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Campaign check with gov’t number was ‘honest mistake,’ Ritchie rep says

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CANTON - A St. Lawrence County government telephone number was printed in the top left corner of checks for a bank account for state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie’s re-election campaign, but Mrs. Ritchie’s office said it was “an honest mistake” and not an ethical breach.

Mrs. Ritchie’s office said that the number wasn’t placed on the checks on purpose. Meanwhile, St. Lawrence County Clerk Mary Lou Rupp, Mrs. Ritchie’s successor, said that no political work was being done with government time or resources. Doing so would run afoul of ethics laws.

“It was a stupid mistake, but an honest mistake,” said Graham Wise, Mrs. Ritchie’s chief of staff. “It’s been an oversight that’s going to be rectified.”

But some Democratic opponents of Mrs. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, didn’t buy the explanation about how the political checks came to have a county government number printed on them.

“I think it’s highly questionable on whether their story is correct or not,” said Sean M. Hennessey, the Jefferson County Democratic Party chairman and a supporter of Oswego County Legislator Amy M. Tresidder’s bid to unseat Mrs. Ritchie on Nov. 6. “I’d really like to know if that office has been used for political means. I think that’s a question that voters need answers to.”

Mrs. Ritchie was the county clerk until she was inaugurated to the state Senate on New Year’s Day, 2011. Ms. Rupp, Mrs. Ritchie’s longtime deputy, took over the office in her absence until Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appointed Democrat Gavin M. Regan as county clerk on March 14, 2011. Mrs. Rupp beat Mr. Regan for a four-year term in November.

Mr. Wise said that in February or March of 2011, the campaign opened a new account at Community Bank because of a “procedural matter” related to the campaign’s tax identification number. And, though he doesn’t know how, the county clerk’s telephone number was printed on its checks.

Then-campaign Treasurer Jeffrey L. Smithers immediately realized that the number shouldn’t have appeared on the checks, Mr. Wise said. Mr. Smithers alerted the bank, which provided a new set of checks. On the replacement checks that he saw, the phone number had been taken off, Mr. Wise said, so Mr. Smithers thought that the matter had been settled. But in other boxes of checks that Mr. Smithers hadn’t seen, the number remained — meaning the bank made an error and gave the campaign mixed checks, some with the phone number on it, some without, Mr. Wise said.

Community Bank declined comment through a spokesman, citing its privacy policy.

The current campaign treasurer is Patricia A. McMurray, who works in Mrs. Ritchie’s Senate office and worked for her in the county clerk’s office for 12 years. Mrs. Ritchie’s office declined to make her available for an interview, and Mr. Smithers was not available for comment on Friday.

Mr. Wise provided the Times with a copy of a check written on April 2, 2011, from Mrs. Ritchie’s campaign account that does not have the telephone number on it.

A check that was issued in June 2012, however, displays the clerk’s office number.

Mr. Wise said that he is not sure how many campaign checks were issued with the government phone number, and the office was unaware of the problem until contacted by a reporter.

Mrs. Rupp denied that anything untoward had happened in her office.

“We don’t do anything political in the office,” she said. “I can’t imagine Patty (Ritchie) knew anything about it.”

Mrs. Rupp said she has supported Mrs. Ritchie by marching in parades in Morristown and Canton.

“That’s the extent of what I’ve done,” she said.

Mrs. Ritchie’s campaign did help Mrs. Rupp’s successful election effort against Mr. Regan, however. Mrs. Ritchie’s campaign donated $2,000 in the final days before the November race, and staffers were on the ground volunteering.

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said she was convinced Mrs. Rupp, who had been Mrs. Ritchie’s first deputy when she was county clerk, had been unaware her office’s number was used.

“Mary Lou was quite surprised,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “At this point, the current staff is not involved in it.”

Ms. St. Hilaire said she met with department heads Wednesday to make sure they understood any political activity on county time and using any of its resources violates policy.

The situation is distressing, Legislative Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk, said.

“It’s pretty upsetting to think the county clerk’s office was in any way used in a political campaign,” she said. “All I can think is that some work was done from the county clerk’s office.”

Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, the brother of Mrs. Tresidder, said use of the county clerk’s office for any political purpose was improper.

“It was wrong then and it’s wronger now,” he said. “This was probably a mistake but you should know better. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be a state senator. People who make those kind of mistakes lack judgment.”

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