Mike Fayette wasn’t planning on retiring from his job as the state Department of Transportation’s Essex County engineer for another five years.
But he resigned earlier this month following a state investigation of alleged misconduct, insubordination and incompetence — personnel charges that were accompanied in September by a termination notice.
Fayette’s crime, according to correspondences between the 29-year state engineer and DOT officials, was simple: He talked to the press.
“Instead of getting a pat on the back, ‘Hey, that’s a nice article,’ I get fired,” Fayette, who officially left his post on Feb. 8, said Wednesday of his interview last fall with the Adirondack Daily Enterprise about the one-year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, an interview where Fayette praised DOT’s response to the storm.
Fayette’s story adds to the growing narrative among New York’s press corps and a handful of state lawmakers, a story of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s stranglehold on any information streaming from the Capitol.
“It’s not much of a secret that most people are terrified of the governor,” said Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association. “People are just terrified — even the agency commissioners — he’ll get upset, and there goes your career.”
New York’s executive-level agencies have for years relied on spokespeople to handle the news media and manage how information is conveyed.
But there’s been a noticeable change, even over the last few months, with how information flows from Albany.
The Post-Star, for example, has historically been able to talk directly with Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologists. Recent attempts to contact those biologists have been unsuccessful and those requests are now forwarded to DEC’s public information officers and the information can sometimes take weeks before becoming available.
Former New York State Museum Director Clifford Siegfried retired last year amid frustration over sudden unilateral control over information.
“In the past, if a reporter called and wanted to talk about ladybugs, you put someone on the phone to talk about ladybugs. Now it has to go through administration and someone has to sit and watch,” he told the Times Union of Albany.
Syracuse Post-Standard outdoor writer David Figura earlier this year confirmed a DEC-wide “gag order” had been suddenly enacted, meaning all information must go through spokespeople.
Even DEC Region 5 Director Bob Stegemann recently declined a Post-Star request for comment about invasive species and referred any questions to Albany. Stegemann last summer freely talked with reporters about DEC’s attempts to regulate the transport of firewood.
“They just like to have them speak for the agency,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, of the growing reliance on public relations specialists.
Repeated calls to Cuomo’s office over the last two months, regarding a range of issues, have gone unreturned.
Most state lawmakers avoid criticizing Cuomo, Kennedy said. “They don’t dare say anything,” Kennedy said. “He’s the micromanager-in-chief.”
The few legislators who have openly complained about Cuomo, primarily Assembly Republicans, focus on the governor’s dominance over the Legislature.
Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R-Melrose, last month went so far as to liken Cuomo to Adolf Hitler, arguing that the governor acts more like a “dictator.”
Worries about growing secrecy in Albany isn’t limited to the Cuomo administration.
Republican lawmakers, angered by The Journal News’ decision late last year to release the addresses of pistol permit holders in its coverage region, demanded a weakening of the Freedom of Information Law within the NY Safe Act, a change that now allows pistol permit holders to remove the fact that they have a “conceal and carry” from the public record.
“FOIL needs more teeth,” said Albany-based 1st Amendment law attorney Mike Grygiel, noting that the recent change erodes the public’s access to information.
Fayette, if solely driven out because of his statements to the media, could have a case against the state for infringement of his 1st Amendment rights, Grygiel said.
Public employees are more restricted than the average citizen, numerous courts have ruled, but still permitted to comment about most non-emergency governmental operations, he said.
DOT spokeswoman Carol Breen declined comment Wednesday when asked about Fayette’s case, citing the matter as a “personnel issue.” DOT Assistant Commissioner Peter Snyder wrote that Fayette has “misrepresented” the “facts” surrounding Fayette’s dismissal, according to correspondences acquired by The Post-Star.
Calls to Cuomo’s spokespeople went unreturned Wednesday.
Fayette was offered a settlement agreement in the form of a demotion after administrative hearings in December with DOT officials, which included being relocated to Albany, instead of termination.
“I’d like my job back,” Fayette said. “That’s all I’m asking for.”