Update (08/02/2022 2:45p.m.):

When asked for comment on Acting Mayor Laura Lewis’ statement, County Legislator and Ethics Advisory Board Chair Rich John issued a response to The Ithaca Voice defending the board’s capacity to conduct the investigation into allegations of third-party payments and conflicts of interest present in the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s Reimagining Public Safety Process. 

“I honestly do not understand the Acting Mayor’s assertions that the County Ethics Advisory Board is somehow incompetent, biased or going too fast before we have taken any substantive action, or the City has provided any responses to our reasonable inquires,” wrote John. 

Those inquiries, John wrote, were for 29 public documents and 51 requests for specific information from Lewis, Alderperson Robert Cantelmo, City Attorney Ari Lavine and City Manager Faith Vavra. However, in her statement, Lewis characterized the inquiries as “at least 100” discrete requests.

In regards to the timeline for these requests, John furthered his point of view that the Ethics Advisory Board was reasonable in the timeline it had originally requested, particularly with the 30-day extension that was offered to the city attorney’s office after being met with a request for a 2-month extension. 

In his response, received on Aug. 1, John highlighted that, as a result of the city not having an ethics board, New York State law mandates the county’s board pursue the investigation spurred by Alderperson Cynthia Brock’s complaint.

“We are willing to engage in a productive dialogue with the mayor or any other city official.  The EAB has no political motivations and any contention otherwise is mistaken,” wrote John. “The [Ethics Advisory Board] and its volunteer citizen members are fully committed to a full, fair and unbiased investigation of the pending complaint.”

Original Story:

ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca’s Acting Mayor Laura Lewis has issued a strongly worded statement in response to comments made by Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board Chair Rich John which represented the City of Ithaca as being initially uncooperative in the investigation that the advisory board is pursuing regarding the city and county’s Reimagining Public Safety process. 

“County Legislator Rich John’s accusation of the City’s non‐cooperation in the County’s non‐binding, advisory process is offensive and baseless,” said Lewis.

The comments from John that Lewis’ statement reacts to come from the July 29 meeting of the county’s Ethics Advisory Board. Lewis’ statement, made available to The Ithaca Voice on Saturday, also puts into question the integrity of the county Ethics Advisory Board’s investigation while defending the separate but parallel investigation that the city is paying an outside counsel to conduct. 

Both investigations were prompted by issues raised by City of Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock concerning the county and city’s Reimagining Public Safety process, specifically potential conflicts of interest in Ithaca and Tompkins County’s Reimagining Public Safety plan, as well as payments that were made to the co-leads and members of the working group tasked with crafting recommendations on the development and implementation of a Department of Community Safety — a major restructuring of the City of Ithaca’s Police Department. The payments were made without the public or city of the Ithaca Common Council’s knowledge. 

A deeper explanation of the investigation Brock requested can be read here.

John explained at the board’s July 29 meeting that the city attorney’s office had responded to the board by proposing an extension to the end of August to fulfill the request for information. 

John shared an email which he wrote to Lewis after he was unable to have the attorney’s office agree to an adjusting the timeline for the end of july to fulfill the request for information, reading aloud that he wrote to her, “I have received the below message from your city attorney and expect that his response was prepared at your direction. The clear tenor of his message is one of noncooperation. With the work that the ethics advisory board is required by New York State to undertake.”

The Ethics Advisory Board, John said, “will be able to do a faster, more thorough and more publicly supported investigation” with the city’s cooperation. He made the point that the noncooperation with the board by the city as it conducts it utilizes an outside counsel to pursue a separate investigation would “appear to be to some as duplicative and potentially politically motivated.”

“For the good of our community, I call on Mr. John to tone down the rhetoric and honor the purpose and necessary timelines of these parallel investigations.”

Acting Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis
Ethics Advisory Board Legal Counsel Paul Ferrara (left) and Board Chair Legislator Rich John (right). (06/06/2022) Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

The Ethics Advisory Board is, ultimately, only able to issue an advisory opinion from its investigation’s findings, which does not carry the power to legally compel any interested party, though it has the potential to significantly shape the public’s perception of the city and county’s RPS process. 

To produce and substantiate this opinion, the board has submitted requests for information to a list of parties concerned in the investigation. This list, as well as the specific information requested and gathered so far, has not yet been made publicly available. 

At its June 8 meeting, the Ethics Advisory Board had established a 20-day window as the allotted timeline for interested parties to provide a response once they received a request, which would grant the board ample time to review those responses before its July 29 meeting.

However, in her statement, Lewis said that the request for information only allotted six business days for the City of Ithaca to respond to a request “to at least 100 discrete inquiries and document requests,” contributing to public knowledge the only description of the ethics advisory board to date. The Voice has filed a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request for the board’s information requests. 

Lewis’ statement also questions the pace that the Ethics Advisory Board is attempting to move its investigation forward at. She wrote, “Unlike the County’s process, the City’s process is taking the time necessary for a fair and objective accounting of the facts by an experienced lawyer with a highly respected firm who is intimately familiar with the appropriate workings of city governments in New York State.”

The City of Ithaca has put forward $16,000 and budgeted up to $50,000 to pay Kristen Smith to conduct an investigation into the allegations Brock raised in parallel. Smith, a lawyer from the law firm Bond, Schoeneck, & King, as well as former corporation counsel for the City of Syracuse, was described as “unimpeachable” by Lewis.

Lewis continued, “Unlike the county’s process, the city’s process is being conducted by an unbiased professional with no political motivations at stake and no prior involvement in some of the underlying allegations now being investigated.”

When asked for a comment on Lewis’ statement, John told The Voice that he would like to consult with other Advisory Board members before issuing a statement. 

John, a lawyer by trade, is also a county legislator in addition to his capacity as chair of the Ethics Advisory Board and, as a result, has participated in votes concerning the Reimagining Public Safety plan on the county level. He is also chair of the Tompkins County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee. 

The five-member Ethics Advisory Board is required to have one county legislature seated on it. At the board’s first meeting discussing the investigation that it is now conducting, John acknowledged the “inherent political nature of the Ethics Advisory Board,” though defended the inclusion of a political actor on it for the deeper perspective into governmental process which it gives the body.

Still, Lewis’ statement raised a point that calls into question the potential efficacy of the county’s Ethics Advisory Board. “Based on the past several years of agendas, it appears the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board, which generally meets once a year to review routine financial disclosures, has not undertaken an investigation of this scope or complexity before.”

“For the good of our community, I call on Mr. John to tone down the rhetoric and honor the purpose and necessary timelines of these parallel investigations,” Lewis said.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.org Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn