QUEENSBURY — The lawyer for the former head of a Lake George conservation organization who faces charges for alleged theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars made a new pitch to have the charges thrown out, claiming that his client was a casualty of a political feud in Queensbury.
David J. Decker faces a 22-count indictment that accuses him of looting grant funding that the Lake George Watershed Coalition received for environmental projects in the Lake George basin. He is accused of stealing $440,000 before he was arrested in March 2017 and ousted from his position.
His lawyer, Karl Sleight, has asked Warren County Judge John Hall to dismiss the charges on a number of grounds, and during 90 minutes of oral arguments Thursday claimed that police, state officials and Warren County prosecutors had a “misunderstanding” about how the projects he oversaw were operated.
“The government really doesn’t understand what went on here,” Sleight said.
He said Decker’s contracts allowed him to receive the money he did, and that the projects he oversaw were done and contractors paid.
“Bills were paid. Jobs were completed and hundreds of checks were written,” he said. “Every penny is accounted for.”
Tax fraud charges that were filed against him can’t be prosecuted in Warren County, while a charge of corrupting the government, the weightiest charge against Decker, isn’t viable because the statute wasn’t enacted until 2014, after some of the misconduct alleged by Decker, he added.
Sleight claimed the investigation began with efforts by some Warren County sheriff’s officers to make Queensbury Supervisor John Strough look bad during an election campaign against the wife of one of those officers. Strough ran in 2017 against Rachel Seeber, who is married to then-sheriff’s Investigator Kevin Conine.
Decker was a “political cudgel in the town of Queensbury,” Sleight told Hall.
He called the investigation “the worst investigation I ever saw by law enforcement, adding that there was a “horrifyingly bad job” by state Comptroller’s Office and Department of State personnel who were involved. He said the prosecution was a “colossal mistake.”
Warren County Assistant District Attorney Ben Smith responded point-by-point, saying politics had no part in the case and that the evidence was sufficient to support the charges.
“Mr. Decker is the problem. Mr. Decker is the subject of this indictment,” he said.
Warren County Sheriff Bud York scoffed at the political accusations, pointing out the Conine had little to do with the investigation and that the bulk of it was done by sheriff’s Lt. Steve Stockdale.
The district attorney’s office had agreed to drop nine charges as a “strategic” move for trial, but Smith said whether his office ultimately decides to go forward with those counts depends on Hall’s ruling on the viability of the indictment.
No trial date has been set, but pretrial hearings and trial are expected this fall.
Decker, 69, of Burnt Hills, has pleaded not guilty to the indictment, which includes felony counts of grand larceny, corrupting the government, offering a false instrument for filing, falsifying business records and tax fraud.
He is accused of stealing $440,000 while working on coalition projects between 2013 and 2017, including the Gaslight Village wetland project off West Brook Road in Lake George.
Some of the money was allegedly funneled to a shell contracting corporation Decker created that did not provide any services or materials to the projects for which it was paid.
Decker has claimed the money he received was legitimate payment for his work, but he is accused of tax fraud for not claiming the money on his state taxes in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The watershed coalition disbanded in the wake of Decker’s indictment, with a new consortium taking its place to pursue environmental protective work in the Lake George basin.