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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 9, 2009
By Zach Simeone
ALBANY COUNTY A county legislator and proponent of wind energy, Alexander “Sandy” Gordon, is being accused of having a conflict of interest by a local watchdog group.
Ethics expert Mark Davies sees no conflict, however.
Gordon, a Democrat representing the Hilltowns since 1996, has pushed for legislation on renewable energy. He also works for Reunion Power, a company that has approached landowners in Schoharie County about building industrial wind turbines on their properties.
Schoharie Valley Watch filed a 10-point ethics complaint with the clerk of the Albany County Legislature on Jan. 27, stating that Gordon’s dual role as a legislator and an employee of Reunion Power presents a conflict of interest.
In 2007, Gordon’s wife, Mary Ellen, died of lung cancer, and he was forced to seek additional employment to supplement his income as a farmer and legislator, he said.
“I was actively seeking employment because I knew that, when my wife passed away, I would need more revenue to sustain the farm operation and to keep my kids in college,” Gordon told The Enterprise this week. “And I fulfilled those goals.”
He had also sought employment in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District, he said.
“My first contact about employment with Reunion Power was a phone call from Steve [Eisenberg] when I was building a fence on my farm,” Gordon said. Eisenberg is a co-founder and the managing director of Reunion Power.
“I’m standing out there and I get a call, and he’s asking me if I want to get involved in wind energy, and, of course, this was at a time when things personally were difficult, and I knew I had to take off from farm employment.”
He eventually took a job consulting on behalf of Reunion Power.
State ethics law
Mark Davies, executive director of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, and former head of the dissolved New York State Ethics Commission, said yesterday that, according to state law, Gordon’s affiliation with Reunion Power does not present a conflict of interest with his position as Albany County Legislator, as long as he does not benefit financially from a contract between Reunion Power and the county itself.
Davies could not speak on Albany County’s ethics laws, he said.
“A contract with a town would be allowed,” said Davies. “If there’s no contract with the county, then there’s really no issue. If he’s going out to various private individuals and private landowners to sign them up to have windmills on their property, under state law, that wouldn’t be a violation. In fact, he could even, under state law, probably sponsor legislation in the county legislature to encourage windmills, even though that benefits that private company.”
Further, Davies said, “If his company that he works for has a contract with the county, as long as he has nothing to do with it on the county side in other words, when the contract comes before the county, he recuses himself or he doesn’t get any money from that contract on the company side, it would not be a violation of the state law.”
Yesterday, Gordon had a look at the ethics complaint, provided by The Enterprise, and weighed in on its 10 points, grouped under a series of headings, the first of which reads “conflicts of interest.”
“I have to tell you right from the start I’m an advocate for renewable energy,” Gordon told The Enterprise. “But, I’m conscious that I wear several hats, and I definitely try to keep them clear.”
The first item on the ethics complaint points out Gordon’s being an Albany County legislator and an employee of Reunion Power, and calls him a principal in Helderberg Community Wind. It goes on to call Helderberg Community Wind a “lobbying group that advocates for wind projects on behalf of Sustainable Energy Development, Inc., Integrated Environmental Data, and other wind industry interests.”
“First off, there are no principals in Helderberg Community Wind,” Gordon said. “It is a volunteer organization; it’s not a corporation; I’m not an officer; it’s not a lobbying group; and it doesn’t advocate for wind projects on behalf of Sustainable Energy Development, or Integrated,” he said.
Further, the first point of the complaint says that all of the aforementioned groups could benefit financially by the establishment of, and from the relationship with, the authority established by Resolution 223, which Gordon sponsored in the Albany County Legislature.
“That resolution didn’t establish an authority; it asked the State Senate and assembly to create that authority,” said Gordon. “Should there be an authority we don’t know what the parameters of that are, because a charter’s not been drawn but I’m certain that procurement policies and requests for proposals will be how vendors are selected, through the standard process of doing business with public and quasi-public entities,” he said.
The second point of the ethics complaint says that Gordon is “a partner in Helderberg Community Energy, LLC,” and that the group seeks to build “industrial wind projects in Albany County.”
Helderberg Community Energy is a small-scale community wind project in Knox that has been in the works for more than two years, laying the foundation for the Helderberg Wind Project. It plans to place three 1.5-megawatt wind turbines along Middle Road, back from roads and away from houses. Knox’s zoning ordinance prohibits the building of any structure higher than 45 feet without a special-use permit.
“LLCs don’t have partners,” Gordon said, “so, by definition, I’m not a partner in it.”
“Appearance of impropriety”
The document’s third bullet point says that Gordon, without disclosing that he was an employee of Reunion Power, encouraged Schoharie County Treasurer William Cherry to create a Schoharie County Power Authority, which would purchase power from wind energy companies.
Gordon said he was invited to a meeting in 2007, before he was employed by Reunion Power.
“I met with Bill Cherry and [Albany County Comptroller] Mike Conners, and, you bet, we’re looking for ways to change the region from being strictly a consumer of energy products to a producer of energy products,” Gordon said. “And I’d had no relationship or contact with Reunion Power at that point no thought of employment.”
Neither Cherry nor Conners could be reached for comment.
“Attempts to influence
The fourth point states that Gordon has continuously lobbied town officials in the counties of Schoharie, Greene, Schenectady, and Albany for the passage of permissive local laws involving wind-energy development that would benefit him financially, and that he has emphasized his expertise in wind development based on his experience as an Albany County Legislator.
Gordon denied lobbying in Greene County and Albany County, and said the idea that he emphasized his expertise is “purely conjecture” on the part of Schoharie County Watch. He said that he has been a student of the renewable-energy industry for a long time, noting a course on solar energy that he took at Columbia-Greene Community College back in 1978.
“I think that I’ve become known for the work that I’ve done, and I’m known to have a passion in this,” he said.
Of the fifth point in the ethics complaint, Gordon said, “I have no idea where this is coming from.” It states that Gordon actively encouraged the Schoharie County Planning and Development Agency to produce a model wind law for communities in which Reunion Power was seeking to develop industrial wind projects.
“This model wind law that Schoharie County Planning and Development is using was developed in the town of Jefferson in Schoharie County, and the supervisor there made it available to Schoharie County Planning and Development, and they have since used that as their model law,” Gordon said. “This model wind law was developed, I think, in a grant that Jefferson had from the [New York City Department of Environmental Protection] because of their watershed proximity. So, that actually has absolutely nothing to do with me.”
Gordon read on to the document’s sixth point, which states that Gordon has pushed the Schoharie County Industrial Development Agency towards a [Payment In Lieu Of Taxes] agreement for Reunion Power, “leveraging his stature” as a legislator to increase his credibility and influence in Schoharie County.
“No,” he began, “my boss and I went to a meeting with the Schoharie County Industrial Development Agency, and had a preliminary discussion of PILOT agreements, and there’ve been no secondary meetings or further discussion on that,” Gordon said. The phrase about “leveraging his stature” was “strictly their conjecture again,” he said.
“Conduct unbecoming of a public official”
The document goes on, in its seventh point, to say that Gordon was found on the property of Clare and Neil Driscoll of Fulton, N.Y., with Reunion’s Steve Eisenberg, scouting sites for wind-power development without the landowners’ permission.
“So, this was in September of 2007,” Gordon stated. “This was the week that my wife went under hospice care.” He had been working for Reunion Power for about two months, he said.
Gordon said there was a misunderstanding about an appointment he thought he had set up with the Driscolls.
Neil Driscoll wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor in October, denouncing wind power as a viable source of renewable energy. Of Shell WindEnergy’s proposal to bring an industrial wind farm to the area, Driscoll said in his letter, “This project would mean 50 more monuments to collective gullibility.”
The final three points of the document describe Gordon’s attempts to suppress free speech by trying to silence activists who were protesting at a public forum on wind energy at the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill.
According to the ethics complaint, Gordon called campus police on the protestors, and then physically intimidated Schoharie Valley Watch Co-Director Don Airey, while Gordon’s unnamed “companion” physically intimidated protestors.
Last week, Airey declined to comment when questioned about the ethics complaint.
“A public interest group called The Citizens Campaign for the Environment put on an informational meeting,” Gordon said. “They rented the space; and these folks came and stood in the lobby at the entrance of the space, handing out misinformation on sheets of paper to every single person that tried to enter.”
Gordon could not recall specifically what “misinformation” was being handed out, but called it “material for distraction, not information.”
“I didn’t instruct the organizers to call campus police,” Gordon said. “They figured that out on their own. And the guy from the police asked these guys to go outside and hand their stuff out there, so, they did,” he said.
Gordon would not reveal the identity of his “companion,” at the forum, saying that he did not wish to be named, but said that he was not an employee of Reunion Power, adding, “People are frightened by shadows.”
While he denies that his “companion” physically intimidated protestors, Gordon said that the man did challenge the fliers being handed out, claiming the information contained on them to be false.
“I’ve got a pretty strong First Amendment record, and, if you walk into the living room of my house, the first thing you see is a Norman Rockwell, ‘Freedom of Speech’ on the wall,” he said, referring to the famous 1943 painting.
“I defended the Constitution when the sex offender legislation was passed, because they were made an identified group, and they weren’t given any protections of due process,” Gordon said. “And when I see something that I feel is repugnant to the Constitution, I’m up out of my chair.”
He added, “I’ll defend these guys’ First-Amendment rights,” pointing to Schoharie Valley Watch’s ethics complaint, “but that doesn’t mean they should abuse them,” he said.
“This is a forum that was organized for a pro-environment presentation of wind, and these guys are denying the orderly execution of that,” he said of the protestors.
On the charge that he physically intimidated Don Airey, Schoharie Valley Watch’s co-director, Gordon said, “It’s hard to say I intimidated a guy when he’s standing four inches from me and yelling at me so loud that saliva’s hitting my face. What I did tell him was that he takes extreme license with the truth, and he responded, ‘I will continue to.’ And that’s what we’re seeing here.”