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Allegations stall ethics investigation into Ithaca's police reform effort

The Tompkins County Legislature, through the county's Ethics Advisory Board, opened an investigation into Ithaca's Reimagining Public Safety effort last April.
Megan Zerez
The Tompkins County Legislature, through the county's Ethics Advisory Board, opened an investigation into Ithaca's Reimagining Public Safety effort last April.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Last spring, Tompkins County opened an ethics investigation into Ithaca’s landmark police reform effort. Now, some are calling for the county legislator heading the investigation to recuse himself due to an alleged conflict of interest. 

MEGAN ZEREZ: I’m here with Jimmy Jordan of the Ithaca Voice. He’s been covering this investigation. Jimmy, hello.

JIMMY JORDAN, REPORTER: Hi, Megan, thanks for having me.

ZEREZ: Let's go through some background, this is kind of a complicated story. The county opened this ethics investigation in response to a request by Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock last April.

Brock made a lot of different allegations in that request, we covered some of those in previous stories. But the biggest issue seems to center around the way the city and former Mayor Svante Myrick brought in a police reform nonprofit to help with the Reimagining Public Safety process.

There's been some critics of the county's investigation, especially within the city of Ithaca. Now Myrick and the Ithaca city attorney say there's another reason why the county's investigation is tainted. What are they alleging this time?

JORDAN: Right. The city attorney, Ari Levine, has been arguing that the [Tompkins County] ethics advisory board doesn't have the authority to investigate the vast majority of Cynthia Brock's ethics complaints.

He's been saying this since August. That's how long [Levine] has been making this argument. And that argument has been echoed by Myrick, again, since August.

Now, Levine and Myrick are both bringing forward the same accusation that the chair of the ethics advisory board Tompkins County Legislator Rich John was, quote, unquote, colluding with Cynthia Brock to make this ethics investigation happen.

And that allegation really rests on this op-ed that Cynthia Brock submitted to the Ithaca Voice in April of 2022, just before she publicly revealed that she was going to submit this ethics complaint,.

Through a FOIA request, it came to the attention of city attorney, Ari Levine, that John had made substantial edits to the op-ed. So his accusation really rests on that he helped spur the process that ended up putting the ethics investigation in front of the ethics advisory board.

ZEREZ: We should also point out that Rich John, he's the chair of the ethics advisory board, so he's very deeply involved in the entire investigation. And he himself wrote a op-ed a couple of weeks before Brock's.

And he had a couple of criticisms of the reimagining public safety process as well. Quite frankly, they echo a lot of Brock's concerns that she would later go on to, to state first in the op-ed and then later in the ethics complaint.

The city attorney in this letter goes a step further and says the city may limit its cooperation with this county investigation, unless Rich John, who is the county legislator who is heading the investigation steps down. Jimmy, what would it mean for John to recuse himself?

JORDAN: If he stepped down it would be, you know, an admission that the entire process is compromised. Optically, it would be a point of no return.

ZEREZ: So Rich John has responded, he doesn't seem likely to step down. Tell me a little bit more about what he said.

JORDAN: Yeah, I mean, Rich John responded to that accusation from Svante Myrick and Levine saying, I don't think I need to step down. The outside legal counsel that the [Tompkins County] ethics Advisory Board has [retained], has said the same thing.

He says that the investigation will go forward, and that they want the city to cooperate. Again, the city has not been giving information like the ethics advisory board wants it to, you know, allowing it to interview because [the city] feels that [the county is] beyond their scope; that what [the county] wants to look into is just not within their power. So we're really stuck in this holding pattern.

ZEREZ: Right. And they've been in this holding pattern for a minute. So the board does have the power to subpoena they can coerce, you know, whoever they want to come and cooperate, you know, with their investigation. Why haven't they done that?

JORDAN: I think that's a really good question. And I really don't have a direct answer for it. The subpoena power, months and months ago, it was brought up as something that they could use.

But recently, they haven't raised the possibility that they're going to subpoena the city attorney or some other city official. They have said if you don't participate, we might make an adverse inference, since you're not willing to participate in our investigation in the way that we think you should.

ZEREZ: Right. It's like silence as an admission of guilt, almost.

JORDAN: Yeah, that's something that could come out of an adverse inference, something along those lines.

ZEREZ: So it looks like the city and the county are again in a bit of a stalemate. We'll just have to keep watching to see how that all plays out.

I'm Megan Zerez, joined by with Jimmy Jordan of the Ithaca Voice. This is WSKG News.

The Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board has been releasing documents from their investigation periodically. You can review them here. The City of Ithaca commissioned an independent investigator to carry out a parallel investigation of the allegation; the final report was released late last year. Read more about the city's investigation here.