This is the second installment in a three-part series delving into a large set documents released by the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board as it continues its investigation into potential ethics violations during the Reimagining Public Safety process. The first installment can be read here.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca city officials have formally responded to the requests of the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board, submitting dozens of pages of responses to an extensive list of questions that give a further glimpse into the Reimagining Public Safety process and what was going on behind the scenes. 

While questions are answered, the city’s position is clear: large portions of the investigation are inappropriate and an overreach by the Ethics Advisory Board, which has been conducting a review of the Reimagining Public Safety process since a complaint was formally made by Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock in May 2022.

The response from City Attorney Ari Lavine is on behalf of himself, Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, Alderperson Robert Cantelmo (who flagged the expenses slated to go to the Reimagining Public Safety Working Group as chair of the City Administration Committee) and Ithaca Chief of Staff Faith Vavra. However, Cantelmo and Vavra have only been involved officially with the city since January 2022 and September 2021, when they respectively took office and were hired, limiting their knowledge of the situation, according to the responses. 

Included in Lavine’s response are nine years of financial disclosures from former Mayor Svante Myrick, the scope of work agreed to by the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), the non-disclosure agreement between the city, CPE and the working group members, and the letter to CPE ending the connection between the firm, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County, which was sent on June 21, 2022. 

One particular objection from Lavine prevents a substantial number of the questions asked from being answered: that the board does not possess the investigative authority to seek certain information that it is attempting to gather. There are occasions where, despite objections, answers are listed on behalf of Lewis, Cantelmo, Vavra (and Myrick later) from Lavine, but many of the questions are rejected outright on that basis. That will contribute to the murkiness of the issues in this story, since a very frequent response from Lavine to the EAB’s questions is “Respondents object to this request on the ground that it seeks information about matters outside the scope of the Board’s authority…”

How that will impact the investigation, at this time, is unclear. EAB chair Rich John, also a Tompkins County Legislator, confirmed that as a result of Lavine’s letter the EAB had sought a further legal opinion from the outside counsel retained by the board about what the EAB is legally allowed to investigate and what it isn’t. John said the outside counsel had rendered a legal opinion on whether the board is actually allowed to investigate certain elements of the complaint brought forth by Brock and would be sending a response to Lavine. John did not immediately detail what conclusions the outside counsel reached. 

Responses from Laura Lewis, Robert Cantelmo and Faith Vavra (written by City Attorney Ari Lavine) 

Lavine dedicates the first several pages of the submission to attacking the Ethics Advisory Board’s conduct so far, including rebukes for suggestions that the City of Ithaca was not cooperating with the investigation that John had lodged in late July. Further, Lavine’s submission argues that of the counts it is currently investigating, the board’s jurisdiction only covers one of them: the solicitation of third party payments for “certain non-City employee members of the Working Group from the Park Foundation and Dorothy Cotton Institute.” 

The other allegations, regarding possible misappropriation of funds to give to Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood as leaders of the Working Group; accepting services from the Center for Policing Equity for free; and potential lobbying efforts organized by former Mayor Svante Myrick while he was in office (the latter allegation centers on that the People for the American Way, which Myrick left office to lead, has hired several local people to publicly push for approval of the Reimagining plan), do not fall under Article 18 of the General Municipal Law or the city’s Ethics code, in Lavine’s view.

That means, Lavine argues, that the Ethics Advisory Board has no jurisdiction to investigate those claims or to render any recommendation on whether or not they constitute an ethical violation at all at the end of its investigation. 

Lavine further states that while the EAB is limited by law regarding what it can investigate, the city’s own investigation does not have those limitations.

“The [Ethics Advisory Board] has an obligation to the public to articulate the specific lawful scope and limitations of its advisory jurisdiction over the subjects of the complaint. The city encourages the board to do so at the earliest possible time to avoid the necessary inference of political motive that would necessarily be drawn from a board insistent on conducting an investigation outside the bounds of the law,” Lavine writes. Here, Lavine is likely encouraging the EAB to consult with its outside counsel and to produce the resulting opinion for public consumption. 

While the first several pages are teeming with venom, the rest of the filing partially dives into the questions. However, using Lavine’s contention that a substantial portion of the investigation is improper and beyond the Ethics Advisory Board’s purview, many questions are left unanswered due to scope objections. 

Still, some light is shed on the situation. One of the city’s contentions is that normal procurement requirements for services, contracts, etc., which normally might mandate a formal bidding process, are not applicable because the services in the situation under investigation were donated by the Center for Policing Equity. 

Perhaps the most interesting information is within Lavine’s direct response to questions asked of him. He acknowledges that “generally” a person serving “on a city advisory board or working group” may not receive outside compensation or payment for their participation, but then identifies a potential loophole, saying that the “factual premise of this inquiry is that the payment to the advisory board or working group members would be paid by the city.” The money was not paid by the city due to an “administrative miscommunication,” according to Myrick. The grant went directly from the Park Foundation to the Dorothy Cotton Institute, which made the payments to the co-leads, Rosario and Yearwood. 

Lavine also says that whether or not Myrick sought advice from him regarding the acceptance of any award or donation from the Dorothy Cotton Institute falls under attorney-client privilege, and thus does not answer the question, as he does with the following question that concerns whether or not Myrick requested advice regarding donation of goods/services from the Center for Policing Equity.

It has been difficult to nail down whether or not the City of Ithaca has an explicit monetary threshold that determines whether or not an expense has to be approved by Common Council or whether the decision can be made administratively, such as by the mayor alone. Lavine has not responded to requests for clarification from The Ithaca Voice on this point; Myrick has said he understood the figure to be $30,000, but did not cite a specific statute for that figure. The first question posed to Lavine alone asks this same question, but he answers that it is beyond the scope of the investigation. 

Otherwise, Lavine upholds that there was never a formal contract or financial agreement between the City of Ithaca and the Center for Policing Equity, that the only agreement of any kind produced by CPE was in the form of the aforementioned NDA. Unfortunately, the NDA’s language applies to “confidential information” defined as “any and all information furnished by the Disclosing Party to the Receiving Party for the purpose of exploring, analyzing, and synthesizing data into meaningful ways that inform, educate, and guide future policy development.” In other words, basically all information conveyed between the two theoretically seems subject to the NDA. 

As a brief aside, since it is mentioned in Lavine’s response, Lewis and Kristen Smith, the outside counsel hired by the city to investigate potential third party influence in city operations overall, respectively, both declined to comment on the status of the city’s internal investigation. There does not appear to be a timeline for its completion. 

Svante Myrick’s responses

A portion of Myrick’s submission decries Brock’s allegations as politically motivated, citing police union support (that was from the New York Public Safety Alliance in 2021, though Brock has insisted she didn’t ask for that support and the circumstances surrounding the support were rather odd) and that Brock was angry over not being chosen as acting mayor when Myrick left office earlier this year, a sentiment Myrick claims she expressed in a phone call between the two. Fellow Alderperson Laura Lewis was chosen and is still serving now.

Brock denied both accusations, claiming that during the phone call Myrick references, she only asked Myrick if he thought Lewis was experienced enough and had enough resources to be successful as acting mayor after his resignation. Myrick responded affirmatively.

Myrick’s inclusion of these points aims to undermine the credibility of the initial allegations, and to “highlight the precarious nature of this investigation and to illustrate the potential political and personal grievances the Board may be called on to address, either directly or indirectly, should it not use this opportunity to properly define the scope and limitations of its advisory authority.” He discouraged the board from using the case to set a precedent that would inappropriately expand its investigative scope going forward. 

It’s important to note that Brock has maintained she supports the overall recommendations of the RPS report and wants to see local police reform, though her allegations over improprieties in the process have contributed to slowed progress. Myrick calls the allegations under investigation “baseless,” as he has previously said, and that they only serve to undermine the reforms put forth by RPS. He also reiterated that he did not solicit the Park Foundation’s involvement, but that they expressed interest, independently and out of altruism, as the city was “grappling with the inherent unfairness of constantly requesting that individuals from marginalized communities provide volunteer services to the City for free.” 

While Myrick does not identify who took part in the mulling, he says “the decision was made” that co-chairs and members of the Working Group and subcommittees should all be compensated with funding offered by the Park Foundation and the Dorothy Cotton Institute. He also states that members of the Ithaca Police Department that took part in the Reimagining meetings were compensated for their time as well.

As mentioned before, Myrick said an “administrative miscommunication” resulted in the Park money going directly to Rosario and Yearwood as opposed to going through the city first, but argued that it doesn’t rise to the level of an ethics violation, either via the general municipal law or the city’s Code of Ethics. But, significantly, he does acknowledge agreeing that Rosario and Yearwood “should be compensated at $20,000 for their work and expertise.”

Myrick says he does not remember exactly when that rather off-hand agreement was made, but says that it likely took place when he originally asked for their services—and that Common Council did not approve the agreement, since he thought it was in his administrative purview to approve expenses of that size himself. 

While Myrick stated his objections with the investigation’s scope, like Lavine, he commenced with answering the questions and laying the background of how the process came about, with his longest response detailing how CPE was chosen to help with the Reimagining process. Myrick says that in late July 2020, after the directive to reform policing from Gov. Andrew Cuomo came down in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Myrick reached out to Center for Policing Equity CEO Dr. Phillip Goff to gauge interest in helping the effort; attempts to garner interest from local organizations failed, Myrick said, because prior experiences with city and county initiatives had made them a target for political attacks.

Goff agreed quickly, Myrick said, and offered the assistance with the process for free to begin. Working Group co-leads Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood asked for CPE’s continued help as the meetings began and plan formulation started, with CPE continuing to assist free of charge.

Shortly after introducing CPE, Myrick said former County Administrator Jason Molino contacted him and asked for the county to be involved in the reform process as well, and the process was started after city and county leaders interviewed CPE representatives to determine qualifications. CPE’s willingness to conduct the work for free didn’t hurt either, Myrick said, during the still unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

As for the compensation to the co-leads, Myrick acknowledges that Common Council did not approve awards or donations from the Park Foundation or the Dorothy Cotton Institute, deferring to the city “as to the specific regulations and guidelines governing the acceptance of donations.” 

Myrick was employed by People for the American Way since 2017, which had been previously disclosed, when he was hired as their director of Youth Leadership Programs. He was then hired as the Executive Director early this year, which was when he stepped down as mayor to move into that role. Brock essentially alleges that Myrick’s pre-existing connection to PFAW taints the work that he has done after leaving office, alleging that Myrick was recruiting local people to work for an on-the-ground lobbying campaign, Ithacans for Reimagining Public Safety, which is a subset of PFAW, while he was still in office. 

In his response, Myrick argues that the employment was not constitute any conflict of interest because it fits within the mayor’s job to maintain outside employment and to seek policy outcomes. Myrick says that aligns with PFAW’s mission entirely, and that since the goal was for the good of the city (in his mind), it does not merit a conflict of interest.

He does not address PFAW’s hiring of local residents (about five people total) to push for the passing of the Reimagining for Public Safety proposal.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com