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State clamps down on release of information

Former state DOT engineer says he was forced to resign for talking to news media
2013-02-20T19:15:00Z 2013-02-20T20:32:42Z State clamps down on release of informationJON ALEXANDER -- jalexander@poststar.com Glens Falls Post-Star

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.

He declined.

“I’d like my job back,” Fayette said. “That’s all I’m asking for.”

Copyright 2015 Glens Falls Post-Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(13) Comments

  1. hdekhtereva
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    hdekhtereva - February 25, 2013 12:04 am
    Lets start the I changed my mind vote. I love it. Do-over please. haha!
  2. kingsbury
    Report Abuse
    kingsbury - February 24, 2013 6:13 am
    The only thing to do is vote him out next time around.
  3. hdekhtereva
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    hdekhtereva - February 23, 2013 11:18 am
    Yep, yes sir, I do. Where do I find the forms to fill out for that, and who do I speek to?
  4. loneoak
    Report Abuse
    loneoak - February 22, 2013 7:32 am
    It's called damage control, they want the ability to be able to control any ststements in the event of a crisis. "The truth will set you free" well in most cases the truth can cost you money or even worse. The papers spin the truth and this controled spokesperson controls what information is forthcoming. It's all part of the game and the game has changed because unfortunately the media has compromised their integrity in finding and reporting the news.
  5. kingsbury
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    kingsbury - February 22, 2013 5:31 am
    Anyone want their Cuomo vote back?
  6. patcher
    Report Abuse
    patcher - February 21, 2013 4:08 pm
    Remember, it's the job of the press to sell papers, not to tell the truth.
  7. scottiedog
    Report Abuse
    scottiedog - February 21, 2013 2:01 pm
    Here's how barbaric and despotic Cuomo is: http://liveactionnews.org/andrew-cuomos-new-york-the-abortion-capital-of-the-world/
    No respect for human life.
  8. GFRed
    Report Abuse
    GFRed - February 21, 2013 1:11 pm
    How did this become about abortion??? I'm sick of so-called prolifers who use every issue to attack reproductive rights. Show us the data with regard to the abortion performed within 2 days of the due date. Come on, I dare you.
  9. DWC121
    Report Abuse
    DWC121 - February 21, 2013 11:12 am
    politicoQB - You are SO RIGHT. Interview a local restaurant manager about an incident, and the manager will probably say, "You'll have to contact the corporate office". Interview a firefighter about a fire, and (s)he will say, "You'll have to talk to the Chief or our public relations officer".
  10. Bob1234
    Report Abuse
    Bob1234 - February 21, 2013 9:52 am
    While those in the news media won't necessarily admit it, it's not always a good idea to talk to the press. Before doing so, one needs to fully understand the implications and whether there's a real benefit. In addition, most reporters have experience in interviewing subjects that places the reporter at a distinct advantage. And the news media, once in procession of information, select what portions of that information is presented to the public, as well as how it's presented.
  11. 5756917
    Report Abuse
    5756917 - February 21, 2013 7:39 am
    this guy should sue and then go public with the details every step of the way. Cuomo is following in Obama's footsteps, restricting and managing every single step of information. Unfortunately, as long as he keeps on giving freebies to the people in the city and allow them to have late term abortions, even aborting babies within two days of the birth date, he will continue to be elected. What a barbaric time we live in.
  12. greyghost
    Report Abuse
    greyghost - February 21, 2013 5:00 am
    Pay attention people. This dictator wants to run for president some day. Imagine what THAT kind of power would result in. If you think the current occupant of the white house tends to ignore the Constitution, wait till 'IL DUCE the Cuomo' gets there.
  13. politicoQB
    Report Abuse
    politicoQB - February 21, 2013 12:58 am
    The State is no different in this regard than most businesses and corporations who have been told by their so-called 'Crisis Management Liasons' and Public Relations agencies (a la Behan Communications et al) to tell all employees to refer any and all inquiries to these hired spokespeople. The place where I work has made sure all employees know that if they are questioned by the press about any issue, it is grounds for termination if they publicly answer.
    . Only spokespeople are allowed.
    That's why Behan can charge thousands of dollars to answer one question from a reporter asking GE why they don't want to remove the 10000 pounds of sludge on the bottom of the river.

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