ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca and the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board (TCEAB) appear wedged in a stalemate.
The TCEAB has been investigating a wide-ranging ethics complaint filed by City of Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock since May. But over the last four months, the city has continued to argue that, on most fronts, the TCEAB lacks the authority to conduct the investigation it has undertaken primarily into Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety initiative, and the conduct of former Mayor Svante Myrick.
And in their latest move against the TCEAB’s authority to conduct its investigation, City Attorney Ari Lavine and former Mayor Svante Myrick have turned their attention to the board’s Chair, Tompkins County Legislator Rich John. All current letters and disclosures of the investigation can be found in full here.
Myrick and Lavine both penned letters in December accusing John of having colluded with Brock to compose the ethics complaint she submitted to the county’s Ethics Advisory Board. Myrick and Lavine’s allegations rest on the formulation of an op-ed that Brock submitted to The Ithaca Voice and was published on April 4, 2022, which prefaced the ethics complaint she submitted to the TCEAB in the following weeks.
Emails between Brock and John surfaced as the result of a FOIL request the city was fulfilling, showing that Brock’s op-ed was extensively edited by John prior to its submission. This, Myrick and Lavine say, taints the investigation process irrevocably and should stop it from continuing.
“Mr. John is attempting to serve as judge and jury over an ethics complaint that he helped to create,” wrote Lavine in a Dec. 3 letter to the Ethics Advisory Board — an accusation which Myrick echoed in his own letter to John and the board.
Lavine indicates in his letters that the TCEAB’s reaction to the allegations could determine the level to which the city is willing to allow its employees to participate in the investigation.
“The city urges the board and Mr. John to voluntarily take such steps as are necessary to remedy the tainted process in which they are now engaged,” Lavine wrote. “The steps taken (or not) can be expected to affect, among other things, the extent of the city’s continued cooperation with the Board’s investigation, including producing officials for any interviews by the board.”
In their separate letters, both Lavine and Myrick call for John to step away from the investigation over the perceived conflict of interest, stating that a balanced investigation into the RPS process is infeasible with him in charge.
“Your failure to disclose this clear conflict of interest, and to recuse yourself as a result, is wholly inappropriate, and has now put you in the position of leading an investigation about your own complaint,” Myrick wrote. “As an attorney, you certainly are aware that [it] is not neither ethical nor appropriate for someone to judge a case they originated. Given how tainted this process has been from the beginning, it should be evident to all that a fair investigation is not possible.”
John responded to Lavine specifically in a rare letter of his own, as previous communication between the board and the City of Ithaca had been handled by Ferrara and Lavine, respectively. John acknowledges that he “had concerns about certain aspects of the RPS process,” though he does not specify, but continues that he “had my concerns exactly because of my connection with the process.”
John said he did originally write his own op-ed (published in The Ithaca Voice on March 29, 2022) and did also comment on Brock’s, also offering several edits on hers. Brock’s op-ed laid the groundwork for her ethics complaint, which would be officially filed one month after the op-ed’s publication on April 4.
In his letter to Lavine, John maintains that he did not know that Brock was planning to file an ethics complaint — and with the TCEAB at that — and that when he was editing her opinion piece he thought it would only be an op-ed.
“It is important to dispel any insinuation that I somehow coordinated any filing of any ethics complaint before any agency, authority, board, or panel with Ms. Brock. I did not. As far as I know, it was her decision alone. I furthermore adamantly deny that I somehow conspired with anyone. Your accusation is entirely false,” John said.
He continued, “Based on the reasons discussed, and the limited impact of an advisory, non-binding opinion which has no legal impact on the City, I do not believe that I have any conflict of interest which prevents me from continuing in this process.”
John said he doesn’t know what comments he made on the op-ed that would be considered improper, though his edits were certainly significant. Edits on the first two paragraphs of the op-ed can be seen below, and it appears Brock accepted the vast majority of John’s tweaks throughout the piece, when compared to what was published. Upon review of Myrick and Lavine’s concerns, the TCEAB’s legal counsel deemed that none of John’s actions amounted to a need to call off the investigation or for John to step down.
Perhaps most relevantly, John also added this passage at the tail-end of Brock’s column, which she included in the published version: “In order to achieve the highest level of trust and confidence in government, NYS Ethics Laws puts forward clear rules to prevent corruption, favoritism, undue influence and abuses of government position. Gifts of services —to the City and County itself — which may result in influencing of legislation should in my mind not be accepted or allowed, and should be actively avoided and discouraged.”
Brock supports John’s version of events, insisting that his comments were not significant to the op-ed’s substance. She also said her prior emails to Mayor Laura Lewis and other city officials from March, which raised questions about the Reimagining process, show that her concerns existed independent of John’s contributions to her op-ed. John and other county and city officials who were members of the Community Justice Center Advisory Committee were included as recipients on those emails, though.
“Rich John’s comments on my draft Op-Ed were elaborative, but did not add to or alter the fundamental arguments in my piece which sought to provide a comprehensive list of concerns as to the extent of outside influence on Ithaca’s RPS process,” Brock said. “To say that Rich John crafted my ethics complaint is completely unfounded, as the documents I submitted shows that it was the series of email exchanges in March and April that set the groundwork for the Complaint to the TECAB, and that my complaint was expanded when new information became available.”
Myrick also alleges that John’s motivations in the investigation should be questioned because of a disagreement the two had during Myrick’s tenure as Ithaca mayor. Myrick states that John asked him to “evict all homeless residents of the ‘Jungle’” which would have benefited a nearby development in which John is involved. Myrick says he refused the request.
According to the county legislature’s annual financial disclosures, John is employed by Taber Street One LLC, which acquired the three parcels of land in November 2020 for $240,000. The abutting lots associated with Taber Street One are addressed as 805-807, 809, and 811-813 Taber Street. The lots are mostly empty parking lot space, and are occupied by a small building, a garage, and shed.
The disclosures also reveal that John works as a solicitor for Ports of New York Winery, which is on Taber Street, whose owners have publicly insisted that the City of Ithaca fix the homelessness situation in that area of town.
In response to a request from The Ithaca Voice, John declined to comment further on the issue but said that the TCEAB’s work would be continuing. The board met again on Jan. 10.
But the TCEAB’S gridlocked efforts to compel the City to participate in their investigation stands in contrast to the completion of the city’s own internal investigation in December, which was also spurred by Brock’s public announcement of her ethics complaint back in April. That’s a result of city officials still objecting to the investigation’s methodology and even its legal authority to proceed.
In that report, Myrick and other city officials caught some heat for certain decisions that fostered a lack of transparency about the Reimagining process but Kristen Smith, the outside investigator, deemed that nothing rose to the level of an ethical violation or improper undue influence on the city’s process outside parties.
In the face of what might be a significant impasse, the months of back and forths between the city and the TCEAB are the most defining thread of the board’s investigation that the public has access to, since the majority of the business they conduct is done in closed doors executive sessions. It’s not the first time city officials have been accused of dodging the investigation by county officials, though they have consistently pushed back against those claims.
In one letter to Lavine, Paul Ferrara, the legal counsel for the TCEAB, notes that while city officials have “refus[ed] to meet directly with the Board,” including Lavine, Mayor Laura Lewis, Alderperson Robert Cantelmo and “other city officials,” who were all interviewed for the city’s internal investigation. Lavine has said that the TCEAB needs to answer the city’s concerns about the scope and authority of the investigation before proceeding, something which he feels has not been adequately addressed.
While the TCEAB has the power to subpoena witnesses, the potential of this happening has not been publicly raised with any seriousness. Subpoena powers have been mentioned among members of the board in past discussions, but the letters on behalf of the TCEAB have instead raised the potential of the board making adverse inferences if the city doesn’t participate in some way.
Lavine indicated in his Dec. 3 letter to the TCEAB that he felt the next best steps would be for the board to submit its written questions to the city so they can evaluate the “appropriateness” of the interviews the board is seeking.
Ferrara responded to Lavine on Dec. 19, writing that, “It remains unclear why you and/or various other City officials and employees are unwilling to cooperate in this ethics investigation — especially since it appears there was full cooperation with the investigation commissioned by the city.”
The “lack of cooperation” on part of the city, Ferrara wrote, has hindered the TCEAB’s investigation. Ferrara proposed that Lavine, himself, and potentially the TCEAB, meet and discuss Lavine’s concerns with the board’s investigation.