By W.T. ECKERT
CANTON — St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain wants to convene a grand jury to investigate what she says is a loss of over a half million dollars in state grant money and is blaming County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire.
In a letter to Ms. St. Hilaire dated June 30, Ms. Rain said she will convene a grand jury “to conduct an independent investigation” into why a grant that has paid for two victim advocate positions in Ms. Rain’s office has been lost.
But Ms. St. Hilaire said if there is anyone to blame for the failure to apply for a grant that would pay for employees in the DA’s office, it is Ms. Rain.
In the same letter, Ms. Rain accuses Ms. St. Hilaire of improperly and unlawfully using federal and state forfeiture funds from the DA’s Office.
Since 1999 St. Lawrence County has been the recipient of a Victims Advocacy Grant from the state Office of Victim Services, which has funded the two positions at approximately $102,000 a year over each five-year grant term.
In a statement issued by Ms. Rain Tuesday, she said there was a “failure to make a timely application,” resulting in the loss of the funding.
According to state law, a grand jury can be convened to “hear and examine evidence concerning offenses and concerning misconduct, nonfeasance and neglect in public office, whether criminal or otherwise, and to take action with respect to such evidence as provided.”
“There are questions on why this failure occurred, why the county administrator was not on top of the application process and why she has provided unsatisfactory answers to the Board of Legislators regarding how this occurred under her administration,” Ms. Rain said.
Ms. St. Hilaire said she was unaware that such a grant existed until about two weeks ago when St. Lawrence County Probation Director Timothy P. LePage brought her a letter from OVS dated June 16 addressed to Ms. Rain stating that the contract for the grant funding will conclude in September.
The Probation Department, since 1999, as a courtesy to the DA’s office has been applying for the grant, Ms. St. Hilaire said.
“This is a DA’s grant and the DA should have applied for these monies,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.
Leadership in that department changed in December, when Mr. LePage was appointed director. As a matter of miscommunication, Mr. LePage said he was not informed of the existence of the grant and as a result the new grant application, which had a deadline of May 12, was overlooked.
Mr. LePage said had he learned of the grant prior to its deadline he would have returned the responsibility for applying back to Ms. Rain’s office.
“Obviously if the state is going to make $500,000 available to apply for, there is no way we would not have wanted to apply and pushed this off on the District Attorney’s Office,” Mr. LePage said.
Mr. LePage wrote to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services and requested assistance to fund the two positions for the next two years, until the county can find another funding source.
“These positions immensely help victims, courts, probation and the district attorney’s office in St. Lawrence County,” Mr. LePage said in his June 18 letter.
Ms. St. Hilaire questioned why a misunderstanding like this would be brought to a grand jury.
“Why would the district attorney convene a grand jury to look into something that appears to be an obvious miscommunication between her department and another department in a deadline for an application?” Ms. St. Hilaire asked. “There is no conspiracy here and no criminal intent. I am having the county attorney conduct a review to find out what happened and why it was that this grant was missed. Is this an indictable offense? I truly do not think so.”
But Ms. Rain said it’s all untrue.
“We have never filled to that grant because it has always been probation’s grant,” Ms. Rain said in a phone interview late Tuesday. “The victim advocates were working out of the probation department several years ago and they both spoke with Heather Boyce, Mr. LePage’s secretary, weekly, if not more, to ask if the application had been completed. Why would (Ms. Boyce) tell the victim advocates that the application was being completed? That is what we are going to find out in grand jury.”
In addition to Ms. Rain’s investigation into the loss of grant funding, the DA said she would be launching an investigation into the use of $12,148.61 by Ms. St. Hilaire.
On June 19, Ms. Rain said she received an email seeking invoice approval for $148.61 that would be used to pay for cables for the Board of Legislators microphone system.
Furthermore, Ms. Rain said that an additional $12,000 had been authorized for use from the DA’s forfeiture funds to purchase board room conference equipment on Dec. 19.
“Such encumbrances were apparently approved by your office and the prior District Attorney, Ms. (Nicole M.) Duve, before she left she left office on Dec. 31, 2013,” Ms. Rain wrote to Ms. St. Hilaire. “When I reviewed how the forfeiture money was being used I refused to approve this distribution, as it constitutes a violation of law.”
According to the state Comptroller’s Office, “distributions of forfeiture moneys under section 1349(2)(h)(i) and (ii) of the CPLR must be deposited, respectively, in a ‘law enforcement purposes’ or “prosecution services” subaccount of the general fund, and used only for law enforcement purposes in the investigation of penal law offenses or for the prosecution of penal law offenses.”
Ms. Rain said in her letter that the microphone system for the Board of Legislators “can in no way be construed to be toward the prosecution of penal law offense.”
Ms. St. Hilaire said she didn’t need Ms. Rain’s approval or authorization to use the funds that were authorized by Ms. Duve and that those funds were used accordingly with law.
In 2013 alone, Ms. St. Hilaire said the legislative chambers had been used 29 times as a court room between St. Lawrence County Family Court, Department of Motor Vehicle hearings, depositions, Surrogate’s Court and a grand jury hearing. She added that there were 20 additional days that were booked for court proceedings that were cancelled when other court rooms became available.
“So we had a justified use for those funds,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “It is often used as a courtroom and given that it absolutely is an appropriate use of those funds and there is nothing illegal here, nobody is doing anything underhanded.”
Ms. Rain asked how the court system had the right to funds from her office to help her prosecute.
“In no way, shape or form can I give money to the courts. It is a huge conflict of interest,” Ms. Rain said. “Additionally, we do not do family court, surrogate, DMV hearings, which is a judicial function. They have nothing to do with prosecution or our office.”
The state comptroller office has been contacted by Ms. Rain seeking an investigation and audit. Ms. St. Hilaire said she welcomes the audit and will cooperate however necessary.