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Recordings Illegal and Dangerous

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 17:41

In the annals of jaw-dropping East Hampton political miscalculation, the bugging of the town trustees office is a new low. As indicated by an edited version now circulating, someone or multiple conspirators were able to make illegal secret recordings of conversations beginning in the early fall or perhaps earlier. The technology and those responsible have not been discovered, but from the way the recordings and an associated partial transcript were organized there is a sense that it was aimed at particular trustees and not the nine-person board as a whole.

Until Monday, when Francis Bock, the trustees clerk, or presiding officer, spoke angrily about the recordings, none of this was public. But at least one trustee, Dell Cullum, and Elaine Jones, the chairwoman of the town’s Independence Party committee, had already known of their existence and heard at least some of the contents earlier. That they did not immediately go to the authorities indicates a major lapse in judgment, if not some degree of complicity.

Making secret recordings in which the parties whose conversations are captured without their consent or a court warrant is a serious criminal act. Under New York State wiretapping and eavesdropping law, the parties responsible could face felony charges. Mr. Bock said Monday that the county district attorney had opened an investigation. Mr. Cullum and Ms. Jones have denied involvement. David Gruber, Ms. Jones’s Independence Party’s choice for town supervisor, has been uncharacteristically silent.

So what kind of dirt did the culprit or culprits get? For all the effort, so far the most damning material is Trustee Jim Grimes telling an unknown person that he could go past the State Department of Environmental Conservation limit of twice-yearly phragmites removal, illegal if the person took the advice, perhaps, but given the invasive plant’s few fans, not quite the bombshell it might otherwise be. 

One thing that makes this episode especially dangerous is that the public’s trust in government is fragile, and dirty tricks such as secret recordings erode the public’s confidence. It may be tempting to scoff at the plot’s perpetrators, but undermining faith in town government is very troubling indeed.

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