County position provides ‘personal security’ for executive
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong and Chip Rowe
Putnam County says it’s looking for a director of constituent services whose duties include providing “personal security” and “transport” for County Executive MaryEllen Odell.
But the county also says the person who has held the job since 2011, Nicholas DePerno Jr., isn’t going anywhere. A representative of the Personnel Department said state law requires the position must be advertised “to prove there’s nobody else who’s qualified.”
The county must do that because DePerno, 59, a retired Putnam County Sheriff’s Department investigator, has a state-issued waiver that allows him to collect a pension from the Sheriff’s Department and a salary from the county. Employees who have taxpayer-funded jobs and retire before age 65 with a pension must have a waiver if they take another taxpayer-funded position that pays more than $30,000 a year.
DePerno earns $44,500 annually working for Odell and also receives a $59,000 yearly pension from his 25 years with the Sheriff’s Department. He took the county job, which Odell created, three months after his retirement and three days after she was elected to fill an unexpired term.
Odell did not reply to a list of questions emailed to her, or to a follow-up phone message, instead referring The Current to the county’s personnel director, Paul Eldridge.
The questions included whether Odell had received threats or had other reasons to fear for her personal safety during her eight years in the position, whether she considered using Putnam County sheriff’s deputies for security instead, as other county executives do, and how regularly DePerno drives her to and from appointments or events. DePerno also did not respond to questions posed by email asking him about his job duties, or to a follow-up phone message.
Dini LoBue, who was a county legislator when DePerno was hired in November 2011, said Odell told legislators at the time that she was changing jobs around in her office and needed to cut the salaries of her secretary by 80 percent and her chief of staff by 30 percent to fund a new $44,000-per-year driver-bodyguard-constituent services position. Three months later, the Legislature restored the salary cuts and by the end of the year also had approved the hiring of a deputy county executive at $114,812 annually.
In October 2013, LoBue introduced a motion to eliminate funding for the director of constituent services, arguing that a staff member who drove the county executive to public functions was an unnecessary expense. Other legislators defended the position, saying that Odell needed security because she is a woman and attended functions at night. LoBue’s motion failed, 8-1. A motion by Legislators Anthony DiCarlo and Sam Oliverio to allow for more discussion of the job also failed, 5-4.
“She created this pseudo-position for Nick DePerno,” said LoBue, who spent much of her eight years in the Legislature at odds with Odell, in an interview. “He accompanies her everywhere. It’s just a joke. I don’t know what the rationale was.”
Oliverio, who sat on the Personnel Committee and who challenged Odell for county executive in 2014, said he “used to argue about it all the time: Couldn’t the money be used elsewhere?” He said Odell’s three predecessors never had a bodyguard or driver. “Odell said she needed one, though,” he said.
Besides DePerno, Odell’s staff also includes a chief of staff and a secretary. The deputy county executive position has been vacant since Bruce Walker departed in 2017 for a job with the U.S. Department of Energy.
Nicholas DePerno Jr., the director of constituent services for Putnam County, has been in the news in the past. In a lawsuit filed in 2013, RDC Golf Group, which had a contract to run Putnam County Golf Course from 2008 to 2012 and said it had been shortchanged $212,000, alleged that Odell and her then-deputy, Bruce Walker, asked the firm in 2012 to hire DePerno for a $25-per-hour “no-show” job as an “observer” at the club.
RDC said in the lawsuit that it hired DePerno, who visited a few times “but performed no function whatsoever.” According to the firm, DePerno notified RDC later in the summer that he could not work for the club any longer because “it could give a bad political appearance.” He never cashed his paychecks, RDC said.
Odell denied that her administration had pressured RDC to hire DePerno, saying she had sent DePerno only to gather information on the club’s operations, and that he found what he needed within a few weeks.
The lawsuit and a countersuit by Putnam County were settled in 2014 when RDC agreed to pay the county $10,000 as part of a mutual non-disparagement agreement that the Legislature approved, 6-2.
Because Odell has not hired a new deputy, “if she just keeps the driver, nobody can complain,” said Oliverio, who is the Putnam Valley supervisor. “But if she creates the deputy county executive position again,” it would raise questions about spending. “She can’t have both.”
Early in her campaign in 2018 to unseat Odell, Maureen Fleming, the Kent supervisor, dismissed DePerno’s job as unnecessary. “Odell has expanded county government by creating additional, controversial positions, including communications staff on a temporary pay line and a director of constituent services whose job description includes ‘personal security’ for Odell,” she said in a statement in June.
Getting a waiver
According to state law, for a waiver to be issued or renewed to a retiree, the employer must demonstrate that it undertook “extensive recruitment efforts” to find other, qualified applicants.
Finding qualified applicants became more challenging for the country when, after hiring DePerno, Odell changed the requirements of the job.
While the initial posting in 2011 said the qualifications for the position, whose duties include responding to constituent complaints and concerns (see story below), would be left to the county executive’s discretion, the current listing requires applicants to have “at least 10 years of police investigation work that involved significant, daily public contact.”
Although the state waivers are designed to be temporary, giving the employer two years to find applicants who don’t require a waiver, DePerno has received four. His most recent expires Dec. 31.
Under a state law passed in 2008, to obtain and renew a waiver, an employer must show either that “there is an urgent need” to hire a retiree because of “an unplanned, unpredictable and unexpected vacancy,” or that “extensive recruitment efforts did not find any available qualified non-retired persons.”
Asked how the county recruits applicants for DePerno’s job, Eldridge wrote in an email that its plan “is very simple. We advertise and have advertised for the director of constituent services on a continuous recruitment basis since 2016 on our department website. If you were to look at our Personnel Department website today, you would see the ad for this position prominently displayed on the opening page. Our department website is accessed more often and receives more traffic/visits than any other county department website. Our website has proved to be, far and away, the best method to advertise county job openings.”
The county also has placed public notices in its official newspapers, such as the Putnam County News & Recorder.
The job has been posted as available for more than seven years, since Jan. 1, 2012, when DePerno’s first waiver became effective.
Eldridge declined to provide details about what DePerno does. “Providing details related to the travel and security arrangements for the county executive would be inappropriate at any time, but certainly so, in this day and age,” he wrote. He said DePerno drives a county-owned car “to accomplish the duties of his position but does not have a car assigned to him when not on duty.”
DePerno appears to be the only public employee in Putnam or Dutchess counties who has an active waiver, according to data compiled by the Empire Center, an Albany-based think tank. The waivers are more typically provided for retired law-enforcement investigators who have specialties that are in short supply. For example, Lourdes Gonzalez obtained waivers in 2014 and 2016 to work as a $60,000-per-year Spanish-speaking investigator for the Special Victims Unit for the Putnam County district attorney.
Face of the County
Based on the emails and complaint forms provided by the county (below), Nicholas DePerno Jr.’s relatively infrequent dealings with the public as director of constituent services are professional and polite. However, a number of postings to his public Facebook account do not share that tone, including derogatory comments about Democratic leaders (on Nancy Pelosi: “God, I hate this bitch! What a fucktar”) and repostings of anti-Muslim slurs (“Pork Fact #16: People who eat pork are less likely to blow themselves up”; “Islam is Love. Yeah, if you’re a goat”).
The law does not apply when a retiree receiving a pension is elected to a position. That’s why Carl Frisenda, the Philipstown highway superintendent, who receives a $55,623 annual pension after spending 34 years with the Putnam County Highway Department, did not need one when he was elected to his $90,000 job in 2015.
Waivers also are not required once a retiree reaches age 65. That’s what happened with Anthony Scannapieco Jr., the Republican board of elections commissioner in Putnam County, who received eight waivers over 15 years. The county Legislature argued that state election law allows political bodies — in this case, the Republican Party in Putnam — to choose its commissioners without advertising the job.
When Scannapieco turned 65 in 2014, he no longer needed a waiver. Today, at 69, he earns $91,444 annually from the county as well as a $75,391 pension from the Yonkers Fire Department, from which he retired in 1999 at age 50. Public pensions are not subject to state income tax.
If DePerno is uniquely qualified for the position of director of constituent services, the job’s duties also appear to be unusual. The elected managers of counties that are of similar size to Putnam such as Tompkins (population 105,000) and Steuben (97,000) say they do not provide bodyguards or drivers for their executives.
In Dutchess County, which has a population of 295,000, a representative for County Executive Marc Molinaro (who last year ran for governor) says he does not have a bodyguard and that “every person who works in the office provides constituent services.” In Orange County (373,000), a representative for Steven Neuhaus said he does not have security “and has never considered it.” In Westchester County (949,000), a representative for George Latimer says he does not have a staff member who acts as a driver or bodyguard.
According to the New York State Association of Counties, there are eight female county executives or managers besides Odell. Two who immediately responded to an email from The Current, in Franklin (51,795) and Delaware (47,276) counties, both said they do not have a bodyguard or driver.
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To get a better idea of what the position of director of constituent services requires, The Current filed a Freedom of Information Law request for copies of Nicholas DePerno Jr.’s emails and phone message forms during 2017.
The county law office said the documents it provided represented DePerno’s entire correspondence with constituents for the year. If accurate, it shows he handled an average of about two cases per month, most of which were resolved with a phone call or by forwarding the email to a county department. Below are examples.
Jan. 18: DePerno spoke with a woman who was concerned because her daughter, who has two children, was dropped from a state Department of Family Services program. DePerno forwarded her email to the county Department of Social Services.
Feb. 16: DePerno returned a call to the county executive’s office from a Brewster resident who had called 911 about a toddler in respiratory arrest and was told by responding firefighters that they had trouble finding the address on GPS. DePerno referred the resident to the Bureau of Emergency Services.
March 1: A resident reported that the roadway was washed out on Oscawana Lake Road at Twilight Lane. DePerno alerted the Highway Department.… A resident emailed to say that Stoneleigh Avenue is “one of the filthiest roads in Putnam County. It is strewn with litter; now even a toilet sits alongside the road, which about sums it up.” DePerno emailed the Highway Department asking someone to pick up the toilet.
April 25: A caller in Brewster complained about a neighbor who was piling sticks and tree debris along the property line. DePerno suggested calling the village.
May 2: A caller from Southeast complained that a neighbor was placing garbage outside in Trader Joe’s bags, which break. DePerno referred the person to the Southeast building department.
May 15: On a “complaint report” form, DePerno noted that a resident had called because his neighbor has a septic problem that causes gray water to leak into Mahopac Lake. DePerno spoke with the Board of Health, which noted two dye tests had been done with negative results.
May 30: A caller said her daughter was being harassed by her boyfriend. DePerno referred her to the district attorney.
June 1: A caller who had applied for county paratransit services said they asked for her Social Security number and diagnosis. She said her doctor told her that violated federal law.
June 15: DePerno forwarded a complaint to the Putnam County Golf Course from a woman who said its leaf blowers were starting at 5:30 a.m.
June 27: DePerno sent copies of receipts and other information about herbicides that had been sprayed near the Cold Spring water supply to Greg Phillips, the village water superintendent, who had requested them. Phillips replied: “Not happy. Nor will my community be.” On July 11, Phillips emailed again, saying he was still waiting for information on dosages and the identity of the contractor. “You may not agree, but this doesn’t appear to have any priority attached to it, from our perspective,” Phillips wrote.
July 7: A caller reported having trouble with NYSEG, with electricity going in and out. DePerno returned call and left a message.
July 30: DePerno emailed County Historian Sarah Johnson after a resident asked that a marker for Solomon Hopkins on Route 301 be repainted.
Aug. 16: A resident wrote to complain that an official at the golf course had yelled at two senior citizens who were playing too slowly. DePerno forwarded the email to the course manager, who reported back that the pair had been told to start on Tee 10 but insisted on starting at Tee 1. “My staff tolerates a lot of verbal assaults on a daily basis when they are just trying to do their jobs,” wrote the club pro.
Sept. 6: DePerno wrote to the code enforcement officer in Kent to inform him that the county did not own a property where a tree was leaning toward a person’s home.
Oct. 10: A retired plumber in Putnam Valley complained that he had been fined $1,250 for not having a license but says he was threatened with bodily harm if he did not plead guilty. DePerno advised the caller to appeal to the Plumbing Board.
Nov. 16: A former Tilly’s Table summer worker said he or she was not paid for eight hours of work at $15 an hour. “If I’m not paid I’m going to news, newspaper and court,” the individual wrote. DePerno called the restaurant manager, who sent a check for $120.
Dec. 4: A caller said a homeless woman was living on the bike path behind the Stop & Shop. DePerno referred the case to the Department of Social Services…. A caller said a firm in Mahopac never showed up to supply heating oil. DePerno called the firm, which said it would make the delivery the next day.