Update (7:50 p.m.): This story has now been updated with comments from former Tompkins Weekly columnist Deidra Cross. Another clarification has been made and is noted below.
Original Story (7:20 p.m.):
ITHACA, N.Y.—Allegations emerged on Wednesday night during the Ithaca Common Council meeting that a Tompkins County official had been exercising improper influence over local media coverage of the Reimagining Public Safety process, but the county has now officially pushed back against those accusations in a statement from County Attorney Bill Troy. Until several pending document requests are returned, it appears that may be the last word on the matter for the time being, leaving a murky, tangled web of a story until then.
The allegations, levied by Alderperson Jeffrey Barken during a lengthy privilege of the floor comment (which can be read in full here, though the portions that are capitalized are Barken’s own emphasis), vaguely referred to “a Tompkins County official” and “a county administrator” as having inappropriately contacted a media organization to try to influence coverage concerning a story that was published in early August.
The Ithaca Voice has confirmed that the official in question is Tompkins County Communications Director Dominick Recckio, who has been a significant figure in the public presentation of the Reimagining plan since its introduction, and the publication in question is Tompkins Weekly.
“It has come to my attention that a County Administrator has, for some time now, been exercising improper influence over a local publication,” Barken said. “We do not yet know for how long this official misconduct went on, or if the problem extends to other news outlets, but a pattern of abuse is strongly suggested.”
In a tangentially related issue, a large portion of Barken’s comments were also dedicated to arguing that EMS response to emergencies is being hamstrung by law enforcement reform and staffing issues, quoting Ithaca Police Department officer Mary Orsaio and Meghan Bangs, of Bangs Ambulance.
The day after the allegation was made by Barken, Tompkins County Attorney Bill Troy released the email exchange between Recckio and Jessica Wickham, the editor of Tompkins Weekly, as well as a statement in which Troy said his investigation had cleared Recckio of wrongdoing. It appears Troy’s review only focused on the single email exchange between Recckio and Wickham. The email exchange and Troy’s statement can be found in full at the bottom of this article.
“As to the allegations made at the September 7th Common Council meeting regarding County staff, Mr. Dominick Recckio, I have reviewed the facts of the incident in question as the Chief Legal Officer of the County,” Troy wrote. “I have concluded that no violation of the law, much less a breach of anyone’s constitutional rights, has occurred. After review, I found no threat of suppression of the Tompkins Weekly newspaper or any other publication. I found no evidence of improper influence, misconduct, or abuse of Mr. Recckio’s position.”
The situation surrounds a column published in Tompkins Weekly on Aug. 3, titled “T’burg mayor reflects on village’s 150th year.” The story, written by the paper’s popular Trumansburg columnist Deidra Cross, was largely focused on an interview with Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart that touched upon the Reimagining Public Safety process, which Hart heavily criticized, saying it is to blame for the Ithaca Police Department’s staffing issues. Those issues, he said, have led to strained emergency services in Trumansburg (and other locales) since agencies in those places occasionally have to fill in gaps if one of the primary substitutes is busy.
Recckio responded to the story on Aug. 3, the same day it was published, with one objection emailed to Wickham.
“In [the column], Mayor Hart makes some pretty bold assertions, backed up by the columnist, ‘The limitations imposed on IPD as a result of the Reimagining initiative means that rather than county departments being able to call on IPD for further assistance, they may instead be called in to assist with IPD matters,’” Recckio wrote to Wickham. “There are no current limitations on IPD due to Reimagining. Any limitations may be from staffing issues, but asserting that it’s because of Reimagining is something that is further undermining our work.”
Recckio then offers some discussion from a previous Tompkins County Legislature meeting as evidence for his objection. The subsequent exchange is certainly cordial but also very technical (inside baseball, if you will) as Wickham and Recckio go back and forth about if changes are necessary to the article.
Wickham, whose pronouns are they/them, said they wanted to speak to Cross before any changes are made to the piece; then after apparently discussing with Cross, Wickham said they agree with Recckio’s objection that the article “does seem to imply that the Reimagining process is the only cause of IPD’s officer shortage” but that the situation seems “more complex than [what was in the article].” Clarification: Wickham acknowledges, though, that Cross and Hart disagree with the change. A change was then made to the article, based on Wickham’s email, and Recckio thanks them.
Adding to the turbulence, Cross is currently suspended from Tompkins Weekly, Wickham confirmed on Friday. (Update as of Monday: Cross said she has now been terminated from Tompkins Weekly) Wickham said that Cross was not punished for the column itself, but was suspended for a meeting Cross had with Recckio on Aug. 17, which Wickham characterized as a “citizen gathering information” meeting as opposed to Cross acting as an employee of Tompkins Weekly.
The exact events of that meeting are unclear, but one way or another it is clear the meeting went poorly. Wickham said Tompkins Weekly sought to talk to Cross about the meeting to get her version of events, but that Cross first said she wouldn’t be available until after Labor Day Weekend, then retained legal counsel before the phone call could take place.
Update: This portion of the article has been updated with the inserted statements from Cross. A portion of this article stating that Cross had declined to comment has been removed.
Cross said that she has been terminated from Tompkins Weekly as of Monday afternoon, Sept. 12, but has not been given an official reason for her suspension or termination. She has retained counsel, Ithaca attorney Peter Littman, and intends to initiate legal proceedings against the paper over her termination. She also said she has filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Labor over the situation, arguing that it violates her civil liberties to not be informed of an official reason for her initial suspension and subsequent termination.
A significant question that needs to be answered — and was implicitly posed in Barken’s speech — is whether or not Recckio threatened to reduce or eliminate access to Tompkins County officials over the objection to Cross’ column and Hart’s published comments.
The released email exchange in question does not show any threat, though there is a trove of other communications pending release due to FOIL requests. Wickham said they and Tompkins Weekly have not experienced that otherwise either (Editor’s Note: The Ithaca Voice cannot speak for other publications, but it also has not experienced any such conduct from Recckio).
“Deidra has not been fired from Tompkins Weekly, solely suspended at this point,” Wickham said on Friday afternoon, before Cross was terminated. “We are simply holding off on publishing any more stories written by her for now. […] And on the Dominick note, let us be clear: we have never felt like Tompkins Weekly or any of its staff, myself included, have been threatened by Dominick in any way on any matter, including the Reimagining coverage. He never threatened to reduce or eliminate access to county officials on the Reimagining or any other topic.”
For his part, Recckio said in an interview that he did not threaten to change or reduce access to county officials because of coverage during the Aug. 17 meeting, which he said was also attended by Deputy County Administrator Bridgette Nugent and Community Justice Center Director Monalita Smiley. He did state that at the meeting, Cross accused him of influencing coverage at Tompkins Weekly because of his email to Wickham. In an interview, Cross stated that Recckio said during the meeting that it was her publisher’s decision whether or not to recognize his concerns.
The released emails concern the primary column in question, but Barken’s allegations, while still somewhat vague, do appear to claim that Recckio’s conduct is part of a larger inappropriate pattern. Barken did not respond to a request for more information on his allegations other than to tweet “I take personal responsibility for telling my story as it concerns my constituency” and hoping for accurate coverage of the situation.
Barken has stated that multiple investigations are underway into Recckio’s conduct with the local press. That is certainly possible, but Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes told The Ithaca Voice she was satisfied with Troy’s review and would not be ordering a separate investigation at this time. Ithaca Acting Mayor Laura Lewis said Monday morning that the city is not planning its own investigation. Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten also said his office is not investigating the matter.
Ithaca Alderperson George McGonigal, who leads the Reimagining Public Safety Special Committee, also said his subcommittee would not be investigating the matter.
Meanwhile, the matter was not discussed at the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board meeting Monday morning, which is investigating potential ethics violations in the Reimagining Public Safety process, other than in a public comment by Zach Winn, the Republican candidate for mayor in Ithaca.
Barken also referenced several Freedom of Information Law requests being made regarding Recckio’s communications with the press, which have the potential to reveal more details on the situation but haven’t been released yet (FOIL requests legally have a 20 business day wait period before a government body has to either fulfill or reject the request, or delay it with a valid excuse).
There have been four requests made for those records (five now, as The Ithaca Voice has filed an identical FOIL request), all very similarly phrased and aimed, by Barken; Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA) President Thomas Condzella; Joe Cameron of Connect Political, a California-based consultant firm who works in conjunction with the IPBA; and Sequoia Valoy, the owner of Boxy Bikes in Ithaca.
Reached by phone, Valoy said as a business owner he was concerned about a perceived lack of policing in Ithaca after a stabbing near his store and, when told of the possible malfeasance, filed the FOIL. He did not remember who told him about the potential issues originally, or who told him what to FOIL.
Each FOIL request asks for Recckio’s communications with nearly every journalist from every publication in Tompkins County since early 2021: this editor and reporter Jimmy Jordan from The Ithaca Voice; publisher Jim Bilinski, associate publisher Larry Hochberger and former editor Tanner Harding of The Ithaca Times (Harding also commented to The Ithaca Voice that she had never felt threatened by Recckio over coverage during her stint at the Times from September 2020 to May 2022); Wickham and Todd Mallinson from Tompkins Weekly; Mark Anbinder of 14850.com; and a variety of generic email addresses at the Cornell Daily Sun. It is unclear when those FOIL requests will be fulfilled, though they were all made within the last two weeks.