Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

October 20, 2013

Niagara Town Board looks to ethics panel over insurance coverage issue; wants town finances checked out

By Mark Scheer mark.scheer@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — TOWN OF NIAGARA — Three of the town’s four board members have asked a local ethics panel to investigate embattled Supervisor Steve Richards’ handling of insurance coverage for town employees and their domestic partners. 

During a meeting this week, council members Charles Teixeira, Rob Clark and Marc Carpenter agreed to ask town’s ethics board to investigate whether Richards initiated changes to the town’s insurance coverage without input or approval from the town board. 

Council members who supported the measure say information obtained from the human resources department suggests the changes, which allowed for coverage of town employees’ domestic partners, were implemented last February. They also believe the move may have cleared the way for an employee of Richards’ privately owned auto repair shop — who was in a relationship with a town clerk at the time — to obtain health insurance under the municipality’s coverage plan.

While not necessarily opposed to the town allowing domestic partners to qualify for coverage, Teixeira said Richards lacked the authority to arbitrarily institute any coverage changes. He said all alterations should be discussed and authorized by the town board with involvement from representatives of the town employees’ union. 

“This is something that should have been discussed,” he said. “It’s not that we’re against it, but this is a paid benefit to employees and it’s something that should have been reviewed by the town board and discussed with the union.” 

The ethics board is comprised of three residents who are appointed by the town board. Ethics board members have the power to render advisory opinions upon written request. According to the law establishing the body, the opinions are to be “advisory and confidential” in nature and are not be disclosed except to “authorized persons and agencies.”  

“There might be more action we can take once we find out what’s going on,” Teixeira said. “It’s just a first step to get it out there and try to get some more information.”

Clark, a frequent critic of Richards, agreed. 

“We’ll give them all the information we have, they’ll review it and make a decision if it’s right or wrong,” he said. 

Richards abstained from voting on the measure. Deputy Supervisor Dan Sklarski voted against it. On Thursday, Sklarski said he wasn’t given an opportunity to thoroughly review the resolution because it was submitted as a walk-on item before Tuesday’s meeting. He also questioned whether the matter should have been referred to the ethics board, saying he believes it is more of a legal question and something board members should discuss in executive session with the town’s attorney. 

“It’s not an ethical question, it’s a legal question,” he said. 

Richards pleaded not guilty earlier this month to a 28-count indictment alleging various claims of public corruption, most of which focus on the theft of town goods and services. The indictment followed more than 18 months of investigation by agents from the New York State Attorney General’s Office and the FBI. 

Richards has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the state and federal probe and his attorney, Rodney Personius, has previously said the supervisor is prepared to defend himself in court. 

In light of the indictment, Teixeira, Clark and Carpenter agreed on Tuesday to ask the New York State Attorney General’s office to provide the town board with an opinion on whether the supervisor should be required to take a leave of absence while his case plays out. The same trio of councilmen also voted to seek a formal review of the town’s books by auditors from the New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office. 

“We want to know what’s going on and we want to make sure things are being done correctly,” Teixeira said of the audit request. 

Sklarski questioned the need for the audit, noting that the town’s finances and procedures have been reviewed on several occasions by the state in the past. 

“When they do an audit, they make sure we are following generally accepted procedures,” Sklarski said. 

As to the request for an opinion about the supervisor’s standing, Sklarski noted that there have been instances in other local communities, including Niagara Falls, where elected officials were accused of crimes and did not step down while they defended their cases in court. He said the town’s attorney has already said the law does not require Richards to take a leave from his post under current circumstances.

“The supervisor isn’t convicted of anything,” Sklarski said. “He’s accused.”

Richards has previously described the charges leveled against him as the work of his political opponents in the town.

When asked if the measures approved during Tuesday’s meeting were motivated in anyway by politics or personalities, Sklarski said: “I would hope that it’s strictly a town issue that has nothing to do with the supervisor. I would hope it is strictly related to town business and that’s the way it should be.”