Anger management

No action taken against legislator Luis Alvarez

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 2/3/21

MONTICELLO, NY — Whatever was behind it—and speculation was rampant—the ethics charges against Luis Alvarez came to nothing in the end.

But getting to that end involved a …

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Anger management

No action taken against legislator Luis Alvarez

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — Whatever was behind it—and speculation was rampant—the ethics charges against Luis Alvarez came to nothing in the end.

But getting to that end involved a surprising amount of sound, fury, procedural questions about referrals to the ethics board and legal questions about what happens afterward. Throughout the morning, a stream of people spoke in Alvarez’s support, painting a picture of a man who made a significant difference in people’s lives as a deputy, as a DARE officer, as a husband and as a legislator. A “Truth Matters” sign lay flat on the floor next to the podium, a silent reminder.

Sullivan County’s Board of Ethics, according to a resolution by Rob Doherty and Michael Brooks, found that Alvarez had violated the county’s ethics law, “which provides in relevant part that no county elected official shall engage in coercive conduct such as threats or fear of retribution, loss of job, intimidation, bullying or loss of business of the sake of personal gain or benefit” and saying that he conducted himself in an unprofessional manner in an argument with a county employee. 

Legislators repeatedly said they did not have access to the ethics board testimony or a transcript of whatever happened there. All they officially had to work with was the findings, which they were supposed to confirm, and then either go with the board’s recommended sanction (anger management classes for Alvarez) or do something else.

After a long, twisting and sometimes angry discussion at a special meeting on Thursday, January 28, the legislature “[did] not deem it necessary to take any action,” in deputy county attorney Tom Cawley’s words. The vote was 8-0, with Alvarez abstaining.

That’s the short version. The long version is, unsurprisingly, more complicated.

The rest of the story

It’s been long-rumored that ethics charges against Alvarez were in the works, but the actual content stayed private until January 22 when two things happened. The Sullivan Times interviewed Alvarez and his attorney, Michael Sussman, who affirmed there was no evidence that his client had bullied or intimidated anyone to gain personal benefit. In a post-hearing brief reprinted by the Sullivan Times, Sussman said that Alvarez was angry about the care his wife had received at the Care Center at Sunset Lake. She had lost weight, had fallen multiple times, her hygiene needs were not met and she was diagnosed with COVID-19. At that time, and after two of the falls, Alvarez wasn’t notified. Mrs. Alvarez was eventually transferred to the hospital.

At a spring meeting at the Emergency Control Center, Sussman wrote that Alvarez “directed comments” to the two county employees who were present. One had recently become responsible for the care center. Legislator Nadia Rajsz was also present.

Alvarez did threaten to sue the care center over the care his wife received, according to the brief. 

A separate charge, that Alvarez had access to the care center that other county residents would not have had, was “found to be unsupported by the weight of evidence,” according to the resolution.

On the day of the interview, legislative chair Rob Doherty issued a statement on the county website and posted on Facebook, saying that the ethics board upheld charges of “unwarranted, unprofessional and grossly offensive outbursts.” It was described as a “profanity-laced tirade” against an unnamed county employee. The statement included information about the wording used during the tirade (including an implied profanity).

At the special legislative meeting, Rajsz said, “I do not recall Luis yelling and misbehaving in this manner,” then asked why she wasn’t called as a witness. County attorney Mike McGuire said that both Marvin Newberg, counsel for the ethics board, and Sussman chose which witnesses they would call.

Sussman said that the sharp word Alvarez used was when he asked “what the hell [was] going on” at the care center that he wasn’t notified about.

One of the employees filed a complaint with human resources, which was referred to the ethics board.

Apparently, nothing else happened between the meeting at the emergency services center and the autumn, when the complaint made it to the ethics board. It had been alleged that between May 15 and October 15, 2020, Alvarez abused staff at the care center. Sussman, who was at the Ethics Board hearing, said that nobody testified to that. 

The county received the board’s recommendation on December 9.

Concerning the chairman’s January 22 statement, Sussman said, “You did refer, Mr. Chair, to comments that were allegedly made by Mr. Alvarez... I listened to all the testimony [from the ethics hearing]. There was never any testimony... ever, by any witness, that Mr. Alvarez used the word that you referred to... I have no idea where it came from. I’m not making any accusations. I don’t know.”

Regarding the charge that Alvarez tried to gain personal benefit, Sussman said, “There was not one scintilla of testimony that Mr. Alvarez ever had in that five months one conversation... with any individual who gave witness in this proceeding.” He may have asked that his wife be moved closer to the nurses’ station, but “that’s not a special privilege.”  

He also said that if the legislature sanctioned Alvarez, the latter’s only recourse would be the New York Supreme Court.

The whole proceeding started to feel like a courtroom with dueling attorneys. County attorney Mike McGuire spoke next, questioning Sussman’s comments, as nobody in the room had access to the testimony at the ethics board hearing. He walked listeners through the various sanctions that the board could have imposed, from a $10,000 fine to an anger management class. Removing Alvarez was not on the table, he said, and might not be possible in any case. 

Rajsz asked if legislators could take the sensitivity course, “because there’ve been many times I’ve been yelled at, been rude to, intimidated, publicly... but that’s just the way human behavior is. Sometimes we get a little hot under the collar.” 

“Certain things were supposed to have been said that weren’t said,” Joe Perrello noted. “I don’t know how Mr. Doherty came up with that word and tainted a man’s image... you [Rajsz] didn’t hear it that day, so that’s false.” 

“It’s not false!” Doherty yelled.

“It is false!” Rajsz yelled back. “I was there!” 

How, Perrello asked, did Doherty know it was said? But, he added, the whole situation was one person’s word against another, “I think it’s all irrelevant; it got blown out of proportion.”

There was yelling. What happens to loved ones in long-term care, especially when family can’t be there to check on them, as well as altercations with staff, were clearly sensitive issues. Doherty, visibly angry, said, “This is over COVID! Everyone keeps asking me if it was my wife. If my wife fell down the first time, there would have been blood spilled over that! I cannot believe that people find the abuse of staff and a young woman acceptable.” 

Rajsz reminded the room that she is regularly yelled at and interrupted, but “That’s okay because I’m not young.” 

“Yes, you are,” said Alan Sorensen, and suddenly, the tension broke.

Ira Steingart questioned how the whole matter wound up in the hands of the ethics board. He strongly suggested that the process of submitting complaints to the ethics board needed to be looked at and either clarified or revised “to make sure this doesn’t happen again... It’s a fact that all of us can wind up being in the seat.” 

“I think the process, again, was faulty,” said Rajsz. “Because, if indeed, I am a witness... nobody from human resources or Josh’s office reached out to me, and yet, it landed in the lap of the ethics board. There was a lot of stuff that was bypassed here. And yet, we’re making a determination and finding this man guilty of something, and we don’t even know what the hell it is.”

“I don’t have the evidence! I can’t judge anybody!” Perrello said, frustrated.

“I’m certainly not condoning yelling and mistreating employees,” Steingart said. “The process of how someone could get written up, I don’t think that was followed.” He explained that at one time he had been brought up on ethics charges, and later added, “I’ve seen, and I’ve experienced, that it can become political.” 

After more discussion, the legislature voted to not sanction Alvarez, and the matter came, more or less, to an end.

“I remain concerned,” Sussman commented the following day, that “the chair of the legislature, who publicly stated he had not been given access to the administrative record, made a public statement accusing my client of making such a comment.”

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