Ethics board denies photocopying request

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  • The Chronicle looks at disclosure forms at the current county board of ethics office at 15 Matthews Street in Goshen. From left: Alexis Tarazzi, features editor; Pamela Chergotis, managing editor; Hema Easely, investigative reporter; and Susan Corsi, account executive. They were allowed to copy by hand but not camera.



— The Orange County Board of Ethics says it doesn't have the authority to override county law that prohibits copying of financial disclosure forms filled out by its members and other county officials.

But it will consider changing that as part of a larger overhaul of the ethics code it's contemplating following "a recent ethics matter in the news" and the resulting grand jury investigation. This is an apparent reference to the case of Legislator Leigh Benton, who took a job with an architecture company he had helped hire for the county government center restoration in Goshen.

The county’s position, provided by Donald G. Nichol, attorney for the board of ethics, was the latest in a back-and-forth between the county and The Chronicle. The newspaper had asked to photocopy or photograph the disclosure forms of county officials, including members of the board of ethics, as part of effort to research possible conflicts of interest as officials tackle some big issues involving big money, including not only the government center but also the transfer of Valley View nursing home to a private development corporation and the possibility of casinos coming to the county.

The county denied permission, citing its code of ethics, which prohibits the copying of officials’ financial disclosures. It said the position has been upheld by state law.

But the Chronicle challenged it through its attorney, Laura Handman, who represents numerous news organizations in their First Amendment and freedom of information matters.

In her letter to Nichols last week, Handman said the state court upheld the prohibition on photocopying only at the State Ethics Commission and Temporary State Commission on Local Government Ethics. Archdeacon v. Town of Oyster Bay (2006) ruled that local ethics boards were subject to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), and that “inspection and copying of annual financial statements, including the source of the official’s income and a delineation of investments, is the very type of information that the public has the right to uncover when looking into conflicts of interest.”

State law trumps local law, Handman said.

The Chronicle can appeal the denial to County Attorney Langdon Chapman.

Nichol asked the Chronicle to contact the County Legislature with its request as it considered changes to the Code of Ethics.

“I suggest you make your opinion on the matter known to the County Legislature so that it may be considered in the process,” Nichol wrote.

The Chronicle will appeal Nichol’s decision.

“We remain hopeful that the disclosure forms will be made available by the Orange County Board of Ethics not only for inspection but for copying as well, as required under the Freedom of Information Law," Handman said. "Copies will enhance accuracy of reporting about such important information about public officials.”

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