Cheryl’s Shenanigans (in the Monroe County Executive’s Office)

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[by Susan Ashline]

As attacks on Cheryl Dinolfo’s coiffure make way for assaults on her integrity, it’s timely to update my squelched efforts to get public information connected to her husband, a county court judge.

Stories on the Monroe County Executive’s questionable role in the recent I-Square/COMIDA scandal go down like dry toast. I’ll try to make my read more palatable. Come along on this fun (if not troubling) little exercise in the machinations of county politics. Put yourself in the driver’s seat by clicking on the linked text.

I’ve completed a manuscript of my first book, which is currently under review by literary agents. A Jacket off the Gorge is the true story of a criminal case handled by Monroe County Court Judge Vincent Dinolfo. He is married to Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo. The judge has been made aware of the manuscript. He hasn’t read it, of course, but he knows how it reads. He was there.

Here’s a snapshot of one chapter: Judge Dinolfo reverses a decision by a higher court judge (State Supreme Court Judge Alex Renzi) only to rescind it weeks later, after admitting that striking down Renzi’s ruling meant deciding Renzi had acted improperly.

In October 2012, Judge Dinolfo requested – and received – a disc containing recorded jail calls between myself and a defendant (the subject of my book). Without giving a reason publicly, Judge Dinolfo listened to these recordings while the defendant’s case was still pending before him; prior to sentencing.

I want the disc.

According to Robert Freeman, Director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, I am entitled to the recordings. Because I was a party to the phone calls, the county cannot deny my request based on “invasion of privacy.” I cannot invade my own privacy.

This past October, while Cheryl Dinolfo was stumping for county executive, I filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to get the disc that was in her husband’s hands. It went ignored. After Cheryl Dinolfo took office I tried again, in many different ways, to get a response to my request. It continued to go unanswered.

Eventually, I emailed an appeal on January 15 to William Napier, Dinolfo’s Communications Director who’d previously ignored all of my contacts. I blogged about it within 24 hours. And the blog got shared all over social media by former news colleagues and others. And I tweeted it to Cheryl Dinolfo’s Twitter page and to her staff. My blog got thousands of hits, leaving me rolling in 3¢ per day revenue from Google AdSense.

The following week, I received an envelope in the mail from the county post-marked January 20. Inside was a letter dated January 14, a supposed response to my initial FOIL request from months earlier.

Isn’t that fantastic(al)? It either takes a county employee six days to drop an envelope in the mail, or the letter wasn’t actually written on January 14, but predated.

I had asked for (1) the jail visit log showing the dates of my visits with the defendant during a specific time span, (2) the jail phone log showing only the calls made to me, and (3) the phone recordings (particularly the disc in Judge Dinolfo’s possession). I was sent the visit log, but not the phone log. And though I requested the visit log from October, I was not sent any from October, but was sent several from November. Also included was a bill for the November logs I never requested. I guess that happens when you’re hurriedly photocopying just any “stuff” you can get your hands on in order to get a letter in the mail to stop the flap.

As for the call log and the phone recordings, I was flat out denied. How can I be denied the phone log based on “unwarranted invasion of [my own] personal privacy,” yet sent the visit log (albeit the wrong dates)?

At least I had Napier’s predated reply, so I took the opportunity to write a champion FOIL appeal to Deputy County Executive Thomas Van Strydonck citing all sorts of case law which undeniably proves I am entitled to the information requested. And of course Van Strydonck couldn’t reject it (I foolishly thought). He is, after all, a former judge.

After patting myself on the back, I mailed the appeal (read it here and here, and be equally as proud).

Soon after, I got an envelope from the county post marked February 12 (that it’s torn is testament to how excited I was to finally get my request filled), and inside was a letter from Van Strydonck dated… wait – dated February 12? Unlike Napier, he was able to mail it the same day he sealed the envelope.

To my surprise, it was not only a denial, but worded the same as Napier’s — verbatim — a couple sentences handily dismissing my request, giving the appearance my appeal was never even read. Van Strydonck’s letter even sloppily cited an incorrect date. His letter used vague language, side-stepping the mandate that the office detail reasons for the denial. It used the same ridiculous and inapplicable “invasion of privacy” excuse, yet did not state which records were denied based on this.

At the recommendation of Robert Freeman, director of the Committee on Open Government, I’d included a request for written certification if any of the records I requested no longer existed. That is my legal right. However, I received no certification. Instead, the letter claimed the phone recordings were only available to me through subpoena, citing civil court law (something Freeman said is incorrect, as civil court law is unrelated to FOIL).

Then – something curious happened. My website visitor plug-in showed a visitor was referred to my site by Google using the search terms “Susan Ashline Judge Vincent Dinolfo.” How odd. Who would ever have reason to put those two names together in a search bar? The visitor came from Irondequoit, the town where Cheryl and Vincent Dinolfo reside. It could be anyone. (Thanks to all of you for stopping by, and — smile, you’re on IP surveillance).

After that, something even more peculiar happened. An attorney who Judge Dinolfo knows to be a friend of mine told me the judge pulled him aside one day in the Hall of Justice and said he’d gotten a FOIL request for the disc. This friend, who has no personal relationship with Judge Dinolfo, says the judge told him he no longer has the disc, that he’d gotten rid of it.

Yet, I got no certification the disc was no longer in existence. Instead, I got a denial stating I would need to subpoena it. And how did Judge Dinolfo know about my FOIL request? If I was required to get the recordings by subpoena, why would county staff approach the judge with my request for the disc?

Why should anyone care about my story? Because one day, they might want to exercise their right to obtain public information. I could file legal action to get the information I seek, but I don’t have the money to throw away fighting for that which I am entitled. Rights are only available to those who can afford them. As citizens, we expect – and deserve – better than public officials who cherry pick which individuals’ rights to honor, and which to trample.

 

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Politicians Being Human – Our Political Rally Journey

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[by Susan Ashline]


In the end, my vote came down to a missed handshake.

My 11-year-old son got interested watching news reports of the presidential election, then he was watching debates. When I heard Bill Clinton was coming to Rochester to stump for his wife before the New York primary, I thought Reed would like to see a former president.

That’s how it started: simple.

The night I offered up the idea, my son got increasingly spirited, and as I lay in bed with flu, he popped in and out, strategizing on how he was going to get Clinton’s autograph. And he did.

Reed became hell-bent on getting each candidate’s autograph. He fashioned a special election folder from a two-pocket school folder, labeled it and affixed election stickers. He borrowed my leather briefcase and organized it with permanent markers, pens, paper, and various utility inserts he’d made with black-and-white checkered duct tape.

To score an upfront view, we arrived at Hillary Clinton’s rally an hour ahead of the doors opening. I was surprised to find myself shoulder-to-shoulder with 1,300 people. Clinton’s speech done, she walked the perimeter of the podium (the “rope line”) shaking hands. Some members of the democratic party got my son’s duct-taped signing sheet to a Clinton staffer. While we waited for it to come back to us, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren stood near us, talking to someone. She overheard me telling her staffer that my son had been hoping to meet Hillary.

Warren, who doesn’t know me and never met me, said to her staffer, “Take them back.”

But it was too late, Hillary had just left. Back came Hillary’s autograph to Reed. Warren’s ever-so-slight gesture left a big, positive impression on me, and I spent time wondering why. It was impulsive. It was not asked for, but offered. It was . . . human.

We didn’t leave too far in advance for candidate John Kasich’s rally the following day. Who would go? No one was voting for him.

We hit the traffic clog long before the rally site and encountered a line at the door that wound down the sidewalk to the tune of more than 4,000 people. Republican Mark Assini, who’s running for Congress, was shaking hands and talking to folks in line.

Once again, we managed to get in the main room, right at the podium. I liked what Kasich had to say. If I was registered as a Republican, he’d get my primary vote.

We missed the rope line walk at the conclusion, and Reed was so disheartened he didn’t get Kasich’s autograph. He stood forlorn in the main room long after it’d cleared.

Then, I noticed Kasich had returned to speak with reporters. I grabbed a “reserved” sign from the bleachers and we walked up to him. Not only did he write on it, “Reed – live your dreams!” but he also took time to tell my son an anecdote of trying to score an autograph when he was Reed’s age.John Kasich autograph

When we left, Assini was still there, still shaking hands.

Three autographs in fist, our simple venture turned complex. We were on a mission. Donald Trump was in town. A friend dropped us off at the airplane hanger six hours early, in the freezing cold. But it paid off. There was a guy who positioned himself directly in front of Trump’s podium, and we stood right next to him. Behind us were some 10,000 people.

I wasn’t “one of them.” This was a tough one for me. I’m very anti-Trump. However, if he is to be my president, it is not only my right to find out what he’s all about, but my obligation.

No, I don’t like Trump.

But at the end, he walked the rope line. Slowly. Methodically. Calmly. He stayed in one spot until he’d taken each person’s item to sign. No worries about him flying past my son’s outstretched arm.Donald Trump Autographing at Rochester Rally

While it didn’t change my opinion of Trump, it certainly softened it. It was difficult to admit to myself that after all my serious concerns about Trump’s platform, something so seemingly insignificant could matter so much.

Maybe it was that Trump understood the value of marketing himself in such a way. Maybe it was strictly vanity. Maybe he genuinely likes connecting with individuals. Whatever the case – it worked. He shook hands and signed autographs, and it mattered.

Bernie Sanders MCC Iceplex April 12 2016 (1)aReed was 4-for-4 and Bernie Sanders was rallying. I pulled him out of school because some of the best lessons are learned outside the classroom. We got up at 5:19 a.m. We waited in a long line of traffic, then a longer line of pedestrians. It was so cold we brought mylar blankets. After two hours, my body was shutting down, my teeth chattering so hard, I was afraid I would bite off my tongue.

Once we got through the metal detectors, we managed to get right up to the rope line. This meant we were pretty much assured an autograph.

Bernie was the candidate I knew the least about, so I was paying close attention to each word. I liked a lot of what he said. I thought I might vote for him in the primary. I could finally have a candidate to back, though some of what he said was too extreme for me.

He finished to cheers and applause and music, and Reed readied his duct-taped Bernie rally ticket and indelible marker for an autograph.

Bernie flew down the steps of the podium – straight out the door. He did not walk the rope line. He went for the exit. Bernie couldn’t get past the throngs of people on his way out who were reaching out to him, so he grabbed a few hands as he whirred past. One guy held out a sign and marker, and a security guy snatched it as Bernie blew by.Bernie Sanders Rushing out of Rochester Rally

From the rope line, the masses screamed Bernie’s name, trying to get him to come for a handshake. An autograph.

He maybe had to use the bathroom, I reasoned. He had to rush to another rally? He’s old and was too exhausted? But if he those were correct, then he’s not fit to be president. He’s too unskilled with time management to be president.

Is he too out of touch with people to be president?

His message rang “inclusion.” Yet, he’d excluded all the people who stood for hours in the cold, making themselves sick and hurting just for a chance to shake hands. His actions seemed incongruous with his message.

Did we not matter?

Reed Ashline at Ted Cruz Rally

We missed one autograph, but went to the Ted Cruz rally anyway. In line, we again saw Mark Assini. He came over and chatted, and told us he’d shaken so many hands at the Trump rally his hand was sore. I gave him credit – lots – for walking the lines and meeting with people.

Cruz was criticized for the brevity of his speech. But like Trump, he took an inordinate amount of time connecting one-on-one with prospective voters, posing for photos and signing. He patiently signed his name for my son.Ted Cruz Rochester Rally

In the days leading up to the primary, I tried to erase my personal feelings about Bernie not walking the rope line. But in the end, it mattered. I could go into detail about this candidate or that, and I’d like to get into specifics about platforms and agendas and criticisms and rumors. But then I’d be denying the importance of a handshake. For whatever reason – it mattered.

And because Bernie could not give me his time, I could not give him mine.

NY Primary Election Day

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An Unhoppy Easter Tale of Letting Go

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[by Susan Ashline]

This was an Easter of growing pains – his, not mine.

Saturday evening, I thought my son would be interested in an Easter Egg hunt at the community center. This was a cool one, a flashlight hunt for kids grades five and up. Reed had spent the previous six years in fear of egg hunts, refusing to do them. He was the kid who stood there when the whistle sounded, then cried as all the other kids stampeded and scooped up the eggs in front of him – *snap* gone. But this year, at 11, he decided he wanted to do egg hunts. He just wanted the candy.

I was so excited. All these years, he’d deprived me of taking him to Easter egg hunts.

Reed asked a friend of his to join him at the event. We got there early. The gym was dark but for flashes of disco lights, and there was music playing. A group of girls arrived. They went into the gym alone.

We waited longer, and eventually Reed’s friend showed up. His father said “hello” – then left.

The boys lingered in the entrance waiting for another friend, while I sat in a chair in front of a TV, next to a table with magazines. Another group of kids arrived and went into the gym. As a parent saw them off, I overheard a staffer enthusiastically shout, “You’re welcome to stay if you want!” Nope. She didn’t.

Reluctantly, I told my own son, “I can pick you up later.” He didn’t want me to leave. I was so relieved.

I thought this was going to be a parent-child event. It hit me hard – the kids were old enough to be sans parents. This was it. The end. Or, the beginning. It was the first event (except for birthday parties) the parents weren’t expected to stay with their children and participate, or help them participate.

I wasn’t ready for this. He’s only 11. And he’s a small 11. I mean, he still sleeps with stuffed animals. How can he be old enough to go to an event without me?

It’s not like I hadn’t been through this before. But when my oldest was 11, I had a toddler in tow. It’s been more than 21 years of attending parent-child events. And now, it’s over. I mean – it’s over?

When the friend didn’t show, the boys made their way into the gym. A staffer offered me pizza. I helped her carry boxes. Ya know – made it look as though I was there to be of assistance, rather than because I was afraid to let go.

While they did their middle-school age stuff in the gym, I walked around outside. But I didn’t go far. What if he needed me to cut his meat?

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Courthouse Sex Abuse Hushed by Lawyer Committee

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[by Susan Ashline]

A friend questioned the sex abuse allegations against Donald Trump. “Why would women wait until now to come forward?”

I know why.

I noticed Lawrence Baker’s name on the Attorney Grievance Committee website when I was doing research for a book I was writing. The committee is charged with fielding complaints of lawyer misconduct.

Baker had been my attorney when I went through Family Court a decade ago. I fired him. He’d been hitting on me relentlessly. I didn’t tell the judge that was the reason (and it wasn’t the only reason). I kept my mouth shut, because no one would believe me. I even questioned myself: What if he wasn’t hitting on me? I’d embarrass myself if I was wrong. I would come across as vain.

Little did I know, I wasn’t the only one.

The committee had suspended Baker from practicing law for two years, beginning in 2012. I fished around and found the report:

In 2010, Baker and opposing counsel were in a pretrial conference in judge’s chambers when the judge left the room. Baker began making sexual comments to the female lawyer, and then touched her on the shoulder. He called it a “love tap” and said the comments were a “bad joke.” But the Referee hearing the complaint stated Baker’s excuses were “disingenuous and calculating.”

It gets worse — unbelievably worse.

The Referee then determined Baker “exposed his genitals” to the lawyer, kissed her neck and shoved both is hands inside her blouse and bra, and fondled her breasts. He chased it down with more sexual comments “which included crude sexual references to opposing counsel’s anatomy,” the report states.

How did it get that far? Did she, at first, question whether it was actually happening? Would she be embarrassed if she was wrong, and come across as vain? Was she hoping he would stop? Was she thinking it would be her word against his? Would she think no one would believe her?

There’s more.

Despite already validating previous complaints against Baker, the committee did not disbar him, but handed out a limited suspension.

In summary, as though justifying a two-year suspension as harsh, the Grievance Committee enumerated their reasons. One — they’d issued Baker a letter of caution in the past for engaging in inappropriate conduct directed toward a client.

Two — the committee gave Baker a “you’ve been a bad boy” letter another time for falsely notarizing his client’s signature when he had never even met with the client (is that not a criminal act?). Bakers “client” complained that not only did he not sign the document, but he had no knowledge of the proceeding.

Baker is back in business, continuing to represent the most vulnerable of women — those going through Family Court. And the unnamed female attorney (his victim) is forced to work with a person whose actions, as outlined in the report, read like a sexual predator.

And the Grievance Committee did nothing to notify the public. Sure, you can find the decisions on their convoluted website if you go hunting for it, clicking around a maze of links, but most people are unaware of the committee and its website.

The Grievance Committee in the Rochester area is led by Greg Huether, a former Monroe County District Attorney with an abysmal record in successfully handling attorney complaints. His committee is chaired by lawyers. It’s lawyers policing lawyers. And in the vast majority of cases, the committee sends citizen complaints of attorney misconduct into the proverbial trash.

The Annual Report for Huether’s district is disgracefully bad. In 2015 (latest stats), the committee handled 1,973 complaints. Of those, 256 lawyers were sent private/confidential “you’ve been naughty” letters, 157 were were referred to the Appellate Division for a disciplinary hearing. The rest — 1,816 — were dumped.

Of course, the Baker case involved another lawyer as a complainant. When Baker’s client complained, the only sanction was a letter telling Baker, Don’t do that again. But he did. And much worse.

And instead of removing him so he can’t ever do it again, he’s back in business. Though the lawyers making up the Grievance Committee could have — should have — made the public aware of what happened, they didn’t tattle on their own kind.

A waste of money, lip service, a complete failure — I would call the Attorney Grievance Committee a joke… except there is nothing funny about this.

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No “Freedom” of Information at Monroe County Exec’s Office

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[by Susan Ashline]

At the Monroe County Executive’s office, Freedom of Information requests are more like public records held captive.

I learned the Communications Department is in major upheaval, and my request for public records may not be the only one going ignored.

This is ironic, considering the new County Executive, Cheryl Dinolfo, is pushing to create an Office of Public Integrity to make Monroe County “the most ethical and transparent government in the nation.”

Yet, access to public records is clearly not a priority for Dinolfo. A source tells me the Communications Department has undergone a “complete overhaul” and may not know the status of any Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. There, it is more appropriately SOIL (Suppression of Information).

It was more than three months ago I filed a FOIL request. Though I got confirmation it was received, it’s been months of chasing down the status, all of which has led to dead ends. The agency has gone well beyond the deadline for responding. Simply ignoring the FOIL constitutes a denial. However, my initial request asked for a denial in writing so I could make an effective appeal. Even a denial in writing has been denied me.

Coincidentally, my FOIL involves Judge Vincent Dinolfo, husband of the new County Executive. Granted, Cheryl Dinolfo wasn’t in office when I filed my FOIL request, but she was campaigning (same party affiliation as the outgoing County Executive, and the party’s pick). And now, she’s there. And all of my phone calls and messages have gone ignored, and all of my emails unanswered. It certainly crossed my mind this was personal.

But I even sent a tweet, and that went unanswered, too. In fact, though Dinolfo’s Twitter page has been updated to her title of County Executive, the last tweet from her account was in the middle of December. I can understand social media taking a back seat to other duties, but access to public records should be a priority.

What happens now? Based on total lack of response, I have filed an appeal. Unfortunately, my appeal is required to go to William Napier, Director of Communications, the same individual charged with handling FOIL requests.The same staffer who ignored my original request, emails, and phone messages.

Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director of the State Department’s Committee on Open Government, has issued a verbal opinion stating my appeal should be granted, as the records I request fall under my right of access to government records.

It is a shame I have to fight so hard to get public records to which I am entitled.

When an appeal is filed, the agency is required to respond within 10 business days. If other FOIL requests have gone ignored, this could mean resources at the already strapped Communications Department may need to be almost exclusively devoted to filling FOIL appeals. If the appeals are not answered in the required time frame, the Monroe County Executive’s office will stand in violation of the law. The citizen’s remedy for that is to file an Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. A judge may award the citizen attorney fees. And we all know who ends up paying when the county gets taken to court.

Let me be the first to drop a complaint in that box at the Office of Public Integrity ribbon cutting.

FOIL APPEAL

FOIL APPEAL

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Don’t Go Fund Me

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[by Susan Ashline]

I’m motivated by a tweet, a business owner posting his GoFundMe page, asking for $2,000 for dental work. His teeth looked horrible, no lie. If anyone needs dental work, this guy does. But should kind strangers be solicited to pay for it? Common sense tells me if he’s running a business, it’s making a profit. Otherwise, why run it? If it’s operating in the red… well, that’s a whole other blog. So if he’s making a profit – that is, enough to cover bills and then some – he’s got disposable income.

The tweet got under my skin. Maybe it’s because I just had surgery and being cooped up indoors on crutches is chipping away at my sanity. Or, maybe it makes sense to be irritated by people who have the means to do for themselves, yet choose to let others carry the load.

Alas, my Don’t Go Fund Me page:

(Update: It appears GoFundMe deleted my account; probably because it asked people not to fund me.)

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Tweeting via Baked Goods

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 Keeping Customer Happy is a Piece o’ Cake

by Susan Ashline

     Someone, somewhere, is rocking my favorite bikini and matching shorts. The theft left a bitter taste in my mouth, but the folks at Darien Lake Theme Park in Upstate New York washed it down with a spoonful of sugar.

     Feeling happy shouldn’t be difficult at an amusement park, but I wasn’t laughing when my clothes and towel went missing at Darien Lake earlier this summer. The park unveiled it’s “Happiness Guaranteed” program just before opening for the 2014 season. It puts a promise on short ride lines and wait times, but what does it say about swiped goods?

     “While we’re technically not responsible for guests’ personal items,” said Mike Melaro, Marketing Manager at Darien Lake Resort, “it doesn’t remove our responsibility to ensure that everyone who walks through the front gate has an ‘incredible, memorable experience. Guaranteed.’ That’s our brand promise.“

     Cake fixes everything. Late night, my boyfriend and I went to the supermarket to get a buttercream frosting cake to help bury my grief and thumb our noses at the thief. We had a special message we wanted written on the cake, but the bakery was closed. An enthusiastic store employee, Ben, told us he’d be willing to give cake writing a try, so we let him. Before eating away my sorrows, I snapped a picture of the cake and posted it on Twitter with the message, “To the loser who stole my bathing suit & shorts @DarienLake”:

Susan Ashline Cake Tweet on Twitter

     Digital Media Marketing Coordinator, Doug Mandell, who runs Darien Lake’s Twitter account, saw the tweet when he started work in the morning.

     “My first thought was LOL,” said Mandell. “My second thought was – oh no. We need to do something.”

     By afternoon, I got a reply tweet from the park, “@SusanAshline When we say #happinessguaranteed, we mean business.”:

Darien Lake Amusement Park Cake Tweet on Twitter

     “Receiving customer feedback via cake was a first for us,” said Melaro. “We knew we had an opportunity to get creative with our response, and I wasn’t willing to let that opportunity go to waste. I talked to our Director of Marketing, Vince Nicoletti, about some options, such as sending a gallon of milk to go with the cake, along with the lost items.”

    They decided to reply in-kind, driving to the supermarket and having their own message written on a cake: “Sorry about that. How about free tickets and a new bathing suit on us?”

     This despite reservations from the bakery employee that, “I’m not sure I can fit all of that on there, but I’ll try!”

      Melaro said he isn’t concerned that replacing the items will set a precedent, because the park rarely receives complaints about missing personal items.

     The icing on the cake is that the marketing department not only capitalized on an opportunity to make one of its guests happy, according to Melaro, but they had fun doing it. And at the end of the day, the marketing team got its just desserts.

     “We were celebrating our intern Courtney’s last day for the summer, and she was the one to actually go pick up the cake earlier,” said Melaro, who explained that the cake ended up as their celebratory centerpiece.

    Rarely do baked goods serve a dual purpose of goodbye party and social media reply. Now that takes the cake!

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