Thursday, August 21, 2008
Kriss Affair: Something Stinks In the Disconnect Of County Government
There is something fundamentally disconnected about the relationship between taxpayers and Westchester County Government. It has been the situation for many years now. Viewed objectively, there is little that goes on either in the County Executive's Office or the Board of Legislators that is of any great moment to the majority of Westchester residents other than the raising or lowering of their taxes. One simply doesn't get the impression that the organizations on the eighth and ninth floors of the County Office Building are particularly plugged in to the needs, or the concerns, of the nearly one million people who share the county with them.
Many citizens feel the detachment, and are lucky if they can name their local legislator. Certainly, most would be hard-pressed to name half, or even a third, of the seventeen on the Board. Sadly, in concert with Larry Schwartz, mastermind of the County Executive's Office, the Board will spend two thousand dollars this year, of our money, for every man, woman and child who calls Westchester their home; a budget of nearly $2 billion.
If the County Executive and the County Legislators are supposed to exist in a relationship of checks and balances, that notion died nearly 11 years ago when Larry Schwartz, bluntly speaking, took over County Government.
How can there be checks and balances when one diabolical control-freak decides who will run for office, and controls the purse strings of the political party, the Democrats, who have more than 100,000 more registrants than do the Republicans?
And, it doesn't end with the selection and financing of legislators who will be loyal, and beholden, to Schwartz. It reaches its ugly paw into the courthouse, the selection of candidates, and rigging of elections, for judges, for County Clerk, and most importantly, District Attorney.
They've got it all sewn up. After all, they don't want the wrong persons to come along and file nominating petitions without "kissing Larry's ring."
The end product is arrogant, damned insensitive local government. It's tough enough for constituents to deal with that kind of disrespect from Washington and Albany; self-serving career liars and manipulators. But, here, at the local level, so-called public servants trying to milk part-time positions into six-figure annuities, and beyond, seems so out-of-touch, so misguided and crass. Surely, they don't want to be perceived as they truly are.
Consider the Gary Kriss affair: After many months of trying to pass unreasonable and unwarranted pay raises for themselves, the County Legislators, each of whom earn more than $1,000 a week for a part-time job, were pushing a whopping increase for Chairman Bill Ryan, from $89,000 to $125,000. Often, along comes the revelation that Ryan's shadow, his 'Chief Advisor', Gary Kriss, already earning the $150,000 that Ryan got so sullied grabbing for, was also spending taxpayers' Hard-earned dollars, perhaps $12,000 or more, on personal expenses. And, at the same time, he was piling up months and months of vacation time in violation of the rules. But, then, it does appear that the rules that govern County employees somehow didn't apply to him.
At a time when everyone is getting wiped out, with $4-plus gas, milk, and food costs going through the roof, and job layoffs and cutbacks, we learned of Chairman Ryan's best buddy's largess, and possible unlawful use of Taxpayers' funds for his personal enterprise and entertainment, as well as political activity. No doubt, with a wink of an eye from Andy Spano, his favorite DA, Janet DiFiore, announced she was looking into the unusual expenditure of public funds by Kriss for any possible criminal implications. A call by The Guardian to DiFiore's Office last Tuesday con-firmed that Kriss was "still under active investigation."
On Monday, August 11, the "Special Committee On Internal Controls And Procedures" of the County Legislature released the report commissioned by Chairman Ryan. That committee had been established just two months earlier, on June 10, by Ryan, who also named all five of its members; Democrats Ken Jenkins, of Yonkers, named as Committee Chair, William Burton, of Ossining, and Peter Harckham, of Bedford, as well as Republicans Gordon Burrows, of Yonkers, and George Oros, of Cortlandt, legislative Minority Leader.
Questioned last Tuesday by The Guardian as to "Why wasn't Gary Kriss made to testify before the Special Committee with regard to how he spent thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money", Jenkins responded,"Our charge was not to conduct an inquisition, but to review the expenses for adherence to policies and practices." He then paused a moment, and added, "People didn't think it applied to them; their mindset was We don't have to do things that way."
Asked, "Why wouldn't you want him to make a public accounting?" Jenkins responded, "We found $2,695 in reimbursed expenses, and $300 on a County purchase card, for a total of $2,995. We have a list of all these expenses."
Interviewed earlier on Tuesday, Republican George Oros had said, "Kriss has no incentive to provide an explanation or reimbursement." When Oros' remarks were related to Jenkins, the Committee Chair told The Guardian, "We are penalizing Mr. Kriss for use of County equipment on County time at the rate of about two hours a day during the election period for a total penalty of ten days."
Oros had told The Guardian that he was upset with Committee Chairman Jenkins who, he said, had made light of Kriss' conduct, stating, "It was only $12,000 in a $2 billion budget."
When prodded about his comments to Oros, Jenkins said, "The Committee is not trying to protect anybody. They were stupid purchases at best, criminal at worst."
Again, there is such a huge disconnect between those in County Government and those paying the freight. To begin with, the common term for Gary Kriss' misconduct is theft, whether it's a theft of services, as in the case of thousands of dollars in phone calls, or theft of merchandise, as in soft ware, being Chairman Ryan's "buddy" doesn't confer immunity, either from scrutiny or prosecution. Surely, the taxpaying public has a right to know the facts.
District Attorney Janet DiFiore is another story altogether. It's difficult to second-guess what a prosecutor, who goes around prosecuting victims of police brutality with trumped-up charges, is likely to do in any given situation. Given her own fraudulent political activities, her abandonment of the Republican Party, and those who helped her political ambitions for years, not to mention her incestuous relationship with Larry Schwartz and Andy Spano, conspicuous since Election Day 2005, it may well be that Gary Kriss', indeed, perhaps even Bill Ryan's, personal and political futures now rest in the hands of Larry and Andy.
The kinds of issues raised by Kriss' behavior, and possibly Ryan's conduct, after the fact, comes under the heading of Public Integrity, a unit run for many years by Assistant District Attorney Mike Hughes. Just ponder the job Di-Fiore and Hughes did with the killing of Mount Vernon Police Detective Christopher Ridley by three of four Westchester County cops last January 25.
Anywhere other than Westchester, Gary Kriss would have resigned several weeks ago, and written a check to the County for $12,000, or whatever the final total of his malfeasance in office may ultimately total. Bill Ryan would finish out his present term and go quietly to work for that $150,000 job Liz Schollenberger tells us he could have as a lobbyist. Perhaps, another highly ethical guy, Al Pirro, might be willing to help get Bill started. You never know, maybe Al owes him one for one of those deals he slipped into White Plains even after his license to practice law was suspended for three years.
However, because this is Westchester, Gary Kriss continues to be employed, receiving more than $12,000 a month using up week after week of vacation time that nobody else in County Government could have accumulated under the rules.
And, of course, Bill Ryan is back in the saddle, thankfully having recovered from heart surgery, looking a whole lot healthier, and, as if to add insult to injury, frantically putting out press releases such as his July 30 effort, headlined, "Ryan Secures More Assistance, Services For Battered Women: County Board Chairman Arranges $20,000..." or his August 12 dandy, "Scarsdale Teens Get Further Support From Ryan."
Oh, yes, what did this 60-day old Special Committee, formed by one of the subjects whose conduct needed scrutiny, conclude before anything else? One might have guessed it; "Name A Full Time Chief Of Staff." In other words, add still another layer of bureaucracy; someone to oversee the 17-member Board, the 48-person staff, and provide still another layer of insulation between County Government and those footing the bill while trying to make ends meet.
Most disturbing, once again there is the distinct stench of entitlement surrounding the entire Kriss Affair. Somehow, it's not what he is accused of doing, or even, in fact, what he did; it's that he got caught doing it. It's not the stain and the humiliation we, who have been betrayed, would think one must feel, who has been presumed to be a dedicated public servant. Rather, it's the inconvenience, the distraction, disclaimers, and posturing, the whole dance that one's peers are now going through
That upsets and concerns far too many who ought to be feeling indignant, disappointed, and outraged.
Instead, there are far too many Liz Schollenbergers, too many in the supporting cast of the "entitled", all too ready to rush in with the perfume and deodorant of rationalization and excuse to cover up the stench. But our noses have told us, and continue to remind us, "Something stinks about all of this, like rotten fish." And, as we all know, a fish rots from the head down.