga Springs Board of Ethics by Commissioner of Public Works, Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, on March 7. 

 

The Board of Ethics held a meeting on Tuesday, April 12. During the public portion of the meeting, the Board Chair, Justin Hogan, acknowledged to Commissioner Scirocco that his inquiry had been received and was in the process of review. The Board of Ethics proceedings, due to the nature of the subject matters they entertain, are frequently confidential and are held under executive session. This was the case on April 12, and so there is no knowledge about any findings from that Board at this time. 

 

This is an abridged summary of the timetable of events surrounding the discussions between Ms. Raimo and Mayor Yepsen, with key surrounding reference dates added. The timeline summary and correspondence submitted by Ms. Raimo to Commissioner Madigan covers events for the time frame beginning October 6, 2015 through January 15, 2016: 

 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015: At the City Council meeting, an item on the Mayor’s agenda -“Merit for Review - Saratoga Hospital Planned Unit Development Amendment Referral to Planning Board for Advisory Opinion”- passed unanimously. Subsequently, Saratoga Hospital would develop and deliver multiple presentations before the land use boards and at City Council public hearings about proposed expansion plans.

 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015: Ms. Raimo accepts an invitation from the Mayor for a lunch/meeting at noon on Wednesday, October 14 to discuss grant writing / fundraising opportunities for the Hospital Foundation that might be appropriate for her private firm, Critical Needs Now. The Mayor is a partner in this firm.

 

Tuesday, October 14, 2015: At the lunch/meeting, various possibilities and requirements are discussed, as well as the Hospital’s approval process. 

 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015: A follow up email from the Mayor to Ms. Raimo included a copy of the Mayor’s resume and client list, two required items noted earlier by Ms. Raimo, but did not include writing samples, which were also requested.

 

Monday, December 7, 2015: Ms. Raimo receives an email from the Mayor with a second copy of the client list, and a note that said writing samples would be forthcoming. Ms. Raimo acknowledged this email the next day.

 

Thursday, January 14, 2016: {Note: There appears to be some emails that crossed on this day} Ms. Raimo receives an email at 1:59 p.m. from Mayor Yepsen asking if anything additional was needed; Ms. Raimo responded at 2:38 p.m. with a reminder about the writing samples. 

 

Later that day, the Hospital discussed and determined that it would not pursue a working relationship with the Mayor while she was in office due to potential conflict of interest concerns. Ms. Raimo communicated that determination, referencing a discussion with Mr. Calbone, to Mayor Yepsen at 3:56 p.m. 

 

That evening, at 6:59 p.m., the Mayor sent a response to Ms. Raimo that she was sending writing samples that evening.

 

Friday, January 15, 2016: The Mayor responded to the January 14, 3:56 p.m. email stating she had “…gone through the proper channels to ensure the highest integrity and transparency.” Later that afternoon, Ms. Raimo responded to the Mayor, reiterating the Hospital’s decision not to engage the Mayor’s services while she was in office for reasons previously stated. 

 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016: The Mayor announces her recusal from the matters regarding Saratoga Hospital’s expansion. 

 

In fact, the “proper channels” the Mayor refers to would be the city’s Board of Ethics, whom she did appear before, to ask for guidance on this matter. On January 19, the Board of Ethics issued an opinion (see document 2 online), citing section 13-3 subsection I of the Code of Ethics, found on the question that the Mayor, “…in discussing particulars of future work with the Saratoga Hospital Cares Foundation…had become involved with an entity that is ‘doing business with the City’…” and therefore would be in violation of that subsection. “On the facts presented, the Board finds that to be the case,” the opinion stated. 

 

However, it would appear that the point was rendered moot, based on the Hospital’s earlier communications to the Mayor on January 14 and 15. Further, an elected official provided a copy of a memo that the Mayor provided to all the Commissioners, that she had sent to the Board of Ethics, as an update, dated January 16. In that note, she stated that she “had no plans to work for Saratoga Hospital Foundation at this time.” Note that this item (Document 3a and 3b) is unsigned and contains no specific sender address, but it appears to have been sent to all the other Commissioners. Subsequently, several have verified receiving it independently. 

 

So, in fact, did the reason to recuse disappear before the announcement to do so? That appears to be an essential question. But the upshot of the Mayor’s recusal is that the Hospital will not be able to get a vote on their expansion application, as detailed in Norra Reyes’ story in Saratoga TODAY on April 8. 

 

The timetable, as provided and independently verified, can suggest a broad range of possible motivations. It remains for the Mayor to respond, for the Board of Ethics to conclude its examinations and for you to draw your own independent conclusions.

 

Postscript:

A story about transparency and timing should have my own transparency included. While the reader has no inherent “right to know,” I believe it is important  for you to know this: With regards to the elected officials who provided the documentation herein: I have voted for some, not all of them, and not every time they ran in most cases - but I always voted for Joanne Yepsen. For her two elections as Mayor, and as County Supervisor before that. She even hired me to write a speech, for which I was paid $25, during one of my many sabbaticals here at Saratoga TODAY. 

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