Berne Town Board has spent at $15K on investigating Dems

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Berne Town Board members Karen Schimmer, left, and Joel Willsey, right, sit at the dais during a June 2018 board meeting. 

BERNE — The Berne Town Board has spent at least $15,537.85 on investigations according to records received by The Enterprise through a Freedom of Information Law request.

All the investigations appear to have been of Democratic town board members. One recently led to a censure by partisan vote; the others were unsubstantiated.

The Enterprise requested documents from the town that outline the expenses for investigation of Joel Willsey, the lone Democrat on the board, who has told the paper that he’s been subject to two investigations at the town level, as well as investigations at the state and federal level, all of which he claims are the town GOP’s way of harassing him.

Two other Democratic town board members, Dawn Jordan and Karen Schimmer, who did not seek re-election last November, have recently revealed that they, too, were investigated by the same law firm the town hired to investigate Willsey — Roemer Wallens & Mineaux. No action came from those investigations.

Roemer Wallens & Mineaux has not responded to Enterprise queries about the validity of the investigations.

On July 27, The Enterprise filed a second Freedom of Information Law for all bills paid to Roemer Wallens & Mineaux.

On July 29, Town Clerk Anita Clayton, the town’s Freedom of Information Law officer, informed The Enterprise that the material requested on July 27 is identical to the material requested earlier in the month, even though the second request asks for more than just Willsey’s investigations.

The invoices received from Clayton are heavily redacted, showing only dates and most financial information so it is impossible to tell from the documents, posted at AltamontEnterprise.com, who was paid and for what.

Clayton did not return a phone call or an email from The Enterprise seeking clarification on why the request for bills relating only to investigation of Willsey would be the same as bills for all investigations conducted by Roemer Wallens & Mineaux. 

Jordan said she was investigated for not granting Randy Bashwinger the 18-percent raise he had requested or the 10-percent alternative that Supervisor Sean Lyons proposed. Bashwinger, the town’s highway superintendent, also chairs Berne’s Republican committee.

Similarly, Schimmer said that she, too, was investigated by the same firm for insisting that adults supervising teenagers’ camping out at Thompsons Lake go through background checks. Both Jordan and Schimmer voted against appointing Bashwinger to the town’s youth council.

 

Investigations of Willsey

Willsey ran for town councilman in 2017 and took office on Jan. 1 the following year. All the while, he has been the target of unsubstantiated accusations of various natures, all of which Willsey, former town board members, and some residents say are formulated by the local GOP as means of harassment. 

Willsey also endured months of investigations before he retired a year ago from his job at the state’s Department of Transportation, spurred by complaints from Bashwinger.

“Two IT technicians went through my computer at work repeatedly and found no trace of me going online with my work computer” for campaign use, Willsey said earlier this month.

The allegations were found to have no merit.

The latest investigation by Roemer Wallens & Mineaux — and the first to result in any sort of action — was kicked off by Republican councilman and veteran Dennis Palow’s allegation in August of last year that Willsey discriminated against him on the basis of military experience. 

Earlier that month, Willsey had emailed Lyons, then-town attorney William Conboy III, and then-board members Jordan and Schimmer to ask that town hall security be increased because he felt unsafe after a meeting held the month prior wherein Palow told Willsey, “If you keep talking crap about me, Joel, I’ve got something for you.” Palow was referring to letters to the Enterprise editor written by Willsey that were critical of Palow. 

In his email to Lyons, labeled confidential, Willsey wrote of Palow, “I say this because I believe he is unstable and has anger management issues. The attached recording of the July meeting clearly illustrates instability and wildly inappropriate behavior, including threats in our public meeting; this is my opinion.”

A subsequent email from Willsey addressed to Lyons and Conboy expressed that he was “very concerned about the potential for a PTSD situation” with Palow.

Roemer Wallens & Mineaux concluded in part that Willsey’s request for additional security was rooted in his knowledge of Palow’s veteran status, which made Willsey’s conduct “troubling” in the eyes of the firm. 

Palow had filed a complaint against Willsey with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 21, 2019, according to an incident report, which led to an investigation but no arrest. The report states that Palow alleged Willsey had disclosed Palow’s “privately diagnosed PTSD [to] the public” without Palow’s consent and that Willsey “sent out to the media” an email. The report goes on to say that Lyons stated that he feels no threat in working with Palow but that Willsey “is harassing and discriminating against” Palow.

Actually, Willsey’s email, which he had labeled confidential, was shared by Lyons with local conservative talk-show host Melody Burns.

The town board voted, 4-0, to censure Willsey at its June 29 meeting. Willsey was absent from the meeting.

“There is no determination that I discriminated and the ‘facts’ cited are very flawed or simply false,” Willsey told The Enterprise this week. “As an example, I never accused the Deputy Supervisor [Palow] of shooting [former supervisor] Kevin Crosier’s election sign on my lawn … The report is meaningless nonsense that serves no purpose but continued political harassment paid for by tax dollars.”

Other investigations into Willsey have sought to prove sexual harassment and workplace misconduct. 

The sexual harassment allegation came about after Willsey, in an email discussing the installation of signs along the town’s roadways, used the word “erected.”

Palow suggested that the word was inappropriate. The ensuing investigation deemed the accusation meritless. 

Willsey told The Enterprise that the sexual harassment and discrimination investigations are the only investigations of him that took place at the town level, to his knowledge, but added that he wouldn’t be surprised if there were more that occurred without his knowledge.

“That’s kind of rapid fire, isn’t it?” Willsey asked The Enterprise rhetorically after he was read the dates attached to each of the six invoices, which were made between June 2019 and Feb. 2020.

A substantial portion of the invoices is redacted, but the last two invoices are labeled “Palow Investigation,” in likely reference to the discrimination investigation.

 

Finances

The $15,537.85 spent by the town board on Willsey’s investigations does not include investigations into Jordan, Schimmer, or any other town employee or elected official who may have been investigated. 

“I don’t think that that [an investigation] is ever a good expenditure,” Lyons told The Enterprise earlier this month. “I’m more into the type of management style that I would much rather have people work their differences out than file grievances or cause investigations so personally … I don’t agree with this approach but it’s not my position to determine whether it’s worthy of investigation or not.”

The revelation comes as cries for the supervisor to discuss the town’s financial standing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic continue, along with accusations of frivolous expenditures. 

The Enterprise has received two letters to the editor this week — one each from a husband and wife — that request greater fiscal transparency and caution from the town board.

The Enterprise has been asking Lyons about the town’s finances since at least April and has yet to receive any substantial information beyond Lyons’s assurance that the town is in good standing to endure the pandemic’s sales-tax impact. 

On May 1, Lyons told The Enterprise that he would write a letter to the Enterprise editor addressing the town’s finances, but a letter was never received. 

On June 5, The Enterprise emailed Lyons to ask about the town’s finances after Westerlo Supervisor William Bichteman began sounding the alarm in his own town. Lyons did not respond.

On July 15, Lyons responded to a series of questions from The Enterprise about negotiations for a new highway worker contract, which included a question about the town’s finances at large. Lyons said he needed more time to provide that information.

On July 24, The Enterprise again reached out to Lyons about the town’s finances, and Lyons responded that he was with family and would respond to The Enterprise on July 27, which he did not do. ​

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