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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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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