State investigation finds she pocketed cash

By Kevin E. Foley

The offices of Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell suffered another harmful revelation this past week.

Three state agencies concluded that Jean Noel, whom Odell appointed to head the county’s Consumer Affairs Department, had stolen more than $4,500 in cash from the agency.

Noel, 64, resigned after pleading guilty to petit larceny, a Class A misdemeanor, in Town of Carmel court. In a plea agreement with the state Attorney General’s office, she agreed to repay the money as well as part of her salary.

The resignation and plea was first reported by the Journal News.

In addition to the state Attorney General, the state Comptroller’s Office and the state police were involved in the investigation, which began in 2014. In a joint statement, the three agencies said Noel had embezzled $4,575 in cash payments made by contractors to her office to pay fines, such as for operating without a county-issued business license.

The Attorney General’s office said the investigation was part of Operation Integrity, a joint task force with the comptroller’s office that investigates the finances of local and state agencies.

Although she pleaded guilty and resigned, Noel told the Journal News she chose to quit rather than fight the charges, which she attributed to disgruntled employees.

Tourism under investigation

The Attorney General continues its investigation of two nonprofits involved in promoting tourism in Putnam County.

One county legislator, Roger Gross, who represents Southeast, has called for Tourism Director Libby Pataki, a Garrison resident, to step down after reports she set up a second nonprofit tourism organization, raised private, tax-deductible funds and paid herself $50,000 without notifying the legislature or following legal procedures necessary to operate a 501(c)(3) such as having an active board to provide oversight. Pataki was already authorized to collect a $70,000 annual salary from the Putnam Tourism Bureau, itself a nonprofit organization that accepts both state and county funds.

“I felt I had to say something about it,” Gross said. “I am not going to sweep it under the rug.” Gross added that he had “great respect” for Libby Pataki when she was the First Lady of New York and her husband, George, was governor. “But this situation doesn’t pass the smell test, it just doesn’t wash.”

Gross, a member of the legislature’s economic development committee, which has jurisdiction over tourism, said he hopes the legislature will do its own public review of the matter after the Attorney General’s office completes its investigation. He said he had not heard from colleagues about this issue since he announced his position.

Gross said the fact that Pataki took an additional $50,000 in compensation without legislative knowledge or review is especially galling. “I feel it is a blemish on the county,” he said. Many county employees he has spoken with are upset with the situation given last year’s imposition of higher health care costs for them under an Odell-driven budget, he said.

For her part, Pataki has avoided any public discussion of the tourism operation, preferring to attack the media, especially David McKay Wilson of the Journal News, who broke the story. Pataki has not issued any official statements, but in an “exclusive” article in the Putnam County News and Reporter, she called the Journal News coverage “wrong and unfair.” She did not elaborate, stating only that she intended to remain as tourism director.

In the article and in an unusual column by the PCNR’s editor that attacked Wilson for reporting the story, Wilson and the Journal News were dismissed as “out-of-county” entities. The Gannett-owned daily, which is published in White Plains and distributed through the region, has covered Putnam County for decades.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Foley is the former managing editor of The Current and a partner in foleymyers communications in Northampton, Massachusetts.