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Satire or crime?

Irked mayor sends cops Uptown to find hoax letter-writer

by Jesse J. Smith
March 03, 2011 02:11 PM | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mayor James Sottile. Photo by Dan Barton.
Mayor James Sottile. Photo by Dan Barton.
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Mayor James Sottile last week ordered police to investigate the source of a series of hoax letters, apparently written in opposition to the upcoming refurbishment of the Pike Plan canopy, but police officials say that it is unclear what, if any, law was broken.

The first letter appeared in Uptown Kingston on Thursday afternoon. Photographer, astrologer and vocal Pike Plan opponent Eric Francis handed out several copies of the missive at the offices of Ulster Publishing. The letter, printed on official letterhead purports to be from Sottile addressed to “All businesses in the Pike Plan Area.” In the phony missive “Sottile” claims that after discussing the issue with Alderman Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2), Kingston Uptown Business Association President Kevin Quilty and RUPCO representative Guy Kempe, he had decided to reverse course and call off the $1.7 million reconstruction project in light of neighborhood opposition.

“We agreed that this would be misrepresenting the hardworking business owners who have their fortunes invested in this neighborhood, and who have made their desire to have the portico removed known,” the letter reads. “We realized that ‘restoring’ the traditional Pike Plan into something that looks like a mall bus shelter is simply not appropriate is simply not appropriate for our historic district, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the United States.”

The letter goes on to say that city would use the funds allotted for the renovation to tear down the portico and restore the building façades abutting it. The demolition, the letter stated, would begin on April 1.

The hoax letter came just days after Sottile sent a letter to Pike Plan property owners telling them the reconstruction project would move forward, despite opposition from a majority of the members of a special taxing district which is financially responsible for maintaining the portico and could be forced to cover any cost overruns. Sottile noted that the reconstruction project had been in the planning stages for three years and that the city risked losing $1.6 million in federal and state funding if construction was delayed. Sottile added that opponents to the refurbishment project had failed to present any viable alternatives for dealing with the crumbling 1970s-era portico.

Sottile said that his office was flooded with a dozen calls in the hours after the letter hit the streets. All but one of the callers, Sottile claimed, expressed outrage that the long-awaited project, which is set to begin early this month, had been called off.

“I got a number of calls from people Uptown saying, ‘What’s going on are you doing the Pike Plan or not?” Sottile said. “Frankly, I think this letter backfired, because it showed how many people support this construction.”

On Thursday evening, Kingston Police detectives arrived Uptown to interview residents and business owners to determine who wrote the letter. Kingston Police Chief Gerald Keller said that he had ordered the investigation at Sottile’s request. Keller said that he was not sure whether the hoax letter violated the law.

“We’re just investigating right now,” said Keller. “We will consult with the district attorney’s office to see if this constitutes a criminal matter, but that’s not clear to me at this point.”

New York State Penal Law Section 190.25 includes under the crime “Criminal Impersonation” any attempt to impersonate a public official or false claims to be “acting with approval or authority of a public agency or department.” But the statute also says that the fraud must be carried out “with intent to induce another to submit to such pretended official authority, to solicit funds or to otherwise cause another to act in reliance upon that pretense.”

Questioned by cops

Francis has declined to say whether he wrote the letter. But Francis acknowledged that he had been interviewed by two KPD detectives on Thursday.

“The police talked to a lot of people, they sent four detectives up here to investigate a satire,” said Francis. “If it’s political speech, [the investigation is] in the realm of BS.”

The initial hoax letter was followed up with a second letter which appeared uptown on Friday. Using the same mayoral letterhead as the first letter, the missive is titled “Overreaction to Prank” and purports to be an apology from Sottile for dispatching police to investigate the phony letter.

“It was inappropriate to use public resources that way, with so many more important things going on in the City,” the letter reads.

A third hoax letter released on Monday claims to be from the “State Historic Preservation Agency” to Sottile commending him on his decision to scrap the Pike Plan. Unlike the previous prank missives, the latest one includes a signature “Jonathan Marks Sanford” which mimics Sottile’s customary signature “JMS” which appears on official letters from his office. Dan Keefe, spokesman for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said that the agency had been briefed on the prank. Keefe noted that there is no such thing as the “State Historic Preservation Agency” and no Jonathan Marks Sanford employed by any state historic preservation entity. Keefe added that the agency’s sole involvement with the Pike Plan project was to issue an opinion finding that the reconstruction would have “no adverse impact” on the historical character of the neighborhood.

Sottile, meanwhile, called the hoax letters as “cowardly” and a poor reflection on the character of some opponents of the restoration project.

“If they want to write letters on the mayor’s letterhead, then they should put their name on the ballot and become mayor,” said Sottile of the letter writer. “This is just really a cowardly act.”
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