A South Salem couple has accused a staffer for state Sen. Greg Ball of creating a phony e-mail address to make it appear they sent a laudatory letter to the editor to various area media outlets.
Robyn and Robert Fields said that deputy communications director Dan Branda repackaged a correspondence Mrs. Fields had submitted two to three weeks ago that was intended to personally thank the senator for helping them place their 21-year-old daughter in a group home earlier this year. The couple charged Branda, acting on his own, opened a bogus account that closely resembled Mrs. Fields’ name, thereby making it appear to the media outlets the letter came from her.
“They took the letter, created a false e-mail address and distributed it to the papers,” Mrs. Fields said. “We did not give anyone our permission.”
The letter was printed in the May 31-June 6 edition of The Examiner and at least one other area publication but did not appear in The Northern Westchester Examiner or The Putnam Examiner.
In a statement on Monday, Mr. Fields said they would have been willing to prepare a letter for public consumption had they been asked.
“My wife, Robyn, and I truly appreciated Sen. Ball’s assistance in finding a placement for our daughter,” he said. “We would have been happy to write a letter to the editor with less personal information had his staff simply asked us.”
Despite claims over the weekend from Branda and Ball’s Chief of Staff Jim Coleman refuting Mr. and Mrs. Fields’ position, the family said they have a tape of a phone conversation with Branda last week where he pleaded with them not to go public with the story. At press time, The Examiner has arranged to hear the tape this week.
Mr. Fields said he and his wife “are simply shocked” at the practice of elected officials generating letters that may not always been sent explicitly from a constituent. He said it is their “hope that they can bring an end to this practice, which only hurts the constituents that New York State senators are elected to serve and to help.”
However, Branda and chief of staff Jim Coleman provided a much different story. Branda said he had called Mrs. Fields to thank her for the letter and encouraged her to send it to the newspapers to highlight the senator’s help and that it could assist other families who face similar obstacles regarding group homes. He said she agreed to have it sent to the media.
Branda, who has been in his current capacity since Jan. 1 and also worked for Ball when he was in the Assembly, was hesitant to answer questions on the record but later issued a statement in the form of a letter.
“(Mrs. Fields) explicitly agreed during our phone conversation to write a letter to the editor for the purpose of publication, which she signed and mailed to Sen. Ball’s office and which has been provided to this newspaper,” Branda said. “She also chose to have me submit the letter on her behalf, and she was fully informed how I would do so.”
When asked about the e-mail address, he said the senator’s office and many elected officials routinely establish e-mail accounts for volunteers. While neither Mr. or Mrs. Fields were volunteers, an e-mail address was set up to help the office track the high volume of date, including letters.
However, Mr. Fields sternly disputed the office’s account, saying that they had no contact with Branda until after the letter had gone out.
“We never spoke to Mr. Branda before we talked (Friday) asking him to stop the letter,” he said. “We spoke to the senator who was very apologetic.”
Ball did not return messages regarding the controversy, but Coleman released a statement on Sunday saying the senator’s office takes “full responsibility for a breakdown in communication.” But he largely backed up Branda’s version of the story.
“We are dealing with Mr. Branda internally but deny any deceptive practices were involved in Mrs. Fields’ letter to the editor,” Coleman stated. “The letter that Mrs. Fields provided our office for distribution as a letter to the editor was never edited or changed in any way. Mr. Branda did nothing more than set up an e-mail account for Mrs. Fields, which she gladly accepted and gave the office full permission. We are sorry to see a story like this take precedence over the core issue, which is providing services to our constituents.”
Coleman said the office will immediately make changes regarding letters and information it shares with outside sources, including the press, by requiring a written waiver from each individual. They will also make sure that each person will send it from their computer or have it in writing that the office will send out the communication on their behalf.
Regarding the discrepancy in the two stories, he said Mr. and Mrs. Fields may have had misgivings once the letter was sent out.
Coleman mentioned that Branda will not be disciplined but that he and other staffers will receive an in-depth coaching session regarding communications.
“He’s very young and very eager, but we want to make sure that any letter comes directly from the constituent,” he said.
Despite the problem, Mr. Fields stressed that he and his family are extremely pleased for the assistance they received.
“We’re very grateful for what the senator did for us and how he helped us with our daughter,” he said.
Ball represents the 40th Senate District, which includes Putnam County and parts of Dutchess and Westchester, including Mount Kisco.