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Personal ethics fuel Senate debate

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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GOUVERNEUR — Perhaps state Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine said it best when he told those at a debate Wednesday: "There are no shortage of issues that could be discussed with this campaign."

Yet after four debates, Mr. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, and his Republican opponent, David A. Renzi, can't shake questions about the same three topics: negative campaigning, conflicts of interests and ethics.

That doesn't mean the questions aren't evolving. The inquisitors are learning from previous debates, drawing up pointed queries that try to elicit a specific answer from their favored candidate's opponent.

The stakes are high. With each debate being recorded by both sides, the candidates know any misstep could become fodder for their opponent's next television spot or press release.

Nicholas J. Vaugh, an Ogdensburg city councilman, continued the string of asking Mr. Aubertine about selling his wind rights on his Cape Vincent land. He asked what Mr. Aubertine stood to gain financially through the arrangement.

The senator said that was proprietary information, adding: "It's not something that I, or someone else that signed these contracts, is at liberty to disclose."

Mr. Aubertine and his late father, Paul, have previously received one $700 check each annually for leasing their wind rights to AES/Acciona Wind Power New York. When AES makes its next round of payments, Mr. Aubertine is expected to receive the entire $1,400.

The senator told the Syracuse Post-Standard last winter that AES could pay him up to $100,000 per year if 10 towers were erected on his 546 acres of land. He later said, through a spokesman, that $10,000 per-tower fee "was a guesstimate at best."

As for Mr. Renzi's potential financial benefits, a Hammond resident asked the Watertown attorney what he stood to gain by being enrolled in the state pension system.

The Watertown Daily Times reported Oct. 2 that Mr. Renzi accrued state retirement credits he was not entitled to while serving four years as legal counsel for the town of Pamelia. He did so by being categorized as an employee, when he was actually an independent contractor.

"You asked me what I had to gain? Zero," he said. "I paid them to work there. To insinuate that I did something improper is ridiculous."

The town erred by making Mr. Renzi pay for its financial obligation toward the retirement system on his behalf. Although Mr. Renzi accrued 300 days of service credit and $26,539 in salary credit in the retirement system while working for Pamelia, he received no payouts because he is not yet retired.

Mr. Aubertine added: "It's been clear that the attorney general has stated that for a contractor to take credits for the pension system is illegal. There's no two ways around it."

J. Bradshaw Mintener, Canton, continued questions about attack ads, saying, "Campaigning that goes negative doesn't establish a trust and it's not working again this year."

He asked the candidates about Mr. Renzi's television ad that employs children to attack the record of Mr. Aubertine. The ad does not address Mr. Renzi's record or counterproposals.

"I started off this campaign saying I was going to run a positive campaign and I submit I've done that," said Mr. Renzi. "Certainly, you have to distinguish yourself in a campaign. That's democracy. An effective way to do that is to point out different voting records and distinctions. That's what I've done."

Mr. Aubertine agreed there are several ways to make a point.

"For me, I don't think the exploitation of kids is the way to do it," he said.

Ronald Bell, Ogdensburg, continued the questioning of Mr. Aubertine about employing his sister for three weeks when he first became senator, a violation of state law. The Ogdensburg man asked if the senator was being investigated by the attorney general or the legislative ethics commission.

"There has been no dialogue" with those agencies, Mr. Aubertine said. "I terminated her within the hour as soon as I found out. And the money she was paid, I gave back."

The senator said he made "arrangements" to return the money "as soon as I found out" a state ethics law had been violated.

But Mr. Renzi said that's not true.

"Six months went by before he even acknowledged the issue," he said of a constituent's question at the Sept. 16 debate in Ogdensburg. "And at that point, the money had not been paid back."

The candidates did manage to find some common ground. Both said they would fight to protect the right to bear arms and against downstate efforts to limit gun ownership. The pair also said they would work to create economic opportunities by utilizing natural resources. Both said they'd like to lower gasoline taxes. And the opponents both said they didn't see the Senate seat as a steppingstone to a higher position, such as governor.

Before the debate, Mr. Aubertine announced that he was endorsed by the National Association of Social Workers, Albany. There are 500 members who live in the association's central division, which includes the 48th Senate District.

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