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Campaign ads, mailers misleading

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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State Senate candidates are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. The latest round of mailers and television ads from both sides aren't faring well under scrutiny.


A Democratic State Committee mailer in residents' mailboxes this week distorts the facts about Republican David A. Renzi's state pension. And Mr. Renzi is misrepresenting state Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine's obligations to the state after hiring his sister. He's also using outdated information to mislead voters about what Mr. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, stands to receive from a private wind power contract.


THE PENSION ISSUE


The Democrats' mailer, "David Renzi has been caught red handed," states that Mr. Renzi has been "caught stealing money from taxpayers," that he "swindled taxpayers" and that voters shouldn't let the Republican candidate have "another chance to steal from us."


Mr. Renzi, as the Watertown Daily Times first reported Oct. 3, accrued state retirement credits he was not entitled to while serving for four years as legal counsel to the town of Pamelia. However, the Times also noted that the Watertown attorney has received no payout from the state, because he has not retired.


The mailer also said Mr. Renzi would receive a $60,000-per-year "taxpayer-funded retirement," which is false, based on current numbers.


Mr. Renzi, who is a Tier Four member of the state Employee Retirement System, has accumulated 2,251.36 days of credit not in dispute, primarily through work in the Jefferson County public defender's and district attorney's offices. As of today, his final average salary would be $58,903.


If the Watertown attorney did not receive credit for another day in the state retirement system and retired at age 62, the Times calculated his annual state pension to be $9,630 per year. If the 300 days of credit for his work in Pamelia are taken away, his annual state pension would be $8,501 per year.


Cort M. Ruddy, Mr. Aubertine's campaign coordinator, defended the mailer's claims.


"Think of pension credits as the debts of the taxpayers," he said. "There's no question that if you get improper pension credits, it is deferred theft, but it's a theft of taxpayer resources nonetheless."


Mr. Ruddy also stood by the pension figure.


"Our math on Mr. Renzi's improper pension was based on him continuing to receive these credits at the same clip from now until he retires. With a plum assignment like this, with no contractual obligation, no hours and few required responsibilities, we assume that was his intent," he said.


Christopher G. McKenna, Mr. Renzi's spokesman, said his candidate believes his state pension is now worth $5,000 to $6,000 annually, but provided no paperwork to support that claim.


WIND TURBINE WINDFALL


Mr. Renzi's camp debuted a television ad Wednesday titled "Darrel Aubertine: One of us? Really?"


The female narrator said Mr. Aubertine "wrote a letter asking town board members to compromise their ethics. The Board of Ethics said it would be a conflict of interest. Why would Aubertine do it? Because the vote would benefit him financially, to the tune of $100,000 a year."


Mr. Aubertine, then an assemblyman, wrote to the Cape Vincent Town Council on June 15, 2006, to give his opinion on whether town board members who had agreements with wind power companies should abstain from voting on a law that created townwide setbacks for turbines. The law regulates all projects, both present and future.


"After careful reflection, I feel that it is ethically proper that, in this case, all board members should vote on the issue at hand," Mr. Aubertine wrote. "In fact, I believe it is their responsibility to do so."


The Jefferson County Board of Ethics, in separate July and September opinions, advised the councilmen in question to "err on the side of caution to avoid the 'appearance of impropriety'" when deciding whether to vote on local zoning laws that would directly affect their private interests.


"The councilman should recuse himself from discussion of, and voting on, the adoption of such regulations," both advisory opinions concluded.


Cape Vincent received its own advisory opinion from Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna, an Albany law firm, in July, which Mr. Renzi's ad does not mention.


"For the town board, there appears to be no prohibited conflict of interest and the full town board may deliberate and vote concerning a draft local law of general applicability to regulate wind projects in the town," attorneys Michael G. Sterthous and Todd M. Mathes wrote. The lawyers did advise that town officials with apparent conflicts of interest not vote on decisions that affected only the specific projects in which they were participating landowners.


Mr. Aubertine and his late father, Paul J., sold their farm's wind rights to Acciona in summer 2004. The wind power company has a five-year option to build on his land, but has not sited any turbines in Cape Vincent.


If the company does build on the senator's land, his exact annual financial benefit is unknown.


Mr. Aubertine estimated in February that he could receive $10,000 per tower annually, although the county ethics board said in July 2006 that Wood Farm LLC, a Cape Vincent farm, expects $5,000 per turbine annually.


The Renzi ad uses the senator's statement in February that up to 10 turbines could be placed on his property. Since making that statement, the project was scaled back and proposed siting adjusted accordingly. The Times reported Sunday that the current project design has one turbine on the senator's property.


NO DEBT TO STATE


Mr. Renzi's Oct. 14 ad, titled "Sen. Aubertine didn't understand a law he co-sponsored," said that the state Public Officers Law that Mr. Aubertine violated by hiring his sister "calls for a penalty, a $40,000 penalty. Darrel Aubertine has yet to comply, raising serious questions of ethical behavior."


Yet the law is silent about whether a politician is required to repay the money earned by a relative who was illegally hired.


It states: "Any person who knowingly and intentionally violates the provisions" "shall be subject to a civil penalty in the amount not to exceed $40,000 and the value of any gift, compensation or benefit received in connection with such violation. Assessment of a civil penalty hereunder shall be made by the state oversight body with jurisdiction over such person."


When asked how Mr. Aubertine failed to comply, as the commercial stated, Mr. McKenna said: "By not paying back the money and the fine."


Mr. Aubertine said Tuesday that he sent a $1,901.30 personal check to the state comptroller's office Oct. 10. That amount is what the state paid his sister, Debra A. Wiley, for 21 days of work as a constituent liaison. The comptroller's office did not return a phone call seeking to verify that information.


The state Legislative Ethics Commission has not levied any fine, nor has any other agency. There also is no known investigation by any oversight body that could result in a fine being levied.


Mr. Ruddy said: "Them saying Darrel hasn't paid his fine would be like us saying Dave Renzi has not started to serve his sentence for pension fraud."


The campaigns also announced Tuesday:


n Mr. Renzi's vow to oppose legislators who call for tax increases, if elected.


"Higher taxes will drive even more jobs and young families out of upstate New York at a time when we desperately need more of both," he said in a press release. "As senator, I'll fight against Albany's taxers and spenders and stand up for the hardworking taxpayers of Oswego, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties."


n Mr. Aubertine's endorsement by Watertown Firefighters Local 191, which has 80 members who work at city fire stations.


"The people of this district are well served by Darrel, who is always willing to listen and can be counted on to work hard for the interests of our region," said Bob Seeber, Local 191 treasurer, in a press release. "We need Darrel in there working for us and that is why we have chosen to endorse him for re-election."

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