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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, April 6, 2006

Benched" Spargo is out commission says

By Matt Cook

BERNE — Thomas Spargo, a state Supreme Court judge and Berne resident, should be removed from the bench, said the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct last week.

Among the many charges, 10 members of the commission found that Spargo, to pay for his legal fees, solicited money from lawyers with cases before him. An 11th member of the commission, Judge Karen Peters, did not participate in the proceedings.

"Using a judicial office to raise money for your own use is as egregious an act of misconduct as there is," said Robert Tembeckjian, counsel to the commission.

Tembeckjian noted that Spargo’s most serious misdeed only came out of his need to pay for his defense against the original charges that were "not on the same level."

Spargo has 30 days to appeal the commission’s recommendation to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. If he doesn’t, the court will remove him from office, automatically barring him from a judicial position in the future.

In the meantime, the Court of Appeals may decide to suspend Spargo during the 30-day period.

Spargo didn’t return calls this week.

His attorney, E. Stewart Jones, told The Enterprise that his client will probably not appeal. Historically, Jones said, the Court of Appeals doesn’t reverse recommendations by the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

"The commission usually does what the Court of Appeals wants done," Jones said.

The commission, however, made the wrong decision, Jones said. The evidence against Spargo was unsubstantial, Jones said. The commission’s case was based largely on the word of lawyers who said Spargo asked them for money.

"If this case had been heard by a jury—an independent jury—they would have decided unanimously in favor of Judge Spargo," Jones said.

The commission is not suited for independently judging a judge, Jones said. Of the 11 members on the Commission on Judicial Conduct, four are appointed by the governor, three by the chief justice, and one each by the four leaders of the legislature.

"I think that they treat judges as second-class citizens," Jones said. "If you’re going to be disciplining judges, you should take it out of the hands of people who are political appointees."

Jones said he expects Spargo will retire from the bench and resume work as an attorney. Spargo is a leading expert on election law.

The charges

In 1999, Spargo, then working as a lawyer, ran for town justice as a Republican in Berne. During his campaign, the commission charges, Spargo handed out $5 gift certificates to voters and, identifying himself as a candidate for judge, bought a round of drinks at a bar. According to the commission, judges are allowed to hand out promotional material during an election, but nothing of value.

Spargo won the election.

In his opinion, New York City lawyer Richard D. Emery, a member of the commission, wrote that, during his campaign, Spargo used "creative but blatantly unseemly tactics."

While serving as a town judge, Spargo broke two more rules, the commission says. First, he took on Paul Clyne, then a candidate for Albany County District Attorney, as a client, even though the district attorney’s office comes before the Berne Town Court every month to prosecute cases. Clyne won the election.

In May 2001, the commission says, Spargo, then calling himself a candidate for the state Supreme Court, in the keynote address at a fund-raiser in Rochester for the Conservative Party, discussed his work in the Florida recount on behalf of the George W. Bush presidential campaign.

While judges are allowed to attend political events, the commission says, Spargo’s speech "exceeded the boundaries of permissible conduct."

In 2002, the Commission on Judicial Conduct filed complaints against Spargo for those charges. Spargo, now a Supreme Court judge, challenged in federal court, arguing that his First Amendment rights were violated. Though he won the first round, Spargo eventually lost the case..

To pay for his legal costs, the commission says, Spargo approved the establishment of the Thomas J. Spargo Legal Expense Trust.

Jones has argued that Spargo didn’t know about, nor had any involvement with the trust, which was set up by the judge’s family and friends.

By 2003, Spargo was a Supreme Court judge in Ulster County. He is charged with asking, through his friends, for contributions to the trust from lawyers with cases before his. This includes, according to court papers, John Powers, an Albany lawyer, who was approached by Sanford Rosenblum, an old friend of Spargo, and Bruce Blatchly, of New Paltz..

Blatchly, who had about 20 cases before Spargo that fall, said Spargo, after discussing his legal troubles with him in his chambers, invited Blatchly to lunch at La Canard in Kingston, to "meet some people," several other Kingston-area lawyers.

Blatchly, who had never dined with Spargo before, said it was obvious he was going to be asked for money at lunch.

"He did not say, ‘Come to a luncheon and I will ask you for money,’" Blatchly told The Enterprise in 2004. "But it was 100 percent clear to me that the purpose of the meeting was to meet with the people that were soliciting for money."

Indeed, Blatchly said, as he was leaving the luncheon, Rosenblum met him in the coatroom and asked for $10,000.

Eight days later, Blatchly told the commission, Spargo called him to discuss the judicial assignments for the next year. Judge Cathryn Doyle, another friend of Spargo who was at the lunch, would be handling Blatchly’s personal divorce case, Spargo said.

Spargo’s telephone call "was intended to induce Mr. Blatchly to contribute to respondent’s legal expense fund," the commission says.

All 10 participating members of the Commission on Judicial Conduct concurred with recommending Spargo’s removal from the bench and with the most serious charge, soliciting money from lawyers.

On the charge regarding the Clyne campaign, commission members Stephen Coffey, Alan Pope, and Emery dissented. On the charge regarding the speech in Rochester, Colleen DiPirro, Coffey, and Emery dissented.

In his opinion, Emery wrote that Spargo’s case is "a paradigm for what is wrong with our adversarial elective system for selecting judges."

"In effect," Emery wrote, "the misconduct rules regulating judicial campaigns are a patchwork of compromises and ad hoc judgments which fail to address the central causes of the unseemliness of judicial campaigns: party control and the candidate’s need to raise money."

Cross, McGrath finalists for Jefferson Awards

By Matt Cook

BERNE — When Gerald Cross makes a stop with the Helderberg Ambulance Squad, he said, nine times out of ten, he knows the person he’s picking up.

"I think it gives additional comfort for them to have someone there who they can recognize, that they can talk to," Cross said.

Except for a stint in the army, Cross has lived in Berne his whole life.

"If you ask someone in the town who Jerry Cross is, they probably will tell you," he said.

Cross is one of two Hilltown residents selected as a finalist for a Jefferson Award. The awards, from the American Institute for Public Service, honor people for their contributions to the community. Finalists are nominated by their fellow citizens.

Besides Cross, Sheila McGrath, a retired nurse from Westerlo who mentors youth, was also nominated.

For over a decade, McGrath has been volunteering in the mentoring program of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District. She has worked with girls in the high school and middle school, tutoring them, serving as a role model, and preparing them for their adult lives.

Cross joined the Berne Fire/Rescue Squad in 1961, after coming home from the army. In 1971, he qualified as one of the first emergency medical technicians on the squad, and, in 1990, helped found the Helderberg Ambulance Squad, serving as its first president.

He continues to volunteer as a firefighter and on the ambulance squad.

"It’s very gratifying when you can go out and help people," Cross said.

Cross also served as town supervisor for two years, on the town board for eight years, and was appointed to the Berne Youth Council.

On being nominated for a Jefferson Award, Cross said, "I think it’s very very nice that my people would think of be so kind as to think of me for stuff like this. It’s a way of saying ‘Thank you.’"

However, Cross said, "It’s not why we do these things."

Music Man:
"Something Special" in the Hilltowns

By Matt Cook

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School is putting on a classic and much-loved musical this weekend.

The Music Man, first performed on Broadway in 1962 and repeated often and widely since then, is the story of a conman, Harold Hill, who comes to River City, looking to bilk the townspeople out of their money by pretending to start a boys’ marching band.

There’s trouble in River City, Hill explains. The boys need a diversion from the town’s new pool table.

Hill intends to skip town, but his plan runs into a snag.

"He falls in love with the librarian and decides to stay," said Coriellen Travis, the director.

The light-hearted musical is full of catchy songs like "Till There Was You," "Something Special," and "Goodnight My Someone." Travis’s favorite is "The Shipoopi," a full-cast dance number.

"There are tons of dance scenes. They’ve been really patient with that," Travis said of her cast.

Travis chose The Music Man this year because of the large cast available, she said.

"I had the right number of guys and tons of younger kids and older kids," Travis said.

Rehearsals are coming along well for the show, which opens on Friday, Travis said; all the performers are having fun.

"They have to write cast bios for the program and everyone says they’ve fully enjoyed the show," she said.

In his senior year and last performance at BKW, Aaron Mosbey fully enjoyed the show. He plays the lead role, Harold Hill.

"He’s one of a kind," Mosbey said of the conman with a heart of gold.

Mosbey, who’s been acting since elementary school, said The Music Man is the most energetic production he’s been in.

"There’s lots of movement and dancing," he said. "It’s upbeat and fun."

It’s like the play was made for the BKW cast, Mosbey said. He and his fellow actors are picking up the songs and dance easily.

"Everything is going absolutely perfectly," Mosbey said.


The Music Man runs from Friday, April 7, through Sunday, April 9, in the BKW High School auditorium. Friday and Saturday’s show is at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday’s show is at 3 p.m.

Tickets, available at the door, cost $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $6 for children 12 and younger.

Westerlo mulls new policy for workers’ overtime pay

By Michelle O’Riley

WESTERLO — On Tuesday evening, the town board heard a request to revise current policy for overtime pay for town employees.

The proposed policy changes would give employees the option to save their overtime hours for use at a later date. The changes would also allow workers to carry any unused hours over from year to year.

The board was concerned with how much this new liability would affect the town’s budget and debt outlook for future projects. The board agreed to review Albany County’s current policy before making a decision.

A resident at the meeting commented that, if approved, the changes should not be an issue for the town since most employees will want to get paid for their overtime and will not pool their hours for future use.

Other business
In other business, the town board:

—Adopted and approved its first local law of the year, which changes the property-tax exemption for veterans. According to Town Assessor Pete Hotaling, the new law will affect 11 of the 149 veterans in town;

— Decided that the town attorney should review the renewal contract with the Mohawk & Hudson River Humane Society before the board considers approval. The town would pay a flat yearly fee of $1,000 under the renewal contract. Quotes were received from other area shelters, including Columbia Greene which would charge the town $350 per animal. Last year, the town sheltered 11 animals;

— Heard on update from Sue Fancher of the Westerlo Museum Board on some of the work being done to the museum’s new property, such as taking down the front porch and ordering a sign. Fancher also gave the board dates for upcoming events that will raise needed funds for the museum, including a Town Garage Sale on June 17 and a Civil War reenactment on Sept. 9 and 10 in the town park. In addition, Fancher asked for the board’s representation at an upcoming meeting on April 13 to discuss some things with which the Westerlo Museum Board could use the town’s help;

— Agreed to contribute $150 to the parade committee; and

— Expressed interest in participating in this year’s Household Hazardous Waste Day in May.

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