Belts, jaws get tight

It would seem the sins of the “predecessor” have been visited on the successor.

County executive Pat Ryan revealed last week that the office of public defender, which he has overseen as chief executive since last June, had failed to file for some $2.5 million in annual state assistance accumulating over a period dating to 2014. It would appear Ryan demanded and quickly received the resignation of long-time department head Andrew Kossover. They called it resignation, as in “sign this and get out of here by closing time.”

Some, including legislative chairman Dave Donaldson, have asked how the county missed filing for free money every year over a period of about seven years. What Donaldson did not say in reports published in the Freeman was that former county exec Mike Hein, usually referred to as “my predecessor” by Ryan, had almost total control of county government during that time.

Donaldson, after returning tanned and fit from a Florida vacation, wondered whether somebody elsewhere in the trail of evidence (than Kossover) might be to blame, i.e., the bean counters in county finance charged with keeping track of things like state grants.

He might be looking in the wrong direction. The record shows that in 2013, former comptroller Elliott Auerbach flagged that problem in one of his periodic audits. I can’t say if Auerbach’s advisory of substantial funds being left on the table was ignored by the Hein administration, but the fact now is it wasn’t acted upon.

Why?

Call it the politics of animus between Hein and Auerbach. For Hein to even publicly recognize that arch-enemy Auerbach had found a discrepancy in his operation would signal not only incompetence, but weakness. Worse, the public might have begun to take Auerbach’s audits seriously, thus encouraging even more scrutiny.  

The price for saving face? Potentially, several million dollars if a cash-strapped state decides the statute of limitations has run out on late payment applications.

Ryan says he’ll ask rookie comptroller March Gallagher to follow up, though to what extent has yet to be revealed. While no great fan of Hein these days, Gallagher is a former Hein appointee and Ryan running mate and as such might not be as inquisitive as say, outside auditors. Just sayin’.

For Kossover, this embarrassing disclosure couldn’t have come at a worse time. By most accounts a competent and often compassionate public defender, 2020 could have been Kossover’s chance to show what he could do with a competitive operation. The public defender had been seriously outmanned by the DA’s office until the state last year authorized the hiring of six new defense attorneys, at state expense. For once, Kossover, instead of pleading most of the defender’s indigent clients to the best deal the DA would offer, could fight it out on a more level playing field. And now he can watch those wars from his law office in New Paltz.

Meanwhile, the free-spending Ryan administration has been suddenly confronted with some inconvenient truths. The governor’s threats of financing on the backs of localities the $6 billion budget deficit he and the legislature created have local governments scrutinizing their budgets with a fine- tooth comb. All around the state they have begun red-lining all but the essentials. Ryan’s response, only 50 days into his first budget, is to ask (ask?) department heads to hold the line on spending.

This and much more will be detailed at Ryan’s first address as executive to the Ulster Chamber of Commerce at its monthly breakfast in Kingston on Wednesday.