A Burke official with an option to lease land to a wind-farm company lost his court battle and must answer a subpoena from a Franklin County grand jury.
Town Council member David Vincent must turn over all correspondence, contracts, receipts, leases, purchase agreements, options or communications he has had concerning Noble Chateaugay Windpark, Noble Energy, Jericho Rise Windpark and Burke Wind Power.
“The grand jury is apparently investigating allegations of possible criminal conduct in the siting of wind farms in Franklin County,” wrote St. Lawrence County Supreme Court and Acting Franklin County Supreme Court Judge David Demerest.
Vincent “is a member of the Town Board in the Town of Burke and, according to recordings in the County Clerk’s Office, has entered into a contract with a developer of wind energy to lease some of his land,” the judge stated.
Vincent attempted to have the subpoena quashed, claiming District Attorney Derek Champagne was conducting “a fishing expedition” by asking for a broad range of papers and information.
Vincent said that turning over the paperwork might violate his right to privacy and his right to avoid incriminating himself.
But, in making his ruling, the judge said Vincent did not show any proof that the information sought had “no conceivable relevance” to the grand-jury probe, nor did it appear as though the subpoena was issued in bad faith, as claimed.
Demerest said a grand jury must be given wide powers when making an inquiry.
“Here, the inquiry appears to be whether or not wind-energy developers are improperly interacting with local government officials,” he wrote.
Vincent “has been linked to a developer through a search of public records, and it would appear that any writings that he might possess in relation to that transaction could have relevancy to the overall investigation,” the ruling states.
Demerest also turned aside the argument that Vincent could incriminate himself if disclosures were made.
“Other than bald assertions by the petitioner that the production of these documents might tend to incriminate him, there is nothing before me that supports that assertion or that any other constitutional rights have been violated,” the judge wrote.
“The documents sought involve negotiations leading to a public conveyance of a property right. They are legitimate business records.”
Vincent could not be reached for comment Wednesday, nor could Chief Assistant District Attorney Jack Delehanty, who represented the DA in the case.
But Champagne said he was “pleased with the judge’s decision,” adding that it was “an important one. It strikes at the heart of our system.
“A grand jury – not just this one – needs to have the ability to investigate, and you cannot curtail or limit the power of a grand jury. They have to have the ability to receive evidence to decide if there needs to be an investigation.”
Vincent’s subpoena challenge, made in March, came about the same time Champagne asked the County Legislature to create a board of ethics to advise municipal officials who may be unsure whether some of the business they conduct would or could be a conflict of interest.
Champagne said at the time that an investigation by his office has turned up “several contracts, easements, lease-option agreements, cooperation memoranda and other types of documents” where elected officials’ duties and third-party interests overlapped.
In some cases, the actions could constitute bribery of a public official, he said.
The DA forwarded the information to the New York State Attorney General’s Office for further investigation, but he did not name specific people who may be part of the probe.
By Denise A. Raymo
7 May 2008
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