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March 4, 2013

Something's fishy about DOT man's retirement

The Daily Star

---- — Like most newspapers, The Daily Star prefers to see as much government transparency as possible, with very few exceptions.

There are some cases in which it’s reasonable for public officials to require a media blackout. Generals planning a military campaign, for example, might not want to risk any leak that would reveal their intentions to the enemy. A prosecutor worried about the safety of witnesses or whistleblowers also might have good reason to institute a ban on speaking to reporters.

But it’s also important to remember that public officials are employed by the taxpayers, and should be accessible to the public unless a compelling reason exists for enforcing such gag orders. In the case of ex-state Department of Transportation engineer Mike Fayette, there is no such reason.

Fayette, a DOT employee since 1983, was forced into early retirement last month to settle misconduct charges filed against him after he spoke to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Irene.

Fayette said at first he refused to speak, telling the reporter to instead contact the DOT’s public information officer. When the DOT didn’t respond, Fayette said he was afraid of his agency looking unresponsive or inaccessible, so he took it upon himself to offer praise for the DOT.

“I thought the DOT was going to get another black eye,” Fayette said.

One month later, Fayette was informed that he faced disciplinary charges that could entail firing — even though none of his actions undermined the DOT’s mission in any tangible way.

Of course, it’s petty concerns over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s image — not sound governance — that are at the root of these draconian policies. The Fayette affair might be excusable if it were a one-time thing for which Cuomo accepted responsibility. Instead, Cuomo lashed out in a classless manner: by dispatching state Operations Director Howard Glaser to an Albany radio station to read aloud citations in Fayette’s disciplinary record that were resolved years ago and had nothing to do with the Irene interview.

Of course, this is the same Cuomo whose communications director, Richard Bamberger, kept a 35-page dossier on Albany political reporter Liz Benjamin. The document, leaked to the website BuzzFeed last April, has a particularly disturbing list of innocuous passages from Benjamin’s reporting that Bamberger considered hostile.

“The secret dossier on Liz Benjamin is the stuff of Richard Nixon and Eliot Spitzer,” BuzzFeed’s source said. “One has to wonder if similar dossiers are being put together on other reporters.”

Unfortunately, one must wonder about this, indeed, since we have a governor who seems to view an informed public not as an important pillar of democracy, but as nothing more than a threat to his image.