CANTON — A St. Lawrence County legislator says District Attorney Mary E. Rain’s actions are “out of control” with her decision to go to a grand jury over the county’s failure to apply for a state grant.
Ms. Rain told County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire in a letter June 30 that she will convene a grand jury to investigate “misconduct, nonfeasance and neglect in public office” to determine whether the failure to apply for the Office of Victim Services grant that has paid for two victim advocate positions in Ms. Rain’s office was criminal. The county missed the deadline this spring to apply for renewal of the grant, worth $500,000.
County Legislator and retired state police investigator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said the need to convene a grand jury in this matter is “just uncalled for” and is “an exercise in futility.”
“This is just going right out of control, right out of control,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “When a grand jury issues a report, who do you think does the report? The district attorney does the report, then the grand jurors get a chance to look at it, but make no mistake, it’s the district attorney who issues the report. Where is the objectivity in something like that? Where is the fairness in something like that? There is none.”
Ms. Rain could not be reached Friday for comment.
Mr. Lightfoot said the failure to apply for the grant was an oversight by the county Probation Department and a matter of miscommunication, not a matter for a grand jury.
Probation Director Timothy P. LePage, who took over the department in December, acknowledged the oversight by his office, saying he learned of the need to reapply for the grant after the deadline. He then wrote to the state Department of Justice on June 18, seeking monetary assistance until the county could find “a funding source that would not burden the St. Lawrence County taxpayers in this economic time.”
County Legislator Gregory M. Paquin, D-Massena, agreed with his fellow legislator’s assessment of the matter being “out of control,” and said the failure to apply for the grant was a matter of “unfortunate miscommunication” between the DA and probation department.
“I believe this is just an unfortunate incident with no ill intent on anyone’s part,” Mr. Paquin said. “No doubt this is a shock, but in a perfect world there would never be any mistakes and it’s not a perfect world.”
Mr. Paquin said a grand jury could hand up criminal charges, recommend disciplinary measures, file a report or do nothing at all.
“So if it’s going to happen, it is going to have to play out, and if it is not going to happen then it will be handled internally, as I believe it should have been from the word ‘go’, in the way any disciplinary process would happen with the agreed-upon contract between the CSEA and the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators,” he said. “his is a waste of time.”
Professor Stephen P. Garvey of Cornell University Law School, Ithaca, said he does not see a crime in the failure to apply for a grant, but if Ms. Rain believes there has been “misconduct, nonfeasance, and neglect in public office” she is entitled to use the grand jury to investigate it.
“She can do it, but do you guys not have any crime in St. Lawrence County that the prosecutor should be spending their time looking at rather than doing all of this stuff?” Mr. Garvey asked. “It’s kind of weird that she would spend so much time and energy when one would imagine there are other things a district attorney should be doing.”
Mr. Garvey added that while grand juries have been used for purposes other than criminal investigations, it is rare. He said even if county officials intentionally did not apply for the grant, that would not amount to criminal activity; however, he said that kind of activity should be brought to the public’s attention, “so long as the grand jury process doesn’t cost the county a lot of money.”
“Grand jury is a powerful thing. That is why prosecutors love them; that is how they get their subpoena power; but they can be abused,” Mr. Garvey added. “This seems like an action that would be taken care of by political action.”
Mr. Lightfoot added that because the victim-advocate positions are in Ms. Rain’s office, she should be responsible for applying for the grant. The county has received the grant for 15 years, and it was up for five-year renewal.
“I would say it was up to her to know the nuts and bolts of how her office is run and what kind of funding is out there and available and what grants she would be responsible for to either update or reapply for,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “To blame somebody else for something that she should have been doing, shame on her. It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct. Does she have nothing else to do?”
Ms. Rain’s investigation has also halted talks with the county legislature’s space committee over attempting to relocate her office, Ms. St. Hilaire said.
The committee was scheduled to meet with Ms. Rain on Wednesday; however, both Ms. St. Hilaire and committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, were advised to postpone the meeting.
The county attorney has advised not putting department heads “in the room with the district attorney or her staff without understanding exactly what (the) charges were or who was the target of an investigation,” Ms. St. Hilaire said Thursday. She said he was referring to Ms. Rain’s stated intention to use state Criminal Procedure Law 190.05 to conduct “thorough and vigorous investigations” concerning actions of “unnamed department heads.”
Mr. Morrill added that while he feels the committee is ready to move forward with a recommendation to the board on a space for Ms. Rain’s office, he was advised to put talks on hold as any decision that the committee may make could look as if the action were a result of Ms. Rain’s investigations.
“No matter what we decide, if we give her what she wants, it could create the appearance that we were trying to get her to stop investigating, and if we were to not give her what she wanted, it might have the appearance like we were punishing her for doing what she thought she had to do. So it was a no-win situation,” Mr. Morrill said.
He said he would consult the county attorney “to discuss when it would be best to reschedule.”