TODAY'S PAPER
74° Good Afternoon
74° Good Afternoon
Opinion

Huntington town board: better late than never on ethics

Huntington Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson talks about his

Huntington Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson talks about his business ties to Gary Melius in his Huntington office Aug. 27, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

O Huntington!

An ethics decision clearing town board member Mark Cuthbertson of wrongdoing after revelations that he sponsored and voted for a resolution that helped a political power broker that Cuthbertson already was making money with is laughable.

The decision said the actions amounted to no "technical ethics violation" because the business Cuthbertson had with Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius was a "parallel relationship."

Really? Do town officials believe that a pair of trisyllable words -- "technical" and "parallel" -- are enough to convince residents that the relationship, at minimum, need not have been disclosed?

What about Cuthbertson's failure to reveal the relationship on town financial disclosure forms? That issue was not even addressed in the decision. That makes the document at best a smoke screen, at worst a farce.

Cuthbertson's public actions and private business relationships came to light last month after Newsday reports raised questions about receiverships and business relationships between Cuthbertson and Melius -- and between Cuthbertson and Robert Fonti, a property management consultant for the town and chairman of the Huntington Housing Authority.

On Oct. 20, the town's ethics board found no "technical ethical violation" in Cuthbertson's vote for a zoning change that allowed a condominium development proposed by Melius. Cuthbertson's vote on the consulting contract has not come before the ethics board.

Last week, the town board voted to request a federal investigation into "allegations of unethical practices" involving the town and ethics boards, and counsel for the ethics board. The board also voted to ask the state comptroller to review the ethics code.

All this leads to a worrisome question: Is this how Huntington, a mecca for development investment, really works?

Do other town board members -- as Cuthbertson did -- sponsor and then vote in favor of items that financially benefit those they do business with? And what about those who don't have "parallel relationships?" Does town government go out of its way for them too?

The ethics decision is silent on that issue. And so, for some three weeks, were Supervisor Frank Petrone and the board.

That changed just last week after the board's Democrat majority found themselves politically cornered by Gene Cook, an Independence Party member, who introduced a resolution to send the matter to the U.S. attorney, who could investigate allegations of criminality, and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

The resolution passed unanimously.

Asked yesterday whether the case was indicative of how Huntington operated, Petrone replied, "It is not." He did acknowledge waiting to comment publicly, but said the town was working on revising the ethics code.

Cuthbertson, in a statement posted on the town website after the ethics board decision, said that while he believed he had no duty to disclose the Melius relationship, "it would have been more prudent" to do so.

"It's turned into this emotional nightmare for him, and for us," Petrone said Monday.

During last week's town board meeting, some members recused themselves from some votes. That may mean that Huntington officials are sensitive to the very good practice of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.

As for what may (or may not) circle back from the U.S. attorney's and state comptroller's offices, all residents can do is wait.

Columns