Corruption News

Steve McLaughlin’s trial begins in an anxious season for Rensselaer Co. GOP


TROY — With jury selection beginning Monday in the criminal trial of Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, his fellow Republicans are watching and waiting for the latest developments in what has been an anxiety-inducing period. And they are doing both of those things very quietly.

The reason: McLaughlin’s case — felony charges that he stole from his campaign and filed falsified documents to cover it up — has been moving toward trial over the past 13 months as unrelated state and federal investigations of ballot fraud have been intensifying and already netted guilty pleas in U.S. District Court from two local GOP officials.

“Nobody is talking about it when that might get you before a grand jury,” said a longtime Republican elected official and party activist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

McLaughlin’s trial in Rensselaer County Court begins less than two weeks after former county Republican Elections Commissioner Jason T. Schofield pleaded guilty to federal charges and admitted fraudulently obtaining and filing absentee ballots using the personal information of at least eight voters without their permission. He pleaded guilty seven months after former Troy Councilwoman Kim Ashe-McPherson pleaded guilty to similar federal charges.

The ongoing investigations have created a palpable level of anxiety in the county’s political class, and a sense that other arrests may be imminent. McLaughlin’s case is being prosecuted by the Public Integrity Bureau for the state attorney general’s office. The voter fraud investigation that led to the two convictions is being conducted by the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office, although the attorney general’s office also has a parallel investigation ongoing into ballot fraud allegations in Rensselaer County.

McLaughlin’s defense attorney is Benjamin W. Hill of Albany, who previously served as a law clerk to former U.S. Magistrate Randolph W. Treece and also was part of the defense team for former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, who was acquitted of federal corruption charges.

In the voter fraud case, a federal grand jury has been hearing testimony as a trove of election records from the county have been subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney’s office and the state attorney general’s office. The federal investigation also led to at least two top-ranking county officials, Richard W. Crist, the county director of operations, and Jim Gordon, the county purchasing director who is also a North Greenbush town councilman, having their mobile phones seized last year. 

McLaughlin, Crist and Gordon have significant political influence. McLaughlin, whose post grants him access to a significant number of patronage positions, declared himself the “boss” of the county in a tape recording made during the 2019 Troy mayor’s race, in which he tried unsuccessfully to pressure GOP mayoral candidate Tom Reale to drop out. Crist’s expertise in running campaigns as a consultant as well as his oversight of campaign petitioning and absentee ballot efforts has made him a central asset for Republicans across the county. (“Rich is the Republican Party,” one GOP official said.)

McLaughlin has pleaded not guilty to the state felony charges — third-degree grand larceny and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing — arising from the alleged misuse of campaign funds.

Interviewed by the Times Union during a public event on Thursday, McLaughlin assailed the charges.

“Despite the constant attacks, we are ready to go — I’m 100 percent innocent,” he said during a break from the announcement of the grand opening of the Rensselaer County Emergency Services Training Complex in Wynantskill. “This is a persecution much more than a prosecution. There is no case here, and a first-year law student could see that. So we’re ready, and it’s going to be just fine.”

Asked whether the prosecution offered a plea deal to resolve the case and if he plans to testify at trial, McLaughlin declined comment. 

The county executive is facing another challenge this winter: In December, McLaughlin announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and would be undergoing treatment. He has said the diagnosis would not force him to leave office. On Thursday, he said his health would not prompt him to request a delay in the trial.

“I’ve been ready to go since the day they launched this attack,” McLaughlin said. “No, it’s not going to deter me; that’s just something that I deal with.”

If convicted of a felony, McLaughlin would under state law have to leave office. Under the county charter, he would be succeeded by Deputy County Executive Mary Fran Wachunas, also the county health director, who was appointed by McLaughlin to the post and confirmed by the county Legislature in December.

The charges against McLaughlin, a former state assemblyman, arose from his use of campaign funds during his first successful campaign for county executive in 2017. The state and federal absentee ballot fraud investigations are tied to elections in 2021, when McLaughlin won reelection with 63 percent of the vote. But he has not been identified as a focus in the voter fraud probes.

McLaughlin is not the only Rensselaer County executive to face trial in a political corruption case in recent decades. Republican Henry F. Zwack of Stephentown was acquitted in September 2001 of perjury charges in a case involving a no-show job. Just eight months later, Zwack and four others were acquitted on 27 misdemeanor counts and seven felonies related to an alleged attempt to rig a 1998 civil service test in exchange for political support.

Between the two trials, Zwack resigned as county executive. He went on to become a state Court of Claims judge and served as an acting state Supreme Court justice. He retired from the bench in December.

McLaughlin stands accused of stealing $5,000 in funds from his campaign account on Nov. 21, 2017, and falsely reporting the expense in campaign documents filed with the state Board of Elections.

According to the charges, McLaughlin wrote a check from his campaign account to Hudson Valley Strategies, a consulting firm owned and operated by Crist. The political operative allegedly deposited the check in his firm’s bank account and then wrote a new check for $3,500 that he delivered to McLaughlin’s former campaign treasurer, Jennifer R. Polaro, who had previously worked as McLaughlin’s chief of staff in the Assembly. Crist allegedly paid Polaro at the State Police barracks in Sand Lake.

At the time, Polaro and McLaughlin had recently had a falling out related in part to her allegations that he had assaulted her — a charge she retracted in a recording made by McLaughlin and then un-retracted a few months later. He has denied any physical abuse, but apologized for using abusive language caught on a recording.

Amid that conflict, Polaro claimed that McLaughlin owed her money as well as the value of a laptop and iPad she had loaned him. Polaro went to the State Police barracks as a neutral site to meet Crist. A trooper, apparently unaware of the origin of the funds, facilitated the handoff.

“There’s nothing illegal — ever — in what I did,” McLaughlin said last week. “I’ve been innocent every day. I’ve never taken money. I’ve never directed money to be spent on my behalf, and we will be victorious.” 

Polaro was arrested in March 2020 as part of the same investigation and charged with grand larceny, a felony, and petit larceny, a misdemeanor, for allegedly withdrawing funds from the former assemblyman’s campaign account and spending the money at Rivers Casino in Schenectady years earlier. Polaro pleaded guilty three years ago to a misdemeanor charge in Schenectady City Court.

She has been cooperating with law enforcement authorities, testified before the grand jury that indicted McLaughlin and is expected to testify at his trial.

The unrelated federal investigation into ballot fraud led to Schofield’s Jan. 11 guilty plea to 12 counts of unlawful possession and use of a means of identification that he used to commit voter fraud. Schofield has resigned his county post to which he had been reappointed in December by the county Legislature.

Last June, Ashe-McPherson — who in addition to her elected service on the Troy City Council had a county job — pleaded guilty to fraudulently submitting absentee ballots in the 2021 primary and general elections, in which she was a winning candidate. The Conservative-Republican incumbent resigned her City Council seat representing the South Lansingburgh and North Central neighborhoods a day after pleading guilty.

The Times Union reported in October that the state attorney general’s office had served a grand jury subpoena on Rensselaer County seeking a trove of absentee ballot documents that were handled last year by Crist and Gordon.

Though neither Crist nor Gordon has been accused of wrongdoing, there are concerns within the party that the ongoing investigations could distract or sideline them from their political work for this year’s local elections.

The same attorney general’s subpoena asked for absentee documents that may have been handled by county employees Leslie A. Wallace and Sara J. McDermott. McDermott has held the Troy patronage post of “city marshal,” and ran for county executive on the progressive Working Families Party line after beating McLaughlin’s Democratic challenger, Gwen Wright, in a primary for the third-party line. McDermott, who has been described by Republicans as a GOP operative, did not actively campaign for county executive; her primary run was viewed as an attempt to siphon votes away from Wright, whose name only appeared on the Democratic line.

It’s a strategy that, like other forms of political warfare, has a long history in Rensselaer County.

Robert Gavin contributed reporting.


Source link

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.