Tourism bureau says it doesn’t answer to legislature
By Holly Crocco
After introducing the newly hired executive director of the Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau to county lawmakers during the March 16 Economic Development Committee meeting, acting executive director Frank Smith brought legislators up to speed on where the department stands financially.
Smith was made acting director more than a year ago after Libby Pataki resigned following allegations that neither the nonprofit Visitors’ Bureau nor another nonprofit she set up without the legislature’s knowledge – both of which paid her salaries – had functioning boards, as required by state law. It is not clear if Smith, who earns $50,000 annually, will continue to work at the bureau.
Smith told legislators that in addition to the $60,000 in funds the bureau receives from the state as part of its “I Love New York” campaign – money matched by the county that must be spent outside Putnam – the department relies on about $180,000 from the county.
At the end of 2016, the legislature voted to release only part of its funding to the bureau. Since that time, two members of the six-member volunteer board, Philip Tomach of Carmel and Deborah Walker of Cold Spring, have left. Putnam County legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown, said Tolmach had resigned after applying for the executive director position and Walker had job demands that made contributing to the board difficult. She said the board planned to add two members, including Laura Lee Holmbo of Cold Spring, the former marketing director for The Valley Table.
Smith told lawmakers on March 16 that the Visitors’ Bureau will run out of funds by the end of April if the legislature doesn’t release the remaining $100,000. He said the funds pay the operational expenses associated with the department, including salaries, insurance, taxes and supplies.
Matters became heated when Dini LoBue (R-Mahopac Falls) expressed disappointment over how the bureau has been run since Pataki left, saying she has been unable to reach anyone in the office to answer questions about its finances.
“Now that Bruce [Conklin, the new executive director] is here on a full-time basis, we have a presence in the office throughout the entire day,” countered Smith, who confirmed that an accountant has been hired and that the county is in compliance with state requirements.
However, when Smith said he had been advised by legal counsel not to answer questions about the accounting agency the bureau used during its restructuring, LoBue said he is required to report to the legislature.
“You work for me; you work for us,” said LoBue. “We appropriate your budget.”
“Under the advice of counsel, I am not answering that question,” Smith again replied.
LoBue asked Smith if he was still collecting a $50,000 salary, which Smith confirmed.
Barney Molloy, who chairs the four-member tourism board, came to the Smith’s defense. He said the Visitors’ Bureau is a nonprofit organization that has a contract with and reports to County Executive MaryEllen Odell, not the legislature. “I’m afraid you need to go back and check your records,” he told LoBue. “We are here as a courtesy at the request of the county executive to report on the matching grants appointment. It is not an open-ended fishing expedition.”
LoBue begged to differ.
“You are not here at the request of the county executive; you are here at the request of the chairwoman of the committee,” she said to Molloy. “I know you feel very uppity tonight, but I don’t work for you – you don’t question me, I question you.”
She then called for Molloy’s removal from the Visitors’ Bureau board, citing his arrest in Cold Spring in February on petit larceny charges for allegedly stealing $10 worth of newspapers from bundles outside a coffee shop. (The case is ongoing; Molloy has pleaded not guilty.)
“Aren’t you in court right now?” LoBue asked. “You shouldn’t even be here. He should be removed as president. It’s a disgrace.”
The Other Tourism Bureau
The state Attorney General’s office says its investigation of a nonprofit created by former Putnam County tourism director Libby Pataki has ended.
Pataki, who resigned a year ago as head of the Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau amidst a probe by the attorney general, agreed in June 2016 to dissolve the Putnam Tourism Corp. She had formed the corporation in 2012 while serving as executive director of the Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau. It paid her $110,000 over the next two years while the nonprofit Visitors’ Bureau paid her $194,000 from funds provided by the county. Neither organization appeared to have a functioning board of directors, as required by state law.
The Putnam Tourism Corp. had about $8,000 as of December 2015, according to its most recent federal tax filing. (Pataki received no salary in 2015, during which she took a leave of absence while her husband, former New York Gov. George Pataki, ran for president, but her assistant, Katie DeMarco, earned $50,000.) The remaining funds likely were used at the dissolution to pay legal and accounting fees.
The attorney general launched an investigation of the Putnam Tourism Corp. in February 2016 and met with Interim Director Frank Smith soon after to discuss creating a new board for the Visitors’ Bureau.
Other legislators chimed in.
“As the chairwoman of the legislature, you’re out of order,” said Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson), to LoBue. “It’s inappropriate and should not be tolerated.”
County Attorney Jennifer Bumgarner clarified that the Visitor’s Bureau has a contract with Putnam County, which includes the legislature, that is executed by the county executive.
However, she said it’s not clear if the bureau is subject to the state Freedom of Information Law that would require it to disclose certain information to lawmakers. “An argument can be made either way,” she said. “In the past, based upon the characteristics of the organization, it has been our opinion that they are not subject to FOIL.”
LoBue asked Bumgarner to seek an advisory opinion from the state Committee on Open Government. However, when The Current filed FOIL requests on March 20 with the county clerk concerning the Visitor’s Bureau, the newspaper was told for the first time that “it has been determined [by the county law department] that the Putnam County Visitor’s Bureau is not a ‘county agency’ subject to FOIL.”
The county law department did not respond to a request to explain its ruling. The Visitors’ Bureau was incorporated in 1998.
The discussion is expected to continue at the April meeting of the Economic Development Committee.