Leibell Levels Charges at Sheriff
State Senator Vincent Leibell has accused Putnam County Sheriff Don Smith of using taxpayer dollars to improve the quality of his friends’ retirement. In a video interview with the Journal News, Leibell, the Republican candidate for Putnam County executive, also said he would not rule out the possibility of incorporating the sheriff’s department into the county executive’s office. The senator’s comments came a week after his narrow victory in the Republican primary against Putnam Legislator Mary Ellen Odell.
Smith, a retired Army brigadier general, did not take this accusation of cronyism lying down. “This is vintage vindictive Vinnie,” Smith told the Courier. “When he can’t get his way, he strikes out at those around him … He is a divider and not a unifier, a bully and not a leader.” Smith made it clear he was simply responding to Leibell’s criticism of the sheriff’s department and was not getting involved in a political dispute.
Leibell had told the Journal News that Smith, a fellow Republican, was using public resources to take care of his friends. “When you have a top corrections guy going out at $180,000 a year, boom, that’s where your pension costs go up,” Leibell told the Westchester-based daily. “That’s where the county has to kick in … I find that very troubling … overtime is not meant to cover your friends … and boost up their pensions.”
Leibell’s allegations did not stop at pension inflation. He told the Courier that Smith practically ran Odell’s campaign. “I don’t like a guy with a badge and a gun running political campaigns,” he said.
Smith defended his honor, insisting that he complied with the Hatch Act, a federal law which prohibits civil servants from actively participating in party politics.
“I have scrupulously avoided using my official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the nominations or elections of any political candidates,” Smith said. “I have declined to officially endorse any candidate for any office and have not engaged in any public activities for or against any candidate … The Hatch Act does not, however, require that I stand silent in the face of false and pernicious attacks.”
“Anyone who attends an event, in this county, knows that the sheriff is taking my opponent everywhere,” Leibell responded. “She’s been all over his Facebook page. Of course he’s endorsed her. If he wants to do it fine. But then don’t lie about it and call me a political bully. That’s baloney.”
Leibell’s campaign pointed to a quote from Smith on Odell’s website, in which he says she would make a great county executive. “I’ve said nice things about a lot of people,” answered Smith, “But that was not an endorsement. And I have been in a car with her one time during this campaign season …As far as driving her around everywhere that is absolutely not true. Oh and by the way, this is America. I can associate with whom I wish.”
“I believe in integrity and treating all people with dignity and respect,” Smith said. He added that Leibell has a history of attacking colleagues and constituents. He mentioned Commissioner of the Board of Elections Tony Scannapieco, County Executive Bob Bondi, Assemblyman Greg Ball, and past and present members of the legislature as some of those who have fallen under attack by Leibell.
Odell, who is challenging Leibell in the general election on the Independence Party line, thinks Leibell’s criticisms are hypocritical. “When [Leibell] is accusing the sheriff of having a fluff staff and pension padding, he should look at his own personnel line,” she said. “He wants to talk about the ‘friends and family network?’ Why does he have so many family members of elected officials … [employed] on tax payer money?”
Leibell was asked by the Journal News if Putnam County needs a sheriff’s department and if he would consider creating an office of public safety like Westchester has done. “I’ve had individuals talk to me, and law enforcement officials in the county, who are pretty high up, say they think it’s time to explore that,” he said. “Westchester does very well with a consolidated department underneath the county executive … It is something that clearly has to be looked at.”
Speaking to the Courier, Leibell said that in no way did he endorse bringing a police department under county executive control. “Anything the legislature wants to consider in order to save tax dollars, I will consider,” he said. “That was one question out of many questions that was asked. I think the sheriff is overly sensitive.”
But, according to the sheriff, Leibell’s comments reveal a potential strategic push for more control. “[Leibell] will never control the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office or the election process in Putnam County-so help me God,” Smith said. “I fear the worst for all the citizens of Putnam County if this man were given additional power and authority. The fact that he wants to take away the people’s right to vote and elect the sheriff they believe in, so that he can appoint a crony who will be beholding to him, should be a wake-up call to all the citizens of Putnam County.”
Smith won reelection as Putnam’s sheriff last fall. In a survey conducted by Kieran Mahoney for the Courier during the summer, 68.7 percent of respondents said the Putnam County sheriff’s office was doing a good or excellent job.