This is the first 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.
ITHACA, N.Y.—A slew of documents released by the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board have shed some light on the broad investigation into allegations that third-party interest may have guided the City of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) process.
The investigation — spurred by a 60-page complaint filed by Alderperson Cynthia Brock that has been expanded since it was originally submitted in April — was taken up by the Ethics Advisory Board in May. Since then, the board has been issuing requests for information to participants in the RPS process that their investigation is concerned with.
Those responses make up the cache of documents, the last of which were released on Oct. 6, and constitute the largest wave of new information to consider alongside what Brock provided in her wide ranging complaint. The responses, by and large, stand opposed to the allegation that Ithaca’s RPS process was subject to some form of third party influence.
Brock’s complaint has eight primary points, with various other sub issues detailed in them, that highlight potential conflicts of interest Brock asks the Ethics Advisory Board to explore in Ithaca’s RPS process. Ultimately, Brock’s complaint asks the Ethics Advisory Board to issue an opinion on whether a keystone report in Ithaca’s RPS process can be considered unbiased and an appropriate founding document for Ithaca’s RPS efforts to progress from.
The report, titled Implementing the City of Ithaca’s New Public Safety Agency, was produced through a 9 month long process and presented in March 2022 to the Ithaca community by a Working Group composed of Police Officers, City Officials and employees, as well as community members who have had experiences with the Ithaca Police Department, many of whom were Black or Brown. The individuals in the group were chosen by then Mayor Svante Myrick.
The report, which was accepted by the City of Ithaca’s Common Council in July, calls for a restructuring of the Ithaca Police Department (IPD), renaming it the Department of Community Safety, led by a civilian, with a Division of Police and a Division of Community Solutions, the latter of which would be initially staffed by five unarmed responders.
The recommendations stand to make a large change in local public safety, but one of the prominent threads in Brock’s complaint focuses on payments made to members of the RPS Working Group which, prior to Brock announcing her complaint, were not public knowledge, let alone widely known about in City government. Most of the members of Ithaca’s Common Council had only become aware of these payments in April 2022.
Co-leaders of the RPS Working Group Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood were offered payments of $10,000, and community members in the working group were offered payments of up to $2,000 for their work on the project.
The payments, Brock’s complaint cites, violated the City of Ithaca’s Code of Ethics which prohibits City Officials from soliciting, accepting, or receiving gifts or compensation that “could reasonably be expected to influence [them] in the performance of his or her official duties.”
In their responses to the Ethics Advisory Board, Rosario and Yearwood are both represented by the same attorney, Binghamton-based James F. Moran, who wrote a letter that amounts to a firm denial of any wrongdoing and rejection of the notion that their work was influenced. And the City, according to Rosario and Yearwood, never supplied them with a formal agreement that would designate them as City Officials — a position that Moran wrote both of them did not have the impression that they occupied.
In the letter, Yearwood said she did not initially know that she and other working group members might be eligible for compensation until Oct. 2021. Rosario and Yearwood’s understanding was that they would be compensated with $10,000 from DCI, and $10,000 from the City of Ithaca’s “discretionary funds” under Myrick’s “expenditure authority.”
Brock’s complaint also delves into this funding that was promised to Rosario and Yearwood. Brock wrote that these funds were not approved by Common Council and, in light of that, she asked the Ethics Advisory Board to determine if Myrick’s verbal promise resulted in the misappropriation of municipal funds. But Rosario and Yearwood never actually received payments from the City as a result of Brock announcing her complaint, and the City Administration Committee voting down the payments. The money they received came directly from the Park Foundation instead of through the city due to what Myrick termed, in his submitted responses, a “miscommunication.”
In his letter, Moran explicitly stated that “at no time did Rosario or Yearwood solicit compensation from the City. At no time did Rosario or Yearwood approach or solicit any third party entity seeking compensation. At no time did the City or any third party entity propose anything inferring a quid pro quo in return for compensation.”
Alderperson George McGonigal, who was a member of the RPS Working Group, said in an April 2022 City Administration Committee that Rosario had openly shared he was going to be payed for his work on the report in a general conversation. Rosario had talked about the payments in the early stages of the Working Group, according to McGonigal, who said he didn’t think much of it at the time. McGonigal said that Rosario didn’t share a figure at the time, or where it was coming from at the time.
Assisting in the development of the report was CPE, a national nonprofit that has the stated mission of supporting communities seeking to address inequities within policing, including redesigning local public safety systems.
Brock’s complaint asks the Ethics Advisory Board to consider whether it was appropriate for CPE’s services to be free of charge, explore the scope and role of the organization that may have not been fully disclosed, and to consider the appropriateness of accepting services from the organization that could result in “legislative changes” for the city. The
CPE donated approximately $700,000 in the form of services to the City of Ithaca in support of the local RPS process. A CPE spokesperson confirmed to The Ithaca Voice that the organization’s services are delivered at no expense for the communities it works with.
Brock cites an Aug. 2021 interview with CPE co-founder and CEO, Phillip Atiba Goff where he is quoted saying that in a text message conversation with Myrick that Ithaca does not need a police department, and Myrick responds by saying he wants to see that happen. Goff then says that Myrick asked what the next steps would be.
CPE has strongly rebuked that it has served a larger role than was readily disclosed to facilitate the RPS process in Ithaca. The organization has committed to participating in the investigation in the interest of transparency, but has criticized the Ethics Advisory Board itself for heading up such an effort under “threadbare” allegations.
Moran writes that Rosario and Yearwood maintain that CPE “acted in good faith, on a collaborative and supportive basis. At no time did CPE dictate agenda, or in any way attempt to impose control on the process.”
Origins of the money
The funds used to pay Rosario and Yearwood, as well as other members in the working group, stemmed from a $60,000 grant made by the Park Foundation to the Dorothy Cotton Institute (DCI) in Sept. 2021, a nonprofit organization based in Ithaca whose stated mission is a commitment to “practices that transform individuals and communities, opening new pathways to peace, justice and healing.”
DCI is a project of the Center for Transformative Action (CTA), a nonprofit organization affiliated with Cornell University that provides fiscal sponsorship and administrative support to other organizations — like DCI — that it believes work to transform inequities in society.
With CTA’s support, DCI applied for funding to compensate the community members of the working group, which in their view included Rosario and Yearwood.
Park Foundation Executive Director Rachel Leon was not able to provide a specific date to the Ethics Advisory Board’s inquiry of when or by whom the foundation had been approached about granting funding to pay members of the RPS Working Group. Leon stated that the foundation considers proposals for grants confidential communication.
“Considering the range of programs we support, and the frequency of interaction with the mosaic of city and community partners and grantees we engage with on a regular basis, we do not specifically track who initiates contact,” wrote Leon. Myrick has stated several times that the Park Foundation approached the city with interest in assisting the effort; Park Foundation has neither explicitly denied nor confirmed that.
According to the information provided by Leon to the Ethics Advisory Board, The Park Foundation contributed just under $1.5M directly to the City of Ithaca from 1995 to 2019 for various programs, not including grants made to related organizations like the Southside Community Center or Greater Ithaca Activities Center.
Anke Wessels, Executive Director for CTA, and Laura Branca, Project Director for the Dorothy Cotton Institute both stated in their responses that they had no involvement with the work conducted by the RPS Working Group. Branca stated that she was initially motivated to put funds towards paying community representatives in the Working Group after learning from City of Ithaca Human Resources Director Schelley Michell Nunn that there were no funds forthcoming from the city for those members. This was early in the Working Group’s existence, in June 2021. Branca also sought to acquire more funding for Rosario and Yearwood after learning that they had been verbally promised a compensation of $10,000 each by Myrick.
Tompkins County Communications Director Dominick Recckio is the President of CTA’s Board of Directors. In a comment to The Ithaca Voice, he said that he had “no role in DCI seeking out, acquiring, or distributing the grant funds to community members in the RPS working group.”
The Ethics Advisory Board was asked in their complaint to review the possible conflicts of interest that may have been created by the Park Foundation and DCI providing funding to members of the working group, and if the organizations had any influence over the selection of the members, or influence on the “perspectives and performance of the [working group] members themselves.”
Branca wrote in her letter to the Ethics Advisory Board, “In response to the Brock complaint that we were asked to get money for the City or a City program, we were not. In response to the accusation that [the Park Foundation], CTA, and DCI exerted third-party influence over the integrity of the RPS working group’s independence, we did not.”
Wessels, in her letter, noted that Rosario and Yearwood told her that none of the working group members chosen to participate for their lived experience were told that they would be acting as City officials while serving on the board, or were informed of and told to follow the City of Ithaca’s code of ethics.
Wessels wrote, “It is unjustified to claim now, many months after their participation, that the honoraria they accepted from CTA violated a City code of ethics about which the [working group] members knew nothing and to which they did not agree.”
Correction (10/13/2022): The Ithaca Voice originally reported that City of Ithaca Alderperson George McGonigal learned through the Center for Policing Equity that the RPS Working Group Co-leads Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood, as well as the working group members, were going to be compensated for their work. McGonigal learned directly from Rosario that he was going to receive some compensation as a working group co-lead.