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An intriguing episode emerged in Albany last week when a state Department of Transportation employee put in his papers. The 30-year employee, named Mike Fayette, claimed that he had been threatened with firing after speaking without permission to the Adirondack Enterprise for what was actually a praiseworthy story (for the agency) regarding road work following the Irene disaster.
Fayette gave the newspaper his side and the Enterprise printed it. Politically, it struck a chord because of the reputation that the Cuomo administration's innermost circle has for particularly aggressive micromanaging of public relations. At first, the state Department of Transportation refused to comment to inquiring reporters — most interestingly, from the AP — on Fayette’s departure, citing a policy of not discussing personnel matters, which in itself sounds routine.
But then, during New York Post state editor Fred Dicker’s radio show on "Talk 1300 AM" in the capital region, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s director of state operations Howard Glaser got through to the host and did something quite special to the circumstances. To back up his statement that Fayette was disciplined for “a broad series of problems,” Glaser read out loud what he indicated were select portions of Fayette’s personnel file. Glaser, saying he was out of breath from running up the stairs to make it to the phone into the radio show, cited: “Internet misuse, email misuse, department vehicle misuse, BlackBerry misuse, conflict of interest, theft of service, and falsification of time sheets, all related to a sexual relationship with a subordinate.”
Dicker, a seasoned hand who’s been getting special access to Cuomo for a book he’s working on, asked a salient question: Would that personnel information have been indeed been made available if sought under the Freedom of Information Act? Glaser indicated that it would, except for redactions such as, for example, the name of the subordinate. And, when Dicker quoted what the AP had been told, Glaser said: “Yeah, I’m not sure why DOT handled it that way. The facts are what they are.”
"It's not the policy of this administration to fire people solely for improper contact for the press. Employees talk with press on a regular basis in the conduct of their duties."
Glaser said: “Sometimes . . . you know, you get half a story, when it's reported quickly, sometimes you get less than half a story. I think this is one of those cases.”
True as far as it goes. And to make this one a full story, a few questions still seem worth exploring:
Were the alleged thefts and falsifications referred to prosecutors? To the state inspector general’s office to determine the extent that such practices go on in the department? Did the disciplinary settlement leave Fayette vulnerable to a "final straw" based on this allegedly "improper contact" with the news media?
Why indeed did the DOT “handle it that way” and not provide the print media with a response it broadcast on the air? To get the “full story” should The Associated Press have blown off the agency public information office and contacted Glaser directly, assuming it is his job to put out public-relations fires?
If the same information was leaked by some low-ranking employee, rather than by the governor’s top operations aide, would that employee have been disciplined?
What if the Enterprise and AP and Albany Times-Union stories hadn’t combined (unfairly or not) to reinforce a caricature of a hyper-controlling executive chamber? Would someone in the governor’s innermost circle have bothered to up the stairs to get to the phone with this documentation after consulting with counsel? Would information-sharing have reached that level of priority?