At the Sept. 17 Town Board meeting, it was revealed that the ethics board found Councilman Vishnu Patel in violation of disclosing information obtained during an executive session of a Town Board meeting that took place Sept. 26, 2017.
Councilman Ed Lachterman said that he filed the complaint against Patel for “a breach of public trust.”
According to his complaint, Patel disclosed “confidential information to a newspaper reporter that was discussed by members of the Yorktown Town Board during a Sept. 26, 2017 executive session.”
Patel said the board, in closed session, discussed hiring legal representation for former Supervisor Michael Grace, against a conflict of interest suit, using taxpayer dollars. Patel said this is illegal and any vote about taxpayer money should be done in open session.
“I told a reporter what had happened in the closed Town Board meeting because it is my moral responsibility to inform the public when any Yorktown official is taking an action that I believe to be illegal and unethical,” Patel said in the statement he sent to the press.
The New York State Open Meetings Law, section 105, states that in executive session “no action by formal vote shall be taken to appropriate public money.”
It was then revealed that the same information was discussed in an open session of the Town Board the following week, on Oct. 3, 2017, thereby making the issue public.
Lachterman filed the ethics complaint alleging that Patel had violated the town code, section 45-5D, on Oct. 11, 2017.That section states “no town official or employee shall use any confidential information received by him in the course of his duties as a town official or employee to further the interests of himself or others, nor shall any town official or employee divulge any confidential information so received.”
The Board of Ethics found Patel in violation of the second section of 45-5D. However, it did not find he committed the violation “to further the interests of himself or others.” It recommended Patel be publicly censured, essentially given public warning.
The Board of Ethics is a volunteer advisory body that reports its findings back to the Town Board. Any decisions or actions after that are up to the discretion of the Town Board.
According to the town code, “The Town Board shall consider, but need not follow, the recommended disciplinary action as advised by the Board of Ethics.”
Because the issue was between two councilmen on the five-member governing body, only Councilman Tom Diana, Councilwoman Alice Roker and Supervisor Ilan Gilbert could take action.
When the opinion was delivered to the three, clarification was sought from the Board of Ethics. Due to scheduling, this delayed any discussions on the decision by six to eight weeks. After the Board of Ethics was unable to meet in closed session to clarify items under review, the town attorney, Richard Abbate, acted as an intermediary between the the three members of the Town Board and the Board of Ethics to give them procedural advice.
“After discussion, there was a unanimous, bipartisan agreement that Vishnu should receive a warning in closed session. The reason for this was that Vishnu, while he had disclosed information from closed session, the decision was that it was not done to ‘further the interests of himself or others’,” Gilbert said in a statement at the meeting.
“The advisory ethics board did recommend that Vishnu receive a public censure. After much discussion between the board members, we agreed that a public censure would be the higher penalty and we did not agree with imposing that because he had not done this for personal gain and that there have been no further incidents since the complained-of incident.”
“The board members followed the letter of the law. The advisory opinion was considered in closed session, which is appropriate. The board agreed to take a certain action in closed session, which was appropriate and Mr. Lachterman and Mr. Patel were informed of that outcome,” Gilbert said.
Lachterman said that the issue must be disclosed and voted on in public session.
Diana called for a motion to vote and accept the ethics board’s findings and recommendation, saying that the process had gone on for too long. He added, “He [Patel] is basically being publicly censured anyway.”
The board voted to accept the findings and recommendation of the ethics board at the Sept. 17 meeting, with Gilbert issuing Patel a warning.
Gilbert said in his statement at the meeting, “This is an incident that took place almost two years ago, under a prior board. I hope this closes the matter and we can get back to work on important town business.”