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It’s time to stop St. Lawrence County’s civil war

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A state Supreme Court judge has told St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain to do what many north country residents have been hoping she would do on her own for a few weeks — stop using her office as a political weapon.

Ms. Rain, in her sixth month as DA, informed county officials that she would take to a grand jury two actions that qualify, at very worst, as an error of omission and a just marginally questionable policy decision. In the former, the DA is suggesting that the county’s failure to reapply for a grant that would have ultimately benefitted her office is a criminal matter. In the latter, she is proposing that a decision on how to use legitimately acquired drug forfeiture funds constituted a crime.

Of course, the DA never came right out and said either action was criminal. But her decision to take them to a grand jury, and her subpoena of county records dating back 10 years, speaks for itself.

Tuesday, Judge Vito C. Caruso of the Fourth Judicial District put a halt to the DA’s probe and ordered her to show cause why Ms. Rain should not be disqualified from continuing the investigation. If she is unable to convince Judge Caruso otherwise, a special prosecutor would be appointed by the court.

The decision may have headed off a confrontation that would have been disastrous for the county. This civil war was not going to have any good outcome, and it was going to be a huge drain on the county’s taxpayers. The cost of complying with subpoenas and providing defense for county employees would have been an outrageous waste of money. And it would serve no legitimate purpose.

If Mary Rain thinks she is the defender of the public good, maybe she should have started by going after the state of New York — for diverting Lottery funds to the general fund, for example, or for failing to remove the tolls from the Thruway as promised when the toll road was built back in the 1950s or for Gov. Cuomo’s plan to use Clean Water Funds to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. Those are all public policy decisions that fly in the face of best intentions.

Or, closer to home, she could go after the town of Brasher for using casino funds to construct its new highway barn. Those funds are supposed to be targeted at economic development, after all.

Ms. Rain will not do any of these things, of course, for a couple of reasons. First, she is not in a political dispute with the state or the town of Brasher. More importantly, all those decision, while perhaps outside the pale of original intentions, served the general interests of the taxpayer. The actions she is pursuing against the county never come close to reaching the level of falling outside of the law.

The failure of the county to apply for the Office of Victim Services grant was not intentional, although the loss of the funds puts the county in a bind. But it would appear that Ms. Rain bears some responsibility for the missed grant application; the funds would have paid for two victims advocates within the DA’s office for five years. The application had in the past been completed by the Probation Department, but county officials say this was done as a “courtesy” and noted that the DA received five notices of the application deadline that her personnel ignored. The joint culpability here seems obvious.

And the county’s decision to use forfeiture funds for a sound system in a public room that is from time to time used as a courtroom and a grand jury room barely stretches the requirement that those funds be used to enhance the legal system — if it stretches it at all.

Everyone would applaud an effort by a public official to right wrongs and punish public corruption. But using public money to chase political foes is wrong. Ms. Rain and the county have clashed over spending since she took office, and the path from A to B seems pretty clear here. Unfortunately, already beleaguered taxpayers of St. Lawrence County are going to have to pay for this poorly designed action. If the court decides that this probe should go forward, it should put it in someone else’s hands. That will remove petty politics from the field of play, and assure county residents the will not be pawns in ill-advised conflict.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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