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In aftermath of losses, Westcott quits GOP committees

QUEENSBURY — Mark Westcott on Thursday said he has resigned from the Warren County and Queensbury Republican committees and asked Sen. Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec to provide leadership and guidance to the committees to get them functioning again.

Westcott, who served as manager for Rachel Seeber’s unsuccessful campaign for supervisor, said it is time for a fresh start.

His resignation is more fallout from the Republican’s defeat at the polls, which party officials blamed on the media, saying its coverage of the Republican leaders’ plan to replace candidate Hal Bain after the election skewed public perception.

“The optics were bad. They didn’t handle it well and it took on a life of its own. I believe The Post-Star absolutely misrepresented what took place and people bought it and they didn’t do their own research,” Westcott said.

Party officials said they were simply following election law and it was too late to get Bain’s name of the ballot after he told them he wanted to bow out.

“My assessment is the guys are trying to follow election law and do the right thing,” Westcott said.

Bain should have been open about his intentions, he said.

“I had nothing to do with it, but had I been involved, I would have said to Hal: ‘You need to go public. If you’re not interested in running and you’re not going to run, you should let everybody know that,’” he said.

Bain filled out a Post-Star questionnaire for the primary, which made it look like he was running.

Westcott said the GOP committee does not get involved in the individual elections.

“Keep the committee informed, but run your own race,” he said.

Warren County Republican Chairman Michael Grasso said people could have suspected “monkey business” looking at the emails among himself; Doug Irish, then-councilman and town party chairman; Brian Clements, another town councilman; and town attorney John Aspland.

Put in the proper context, however, the “committee of vacancies” was trying to figure out how to replace Bain, he said.

“We had a candidate waiting in the wings to replace Hal Bain. We had him ready to go,” he said.

Election Commissioner Bill VanNess said Bain filed his notice of acceptance on July 14 to run as a Republican. On July 17, Bain signed authorization to run on the Independence Party line.

But Bain reversed course a day later.

“He had been having some medical issues and on the 18th he notified us that his doctor didn’t want him to run anymore,” Grasso said.

He did not want to get into the specific health issues to violate Bain’s privacy.

“It obviously had developed during his run for office. I can’t share with you. Let’s just say that he had serious concerns. He went up and signed a letter of acceptance with symptoms manifesting itself. His doctor, says ‘You can’t take any pressure.’”

Bain is a farmer and told a reporter a month ago that he was not sick.

“Never once did we tell Hal not to tell people he wasn’t running. Never once did we try to pull the wool over the eyes of the voters,” Grasso said.

He believes the public impression that the committee was doing something unethical spilled over to other races, including Seeber’s.

“It tainted everybody,” he said.

Bain did not return a message seeking comment.

Westcott said Seeber ran a great campaign and tried to stick to the issues, but the email issue hurt her.

Westcott said The Post-Star editorial board berated Seeber for not condemning what took place, but at that time, she had not even read the emails.

She did say Irish did the right thing by resigning, and he should not have conducted campaign business on his official town email.

Grasso said Republicans did well overall in the county. Dennis Dickinson was re-elected supervisor of Lake George. The GOP took all four Queensbury at-large supervisor positions and still has the majority on the Warren County Board of Supervisors.

Races in Glens Falls Ward 1 for the Common Council and a county supervisor post could go in the Republicans’ favor after absentee ballots are counted.

As for Queensbury, Grasso said: “We’ll be back. We’ll see you in two years.”


Bruce Squiers, Special to The Post-Star  

Steam from warm silage mixes with frost in the air as a farmer feeds his pastured cows from a tractor-powered wagon early Thursday morning off Edie Road in the town of Greenwich. Area weather is expected to be much colder throughout the weekend, with the temperature only reaching 25 degrees Friday with early morning flurries.


National
AP Exclusive: Russia Twitter trolls deflected Trump bad news

SAN FRANCISCO — Disguised Russian agents on Twitter rushed to deflect scandalous news about Donald Trump just before last year’s presidential election while straining to refocus criticism on the mainstream media and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, according to an Associated Press analysis of since-deleted accounts.

Tweets by Russia-backed accounts such as “America_1st_” and “BatonRougeVoice” on Oct. 7, 2016, actively pivoted away from news of an audio recording in which Trump made crude comments about groping women, and instead touted damaging emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.

Since early this year, the extent of Russian intrusion to help Trump and hurt Clinton in the election has been the subject of both congressional scrutiny and a criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. In particular, those investigations are looking into the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

AP’s analysis illuminates the obvious strategy behind the Russian cyber meddling: swiftly react, distort and distract attention from any negative Trump news.

The AP examined 36,210 tweets from Aug. 31, 2015, to Nov. 10, 2016, posted by 382 of the Russian accounts that Twitter shared with congressional investigators last week. Twitter deactivated the accounts, deleting the tweets and making them inaccessible on the internet. But a limited selection of the accounts’ Twitter activity was retrieved by matching account handles against an archive obtained by AP.

“MSM (the mainstream media) is at it again with Billy Bush recording ... What about telling Americans how Hillary defended a rapist and later laughed at his victim?” tweeted the America_1st— account, which had 25,045 followers at its peak, according to metadata in the archive. The tweet went out the afternoon of Oct. 7, just hours after The Washington Post broke the story about Trump’s comments to Bush, then host of “Access Hollywood,” about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women, saying, “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”

Within an hour of the Post’s story, WikiLeaks unleashed its own bombshell about hacked email from Podesta’s account, a release the Russian accounts had been foreshadowing for days.

“WikiLeaks’ Assange signals release of documents before U.S. election,” tweeted both “SpecialAffair” and “ScreamyMonkey” within a second of each other on Oct. 4. “SpecialAffair,” an account describing itself as a “Political junkie in action,” had 11,255 followers at the time. “ScreamyMonkey,” self-described as a “First frontier.News aggregator,” had 13,224. Both accounts were created within three days of each other in late December 2014.

Twitter handed over the handles of 2,752 accounts it identified as coming from Russia’s Internet Research Agency to congressional investigators ahead of the social media giant’s Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 appearances on Capitol Hill. It said 9 percent of the tweets were election-related but didn’t make the tweets themselves public.

That makes the archive the AP obtained the most comprehensive historical picture so far of Russian activity on Twitter in the crucial run-up to the Nov. 8, 2016, vote. Twitter policy requires developers who archive its material to delete tweets from suspended accounts as soon as reasonably possible, unless doing so would violate the law or Twitter grants an exception. It’s possible the existence of the deleted tweets in the archive obtained by the AP runs afoul of those rules.

The Russian accounts didn’t just spring into action at the last minute. They were similarly active at earlier points in the campaign.

When Trump reversed himself on a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace on Sept. 17, declaring abruptly that Obama “was born in the United States, period,” several Russian accounts chimed in to echo Trump’s subsequent false claim that it was Clinton who had started the birther controversy.

Others continued to push birther narratives. The Russian account TEN_GOP, which many mistook for the official account of the Tennessee Republican Party, linked to a video that claimed that Obama “admits he was born in Kenya.” But the Russian accounts weren’t in lockstep. The handle “hyddrox” retweeted a post by the anti-Trump billionaire Mark Cuban that the “MSM (mainstream media) is being suckered into chasing birther stories.”

On Sept. 15, Clinton returned to the campaign trail following a bout with pneumonia that caused her to stumble at a 9/11 memorial service. The Russian account “Pamela_Moore13” noted that her intro music was “I Feel Good” by James Brown — then observed that “James Brown died of pneumonia,” a line that was repeated at least 11 times by Russian accounts, including by “Jenn_Abrams,” which had 59,868 followers at the time.

According to several obituaries, Brown died of congestive heart failure related to pneumonia.

Racial discord also figured prominently in the tweets, just as it did with many of the ads Russian trolls had purchased on Facebook in the months leading up to and following the election. One Russian account, “Blacks4DTrump,” tweeted a Trump quote on Sept. 16 in which he declared “it is the Democratic party that is the party of slavery, the party of Jim Crow & the party of opposition.”

TEN_GOP, meanwhile, asked followers to “SPREAD the msg of black pastor explaining why African-Americans should vote Donald Trump!”


Local
Lake Luzerne area celebrates its veterans

LAKE LUZERNE — Last Memorial Day, as she reviewed a family collection of military memorabilia, Lake Luzerne Town Clerk Cindy Sherwood came up with an idea for a town-organized display of military items for Veterans Day.

Town Supervisor Gene Merlino, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran whose memorabilia collection included Civil War-era items, quickly got on board. And the idea for a display in Town Hall grew into the inclusion of a lunch at the senior meal site for local veterans to say thanks for their service.

“We thought it would be nice to do something for Veterans Day,” Sherwood said.

Those plans came together Thursday, two days before Veterans Day, as 130 or so veterans and their relatives gathered at Town Hall for a meal and to thank them for their service, an event that town officials hope becomes an annual one.

Veterans from around the region, the American Legion posts from Corinth and Lake Luzerne and the Glens Falls detachment of the Marine Corps League came together to enjoy a meal served by volunteers at the Office for the Aging meal site and view military-themed displays. The memorabilia stretched from the Civil War to items from the current conflicts in the Middle East, donated by local residents.

The veterans also came from a variety of conflicts and eras, from one young man in his early 20s to at least one Korean War veteran.

Hadley resident Tom Boles, a Korean War veteran, sat at a table with the youngest veteran on hand, 22-year-old Brandon Beaupre of Glens Falls. Beaupre, an Air National Guard security officer, was recently deployed to Jordan and Syria.

“It’s amazing to have everyone here. It’s an honor to be here,” Beaupre said.

The guest speaker was Hadley-Luzerne Central School math teacher Karen Love, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate who rose to the level of colonel in the Air Force and had nearly 5,000 flight hours. She gave a talk about how veterans can give to their communities now that they are out of the service.

Love attended between classes at the school, telling the attendees she had to be back to school for a 12:20 p.m. class.

“This is fantastic. They really did a nice job,” said Lynn Stanton, past commandant of the Glens Falls detachment of the Marine Corps League. “It is important that people remember veterans.”


Local
Impending O'Keefe release prompts homicide case review

The impending release of prison escapee Joel O’Keefe has prompted police in Washington County to organize a summit of past and present local law enforcement to talk about his possible role in unsolved homicide cases in which he was considered a “person of interest.”

O’Keefe has served nearly 23 years in state prison for numerous felonies committed in 1994, followed by three more prosecutions for crimes in prison. He is most well-known for a September 1994 escape from State Police, which led to a massive, 13-day manhunt around the region.

He could be released as early as Nov. 25, which has caused concern among officers who investigated his violent past crimes.

Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy said his office is “pulling old files” for a fresh review of cases that may be connected to O’Keefe. He said the creation of a “cold case squad” to review unsolved homicides was also under consideration.

“We’re going to sit down and discuss the past and present so that everyone knows his background,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of guys here who weren’t working then and don’t know about him.”

Murphy acknowledged that open homicide cases, in which police in the mid-1990s acknowledged that O’Keefe was a “person of interest,” were among those to be reviewed.

O’Keefe has long been under suspicion for the unsolved double homicide of two men in Hartford during the summer of 1988. Fredrich J. Pauling, 56, and James Checkush, 37, were slain near Pauling’s part-time residence on Dick Hill Road.

One was shot, the other bludgeoned. Checkush was reputed to be involved in marijuana trafficking, as was O’Keefe, who had a 1990 felony marijuana possession conviction and lived a short distance from Pauling’s seasonal home.

One of the men had written O’Keefe a $1,500 check days before his death, authorities said. O’Keefe, though, has maintained he was not involved in the deaths, and he was never charged.

The killings were among three unsolved homicides that occurred that summer in Washington County, with a man shot to death in Cambridge weeks before the Hartford case.

Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan said police are doing the right thing by taking proactive steps to look at the prior cases.

Police and prosecutors discussed offering a plea deal to O’Keefe in 1995 that would have packaged his pending escape/burglary/sodomy case charges with manslaughter charges for the killings.

Robert Winn was Washington County district attorney at the time. He did not consent to the deal, because, he said at the time, he believed the sentence was not long enough for a double murder.

The Post-Star reported on the plea discussions in November 1995, after the Hartford investigation became a focus of the county sheriff’s race, because claims were made that evidence and the investigative file had not been properly preserved. The paper withheld O’Keefe’s name at the time, in light of the ongoing investigation and the fact that he had not been charged.

Winn said Thursday he had no comment on the case and referred questions to Jordan.

Local police were notified Monday that the 57-year-old Argyle native was nearing his release date, which has caused concern among officers and former officers who knew O’Keefe’s history. He was seeking to live in Washington County upon his release, but his address has not been determined.

Jordan said he and Murphy have been discussing O’Keefe’s release with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. They are trying to figure out how the agency determined O’Keefe’s “good time,” which makes him eligible for release 6 years before completing his maximum sentence, and what supervision will occur by parole officers. He was prosecuted for three different attempted escape and contraband cases while in prison.

“The point we want the public to know is local law enforcement is working hard to make sure that when he does get out, his supervision is significant and adequate,” Jordan said.


Joel O’Keefe