Yorktown Councilman Vishnu Patel was given a verbal warning by three members of the town board last week in connection with a March 2018 decision from the town’s Ethics Board regarding Patel revealing information from closed door discussions that took place in September 2017 over spending taxpayer funds to defend former Supervisor Michael Grace in an alleged conflict of interest case.
Current Supervisor Ilan Gilbert said he and councilmembers Alice Roker and Tom Diana had given the warning to Patel in closed session in front of Councilman Ed Lachterman, who on October 5, 2017 made the complaint to the Ethics Board alleging ethical violations.
Gilbert maintained Lachterman made no objection to that decision at the time, but at a work session two weeks ago he accused Gilbert and Roker of covering up the matter by not publicly disclosing the action taken against Patel.
“An accusation is confidential, not a finding,” Lachterman asserted. “We paid $5,000 for a finding on that. Nobody is perfect, but the public has the right to know when there is a violation. You cannot breach the sanctity of a closed session.”
Patel had contended the former board violated the New York State Open Meetings Law by passing a resolution that appropriated taxpayer funds (maximum $2,500) in closed session. Patel said he voted for the resolution, along with Lachterman, Diana, and former Councilman Gregory Bernard on September 26, 2017 after Grace, who recused himself, said his defense was covered by the town’s Defense and Indemnification Law.
“The resolution, which wasn’t even written down, didn’t include a cap on how much money could be spent for the lawyer,” Patel stated in a list of bullet points he submitted to Examiner Media after the meeting two years ago. “The supervisor never told the board exactly what the complaint was, to what body or agency, and who filed it. All he said was that it was related to an ethics issue.”
That resolution centered on former Supervisor and Councilwoman Susan Siegel’s August 26, 2017 request to the New York State Bar Association Grievance Committee for the Ninth Judicial District to investigate what she contended “appears to be a clear-cut violation” of the conflict of interest provisions of the Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct by Grace.
In her correspondence, Siegel stated in 2016 Grace voted to award a towing contract to a local business, Yorktown Auto Body. A year later, as a private attorney, he represented the same company in a private legal matter.
In his complaint to the Ethics Board, besides “breaking the rules of confidentiality,” Lachterman alleged Patel, the lone Democrat on the board in 2017, “intentionally misrepresented” to the media that the board voted on a resolution in executive session, instead of simply taking a poll on whether Grace was entitled to the legal representation.
In its March 2018 decision, the Ethics Board, a five-member board appointed by the Town Board to three-year terms that renders advisory opinions on specific situations or when requested, on the conduct of an official or employee, in accordance with the provisions of the adopted Code of Ethics, recommended Patel receive “a public censure,” stating “ignoring such confidential disclosures is akin to condoning them. Disclosing such violations to the public at large will, in our opinion, give all elected officials pause prior to their violating the public trust.”
However, Gilbert explained he and Roker, two-thirds of the board trio required to reach a consensus, disagreed with the findings of the Ethics Board. Gilbert insisted he didn’t feel Patel’s actions rose to the level of an ethics violation, but merely “a technical violation.”
“I will not accept the findings. We said we would warn him and that’s what we did,” Gilbert said. “I don’t believe we’re condoning it. There is nothing in the Ethics Law that says a punishment is private or public. It’s silent on that. We gave him a warning and now it’s public. Vishnu wanted his ethics ruling and entire proceeding to be open to the public.”
Roker took offense with Lachterman accusing her of any wrongdoing, saying, “Last week you accused us of doing a coverup. There is nobody, nobody that could ever induce me to do anything that would jeopardize my good name. Why are you asking to penalize him (Patel) at the highest level when he didn’t do that? It’s not that we turned a blind eye. We didn’t.”
According to the Department of State Committee on Open Government, there is no provision in the New York State Open Meetings Law that prevents an elected official from publicly discussing any issues talked about privately.
Patel, a retired, award-winning IBM scientist in the middle of serving a third four-year term who in the past has referred to himself as the “Conscience of the Town Board,” insisted he will always do what he feels is right for the taxpayers.
“I will not vote ever to spend money in closed session. It is a public matter,” he said. “I have my own ethics.”
Resident Paul Moskowitz and others came to Patel’s defense. Moskowitz said Patel should receive a commendation for keeping the public informed.
Matt Slater, candidate for supervisor, said the Ethics Code needed to be revamped, adding “the public deserves to know when it comes to an elected official.”