Echoing the theme of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign, County Legislator Pete Harckham, D-North Salem, on Friday charged that Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino had manipulated town records and personnel to generate negative news stories about his gubernatorial campaign opponent in Cuomo’s hometown.
It jibes with the Cuomo campaign’s attempt to diminish the investigation conducted by The Journal News, and explain it away as “a cheap political stunt.”
Harckham, however, needs to work on his talking points. In his press release, Harckham states that Astorino held a press conference outside North Castle Town Hall on Thursday. He chides Robert Greenstein, who Harckham claims is the North Castle supervisor. And Harckham declared that he’d sent a Freedom of Information request to the Town of North Castle, demanding all correspondence between the town administration and the county executive, his campaign staff, and consultants.
There’s one major problem with this line of attack. The Astorino press conference did not take place in North Castle. Robert Greenstein is not the North Castle town supervisor. And Cuomo and his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, do not live in North Castle.
They live in New Castle, which lies just north of North Castle.
“Peter Harckham may want to look at a map of Westchester before making any more pronouncements,” said Astorino campaign spokesman Bill O’Reilly. “He might also want to read the Journal News series that uncovered the governor’s four-year tax dodge, which had nothing to do with us. Also, is Peter Harckham actually suggesting that citizens not take out building permits, as is required by law, and that they refuse to allow assessors into their homes when asked to? Is that his actual position?”
When contacted by phone, Harckham acknowledged he had erred.
“That was sloppy,” he said. “I meant New Castle.”
Harckham said he was not familiar with the building-permit specifics in the renovations at the home of Sandra Lee and Andrew Cuomo. He declined comment on whether the assessor should have been barred from 4 Bittersweet Lane.
“The governor is an honorable man,” said Harckham. “He believes in paying his fair share.”
Then there’s the allegation that the stories about Cuomo and his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, were abetted by the Republicans, including those who Harckham maintained run New Castle Town Hall.
“For years, town officials have had a professional relationship with the Governor’s residence until this year, when two things happened: First, it’s a state election year, and secondly, the Republican Rob Astorino supported for supervisor, Mr. Greenstein, took office,” Harckham wrote. “Interestingly, just the files on the Governor’s residence were supplied to the press and town officials were dispatched to conduct inspections on the Governor’s home. To any outside observer, it’s obvious this isn’t a coincidence. As we all know, using town resources, personnel, property and records for political purposes is against the law.”
Greenstein, however, said the North Salem Democrat was “misinformed.”
“I am disappointed in the legislator’s comments, which are misinformed,” said Greenstein in an emailed comment. “The improvements to the Lee residence were brought to our attention by an investigative reporter for The Journal News, David McKay Wilson. Mr. Wilson submitted a FOIL request to our town clerk for public building department records relating to two of our distinguished residents. The FOIL request was initially denied. However, after an appeal was filed, our Town Attorney clarified the request and consulted with both residents’ respective security teams. Only then were responsive public records released, as required by law. When the information about the Lee residence was reviewed by our Town Assessor, he treated the matter no differently than any other improved residential property in the town.”
While Greenstein ran on the Republican line in November, he is remains a registered Democrat. No Republicans serve on the New Castle town board.
The day after my story ran on May 12, Greenstein announced that there were no outstanding building permit concerns. The issue appeared to be dead. But then Assessor Philip Platz, who has a five-year term, conducted an inspection of the Lee residence on May 27, based on published reports. He subsequently jacked up the assessment by 29 percent, which will raise the property tax bill for Lee and Cuomo by about $8,000.
As for the documents, they were obtained by The Journal News, under the Freedom of Information Law, in a process that took close to four months. On Feb. 24. I requested, “documents regarding home improvements” made at 15 Old House Lane, the home of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and at 4 Bittersweet Lane, the home of Sandra Lee and Andrew Cuomo.
The request was denied on March 19 by Town Clerk Mary Deems, who ruled that releasing the documents would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of property” for “state officials residing in the Town of New Castle.”
I appealed the ruling to the Town Board. I noted that none of those who owned the houses – neither the Clintons nor Sandra Lee – were state officials. I also said that Lee and the Clintons were just homeowners, and should be treated as such.
“The Clintons, and Ms. Lee, like other property owners in your town, are subject to the same laws as other citizens,” I wrote on March 31. “Information about improvements to property, which is contained in building permits, is available to the public. There is no exception in the law for a former US president or White House cabinet officer nor is there an exception for a home owned by the domestic partner of New York state’s governor. When homeowners make improvements to their property, and seek town approval to do so, they do so knowing that this information about their homes would be on the public record. It would not be an unwarranted invasion of their personal privacy to make public information that is available for every other property owner in your town.”
Before the Town Board ruled, I spoke with Town Counsel Nicholas Ward-Willis, arguing that while architectural drawings could be withheld for security purposes, the application for the permits were clearly in the public domain.
By April 10, he provided building permits, totaling $376,000, that were obtained by the Clintons for their home improvements. There was one permit for Lee – on the gazebo she put up in 2012, but nothing for the extensive renovations carried out in 2009 and 2010.
More documents were forthcoming over the ensuing months, with one document that I’d requested in February arriving on June 20 – almost four month later.
The final cache of documents included the violation notice, sent to Lee, on May 16, 2012, which was 18 months before Greenstein had took office. That’s when, according to Harckham, the town “had a professional relationship with the Governor’s residence.”
In that document, Lee was cited for three violations of the town building code by Building Inspector William Maskiell.
The first violation concerned a complaint in October, 2011, regarding a second curb cut that was made on the driveway on Bittersweet Lane, which Maskiell investigated on Oct. 13.
Five days later, Maskiell said he met with one of Lee’s representatives at Town Hall, at which time he told her she needed a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals for the second driveway entrance.
Seven months later, there was no action.
“Since then, I have made numerous attempts to contact your rep, all to no avail,” he said in his May 16 letter.
Meanwhile, Maskiell had discovered installation of the gazebo – without a building permit or wetlands permit.
Lee subsequently obtained permits for the gazebo. And the town received a letter on May 30, 2012, from State Police Counsel Thomas Capezza, stating that the driveway was reconfigured for security purposes. He said that “upon the Governor leaving office or sale of the residence, the property will be returned to its original configuration.”