Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles has returned $4,500 in campaign donations from a local development team after encountering campaign ethics questions regarding a letter she sent to the Department of Transportation in support of the City Harbor project earlier this month.
Kelles is currently a member of the Tompkins County Legislature and the chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee. She is running amid a crowded field of Democratic candidates for the nomination to replace the retiring Barbara Lifton in the State Assembly, representing the 125th District. She's been the front-runner in terms of campaign fundraising and endorsements, though she's also faced accusations from at least one fellow candidate in the race of being too lenient with developers while in office, a claim Kelles has disputed when brought up during the campaign and in response to this Ithaca Times article.
Tompkins County Attorney Jonathan Wood said he did not consider the letter a violation of the code of ethics, but campaign finance experts contacted by the Ithaca Times during the writing of this article disagree. A copy of Kelles’ letter was sent anonymously to the Ithaca Times earlier this month.
The ethical questions surround a trio of $1,500 donations made in the early part of May by Costa Lambrou of Lambrou Real Estate, Jessica Edger Hillman of Edger Enterprises and Elizabeth Classen Ambrose, a local businesswoman and a letter sent by Kelles to the New York State Department of Transportation regarding the project (and the neighboring Carpenter Business Park) in the weeks after the donations. All three donors are involved in the City Harbor project, a mixed-use development planned for 101 Pier Road in Ithaca, aiming to help kick-start the revitalization of the waterfront area. The project came before the city's Planning Board on May 26 seeking preliminary site plan approval. While that was granted, it came with a caveat, and much discussion, that the Planning Board would like to see the developers smooth over the transportation concerns of the regional Department of Transportation, which had recently lodged some objections to the traffic mitigation improvements the City Harbor Development team had formulated.
Kelles sent a letter to the DOT supporting the project after the May 26 Planning Board meeting, signing it as a member of the Tompkins County Legislature and the chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee. She introduced the letter by saying she was asking for help from the department to "move along" the two projects, stating the importance and benefits of both of them to the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County residents, as well as arguing that the regional DOT's methodology in measuring traffic was flawed, and that the DOT's suggestions to reduce density are "antithetical to the City of Ithaca's sustainability goals."
"We stand ready to move forward and look to our state government to work hand in hand with our city and private industry to smooth obstacles for projects that make sense in our community," Kelles wrote. "I appeal to your leadership and influence to help resolve this issue with the regional NYSDOT."
The letter is itself legal and commonplace for elected officials, plus it also touts several other benefits the projects bring, like jobs and housing. Kelles is also not nearly the only local official reaching out to the DOT for help with the project, which is quite popular and has been widely acclaimed as a crucial component of the waterfront's future. At least five Ithaca Common Council members have signed on to a similar letter, though that has yet to be sent. But the ethical questions lie in Kelles sending the letter weeks after receiving donations to her State Assembly campaign from the developers driving the City Harbor project. Lambrou and Ambrose both say their $1,500 donations weren't related to City Harbor at all, but instead out of a desire to show support after Kelles helped establish a food hub in the Space @ Greenstar in early May, which Lambrou and Ambrose were also involved with. Kelles said she was "disturbed" to learn that her letter to the DOT was being "deliberately misconstrued" in a statement to the Ithaca Times.
"Since the summer of 2019, I have been a strong public supporter of the City Harbor and Carpenter Business Park projects along the Inlet," Kelles wrote in her statement. "In April of this year I and many other city, county, and state officials drafted letters to the DOT to help them understand the impact of their traffic study on our waterfront revitalization initiatives. I have been accused of supporting the City Harbor Project not because of my advocacy for green buildings, walkable neighborhoods, and community benefit, but rather due to donations that my campaign received subsequently from individuals associated with the project. At no point did donations from developers ever influence my decisions or work. I stand firmly on my record and on my principles."
While emails provided by Kelles show that the letter-writing process did start in April, the letter wasn't sent until June 1, weeks after the donation was made. Because the project is located in the City of Ithaca, Kelles does not have any vote that would impact the project's approval. But according to the Tompkins County Code of Ethics: "A County officer or employee shall not use his or her official position or office, or take or fail to take any action, in a manner that he or she knows or has reason to know may result in a personal financial benefit for [...] a person from whom the County officer or employee has received election campaign contributions of more than $500 in the aggregate during the previous twenty-four months."
Despite reassurances from County Attorney Jonathan Wood that she had not committed an ethics violation, Kelles announced she was taking the further step of returning the $4,500 in donations to Lambrou, Hillman and Ambrose.
"To allay any possible concerns, we consulted the county attorney, and he assured me that nothing has been done that could be construed as a conflict of interest," Kelles said. "Despite this clarification and to put this issue further to rest, I have decided to return the donations."
In an interview with the Ithaca Times, Wood reiterated that in his interpretation Kelles's letter did not count as a violation, and that there had been no complaints made to the ethics board. Campaign law experts contacted by the Ithaca Times disagreed after reviewing the situation. James Gardner, a professor at the University of Buffalo Law School and a specialist in campaign law, said the donations, and any bad optics caused by them, are what statutes like Tompkins County's Code of Ethics are written to prevent. Common Cause NY's Executive Director Susan Lerner also said Kelles' letter "clearly violated" the ethics law as it is written.
"This is a pretty straight forward ethics violation," Gardner said. "This is the exact kind of thing that the code of ethics is designed to be sensitive to."
The three donations from Lambrou, Ambrose and Hillman were made May 8, May 12 and May 13, respectively, and make up $4,500 of Kelles' $50,000-plus cash fundraising since the campaign began, which leads the field. Lambrou and Ambrose both dispute that the donations were anything nefarious, stating instead that the money was a good faith 'thank you' contribution for the effort Kelles had put in to establish the aforementioned food hub in the Space @ GreenStar in the beginning of May, addressing a critical community need as the coronavirus outbreak hit and forced record numbers of people out of work locally. Hillman could not be reached for comment.
"In that process, I was struck by the leadership and fierce determination of Anna Kelles in spearheading this solution to a pressing community problem," Lambrou said, reiterating his support for her campaign. "Growing up in Ithaca, I know that this is the leadership that Ithaca expects and deserves." Ambrose maintained her strong support for Kelles as well.
The State Assembly Democratic primary race comes to an end on Tuesday, June 23. Candidates include Kelles, Ithaca Common Council member Seph Murtagh, Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer, Cortland County Legislator Beau Harbin, Ithaca attorney Sujata Gibson, Families and Children’s Services CEO Lisa Hoeschele and former Lifton general counsel Jordan Lesser. Early voting is available June 20 until 2 p.m. and June 21 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., but is not available on Monday, June 22. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.