Dominick Calsolaro

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Council: Sworn testimony in ticket scandal

Albany council agrees to put witnesses under oath in ticket probe

Published on 2/12/2009 by the Times Union

ALBANY — The city's Common Council agreed late Thursday to elicit sworn testimony from police and other city officials as part of an investigation into a wide-reaching parking ticket scandal.
The council's unprecedented decision to place people under oath comes three months after a secretive ticketing system that involved issuing tens of thousands of ''ghost'' or ''no-fine'' tickets was exposed in a Times Union report. The council stopped short of deciding whether to issue a subpoena to anyone who may not agree to testify before them, with a consensus of members saying they would address that later if cooperation becomes an issue.

An exact list of witnesses has not been settled on by the council. In general, the members agreed they would seek testimony from current and former leaders of the city's police officers union; members of the treasurer's office and its parking violations bureau; and supervisors, trainers and rank-and-file members of the police department's traffic safety and parking enforcement divisions.

Chief James W. Tuffey attended Thursday evening's more than three-hour council session and pledged he will direct any employee of the department who is summoned by the panel to fully cooperate. Tuffey said there would be ''no repercussions'' for any employee who goes before the council and answers questions truthfully under oath.

The issue centers around a practice dating back more than 15 years by which police and parking enforcement officers would issue ghost tickets to select public and private vehicles. Most of the hundreds of vehicles that were issued no-fine tickets carried coded windshield sticker distributed by the city's police officers union.

There also was a list of 299 license plates in police computers from vehicles which would automatically receive ghost tickets. A Times Union analysis of that list found those cars had received roughly 5,000 no-fine or ''warning'' tickets since 2003, including a smattering of private citizens, retired officers and state officials.

More than 250 of the vehicles on the so-called ''VIP'' list were official police vehicles, Tuffey said. Other vehicles on the exempt list included five private vehicles driven by current and former members of the Downtown Business Improvement District, which is a private civic organization, and a former city-owned 2003 Chrysler sedan that had once been used by Mayor Jerry Jennings.

Some council members also have disclosed receiving ghost tickets, but said they did not know about the police union's ''bull's-eye'' sticker system, the VIP list, or the fact tens of thousands of ghost tickets worth possibly millions of dollars in fines had been issued for so long. Some council members have official city placards in their windshields that are issued by the police department.

Yet the most widespread issuance of the tickets was to vehicles that carried the union's bull's-eye stickers.

''I want to know the whole history,'' said Councilwoman Barbara Smith.

Councilman Dominic Calsolaro, who along with Councilman Corey Ellis and other members has pushed hard for sworn testimony and an investigation, characterized the practice as ''absolutely outrageous.''

''It's time we stood up,'' Calsolaro said. ''It's time we took a stand.''

Calsolaro noted that Treasurer Betty Barnette had failed to respond to a list of written questions. The request for information was made in a letter by Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti last November, on the heels of the Times Union's initial report.

''We get ignored,'' Calsolaro said. ''It's time we said 'That's it, we're not going to get ignored anymore.''

The motion to put witnesses under oath was made by Councilman James Scalzo, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee. Two council members, Michael O'Brien and Glen Casey, did not attend the special session Thursday. Councilman John Rosenzweig was the lone council person who did not raise his hand in support of Scalzo's motion to seek sworn testimony.

Ellis, who has been the most outspoken critic of the secretive ticketing system, had sought to have the council issue subpoenas compelling people to come before them and testify. City officials said the council had not issued subpoenas in at least 90 years.

But Ellis agreed with the council's decision to first invite people before them but place them under oath.

''Any investigation has to come up with the truth,'' Ellis said. ''We owe that to the citizens of Albany.''

Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com.