Kenney disbarred after Leandra’s Law arrest

— Photo from the Guilderland Police Department

Sara Neff

GUILDERLAND — Sara O’Connor Kenney, who also goes by the name Sara Neff, was disbarred on Sept. 9 after a conviction on charges — including aggravated driving while intoxicated with a child under the age of 16 in the vehicle — that stemmed from her arrest by Guilderland Police in March 2017.

Kenney, 39, of 37 Fairway Ct., Voorheesville, pleaded guilty in May to aggravated driving while intoxicated with her young son as a passenger, an automatic felony under Leandra’s Law, which is named for Leandra Rosado, an 11-year-old killed in 2009 in a crash in which the driver was the intoxicated mother of one of her friends.

Kenney also pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor; and to drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle on a highway and refusing to take a breath test, both infractions, according to court documents.

Kenney is the daughter of Mary Donohue, who was a two-term lieutenant governor of New York, elected, with Governor George Pataki, in 1998 and re-elected in 2002.

Albany County Court Judge Peter Lynch sentenced Kenney, in May, to five years’ probation and a $1,000 fine. He revoked her driver’s license for one year and ordered her to use an ignition interlock device for five years and to attend a victims’ impact panel.

Kenney did not respond to a message from The Enterprise left on her cell phone’s voicemail.

Disbarment and her job

On Thursday, Sept. 6, the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department issued an order stating that Kenney was disbarred, retroactively to the time that she pleaded guilty to a felony.

The order notes that disbarment is automatic when an attorney is convicted of a felony, and that pleading guilty is considered equivalent to a conviction.

Sara Kenney began working as a staff attorney for the New York State Comptroller’s Office in September 2009, according to office Spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman. Freeman said that in May of this year Kenney moved to a new, non-legal position.

Freeman said she could not discuss specific personnel matters including whether the move was related to Kenney’s conviction in May.

Sean Morton, deputy clerk of the Appellate Division’s Third Department, said that the rules in this particular case are very clear: If an attorney is convicted of a felony, he or she is disbarred “by operation of law.”

Disbarment “happens on a regular basis,” Morton said, adding that it would be difficult to estimate how often. He said that the Appellate Division’s Third Department covers 28 counties and has jurisdiction over about 77,000 lawyers admitted to the bar in New York State and living all over the world. “And some of them,” he said, “get in trouble.”

Under New York State law, a lawyer who has been disbarred can apply for reinstatement, he said, but only after seven years. An applicant would have to show passage of the multi-state professional responsibility examination. The court has the discretion to impose the bar examination again, Morton said, and to refer an attorney seeking reinstatement to a committee of attorneys called the Character and Fitness Committee, for an interview.

The arrest

According to the Guilderland Police arrest report, on March 3, 2017, Neff was charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated with a child passenger under the age of 16; with acting in a manner injurious to a child less than 17 and with first-offense operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, both misdemeanors; and with drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle on the highway, refusing to take a breath test, speeding, failing to keep right, and failing to stay in a single lane, all infractions.

The report outlines the events leading up to Neff’s arrest this way:

Police received a complaint from an employee of the McDonald’s on Route 20 and Church Road in Guilderland, stating that a woman who had been drinking what the worker believed to be alcohol inside the restaurant had gotten into her car with a child. The worker gave police a description of the car and the license-plate number.

In a supporting deposition, Shirley Wu, who was working on March 3, 2017, as a cashier at McDonald’s, stated, “I saw her drinking from a glass bottle with an orange label from her purse … her words were slurred as if she were drunk … she stumbled….”

A supporting deposition from the shift manager that night, Jennifer L Wilson, states she had watched the woman, described by her co-worker as “visibly drunk,” eating with her son. “When they finished eating, I watched them leave the store, and towards a silverish-blue BMW crossover … The lady put her son in the backseat of her car, and then got into the drivers side … She then sat there for a few minutes, and then pulled out of the spot, heading toward the back exit ….”

Wilson called the police.

Police saw the car go off the road multiple times and almost strike a utility pole, the arrest report says. When police initiated a stop, the car did not stop right away. When interviewed, the driver “appeared dazed and confused,” had glassy, bloodshot eyes, and smelled of alcohol, the arrest report says.

Police saw a small child in the backseat. Asked if she had been drinking, the driver said, “Yes, at gymnastics,” and said that they do not serve alcohol at gymnastics, but that she had brought her own. She failed field sobriety tests and refused both a preliminary breath test on the roadway and a datamaster breath test at the police station.

Guilderland Police press releases

Although Guilderland Police routinely put out press releases on Leandra Law arrests, Chief Carol Lawlor said this week that she and Deputy Chief Curtis Cox both looked all over for a release on Kenney’s arrest and were unable to find one and that, apparently, no release was ever sent out.

Failing to issue a release was certainly not intentional, and was not done as an act of favoritism, Lawlor said, adding, “Nobody would do that.” Lawlor said she looked through all police documents associated with the case, and there is no mention anywhere of Neff making a request to keep her arrest out of the news. If Neff had said that, police would have written it down, Lawlor said.

Neff did, however, tell police the night of her arrest that her mother was a former lieutenant governor, Lawlor said.

The Guilderland Police Department has a policy of issuing press releases about felony arrests, Lawlor said, adding that it issues releases for all Leandra’s Law arrests.

“I can’t think of any felony that we wouldn’t at least look at to send out,” Lawlor said.

A look back through the department’s Facebook page shows that no press release about Neff was posted there at the time, although an array of releases on Leandra’s Law charges or endangering the welfare of a child were posted in the months before and after Neff’s arrest.

Lawlor sent The Enterprise the department’s policy on releases. The department issues them for matters of public interest (such as a rash of unsolved car break-ins), any ongoing investigations, which Lawlor said meant any crimes that haven’t been solved; and emergencies (as, for instance, in November 2016, for reports of gunshots in Crossgates Mall).

The department began issuing press releases in 2002, Lawlor said.

The Enterprise picks up arrests reports weekly from the Guilderland Police Department, to be printed in a “Blotters” column, but did not receive a report on Neff in 2017.

More Guilderland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.