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ALBANY -- Good-government advocates question the involvement of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s top aide in a local government squabble over improvements to the home Cuomo shares with food TV star Sandra Lee.
“It’s odd that a government official would speak to a personal matter of the governor and it does raise ethical questions about the appropriateness of his commenting,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union good-government group.
The Journal News in Westchester ran a story over the weekend in which Secretary to the Governor Lawrence Schwartz spoke with a local building official in New Castle.
Months after a gazebo was built without a permit and reports by the local official that he sought to contact Lee about the issue, a ticket was issued to Lee and was paid, Cuomo officials said.
“It would be an even bigger problem if Larry Schwartz was involved in any way other than just commenting on it,” Dadey said in an interview. “That would be use of government personnel in use of a personal business affair.”
Dadey said any ethical concern would have to be weighed by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
“From our view, we don’t think the secretary to the governor should be weighing in on private disputes between homeowners and town officials unless there is some compelling public interest,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. Ask if the reference to security should be considered a compelling public interest, Horner said: “That’s an issue for the state police.”
After the Journal News article was cited in additional stories Monday in other newspapers, the Cuomo administration made a statement citing security concerns:
“It is hardly a surprise that state officials deal with the town on matters related to the governor’s residence given the security issues that come up,” said Cuomo spokesman Matt Wing.
He called the issue “the kind of cheap political stunt that turns people off to politics. We are literally talking about a permit for a gazebo filed two years ago.”
State police handle security for the governor. He chooses to live in Lee’s Westchester home most of time rather than the governor’s mansion in Albany.
The Journal News also quoted national publications in which Lee, the “semi-homemade” cooking TV host and author, talked of other renovations inside the home. The home is valued at more than $1 million.
Building permits are designed to make sure work is done properly and to record improvements to a home which could increase the tax on the property.
New Castle Town Supervisor Robert Greenstein issued a statement Monday that the issue is over.
“The town is unaware of any interior renovations at the Cuomos' home that would have required an application for a building permit,” the supervisor said. He was a registered Democrat, but ran successful on the Republican line last year, defeating the local Democratic candidate who Cuomo supported.
“Our building inspector has confirmed today that there are no open violations or other outstanding issues with respect to the Cuomo residence,” Greenstein said. “To the extent the media has reported that the Cuomos have pending permit issues with the Town of New Castle, those accounts are mistaken.”
Greenstein dismisses as “hearsay” the press reports quoting Lee about additional work she said she did on the house.
“We would also inspect if we have substantial information that work was being done without a permit,” he said. “In this case, we have a newspaper article that reports hearsay and lots of press interest, that does not constitute substantial information.”
- With Yancey Roy