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The district attorney needs to explain herself

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St. Lawrence County government was thrown into disarray last week with the announcement by District Attorney Mary E. Rain that she will convene a grand jury to investigate whether misconduct or malfeasance led to the county’s failure to apply for a grant that pays for two victims services positions in her office.

The Probation Department has applied for the grant on behalf of the DA’s office for the last 15 years. The grant deadline got missed this year, and Ms. Rain has squarely blamed County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire. I have been told Ms. Rain believes Ms. St. Hilaire deliberately prevented the department from applying for the grant.

To think the county administrator would want to lose a $500,000, five-year grant, put two people out of work and shortchange crime victims as part of a personal dig against Ms. Rain is ridiculous. I am sure if Ms. St. Hilaire were to spend half a million dollars to satisfy a grudge, she would go about it much differently.

In her bombshell public statement last week, Ms. Rain also alleged that the county has been misapplying the use of seized money from drug arrests that is spent at the discretion of the district attorney. She is taking aim at her predecessor, Nicole M. Duve, and Ms. St. Hilaire. At issue is the replacement of the Legislature chambers’ sound system, which was originally paid for a decade ago with seized drug money. Ms. Rain says that the money cannot be used for that purpose because the law states it can only be used to aid law enforcement and prosecution. County officials in the past justified using this money to purchase the sound system by saying the county board room also doubles as a court room.

Ms. Duve authorized the expenditure just before she left office. Ms. St. Hilaire and the Legislature knew about it, and nobody questioned whether it was an appropriate use of the money. Ms. Rain is going to get the state Comptroller’s Office to audit the county’s use of that fund, intimating that there is something criminal about how it has been used.

I could buy the argument that the justification for a sound system might be a stretch to meet the requirement of the law, but I have a hard time buying that there is anything criminal about it. Nobody is using that money to give a crony in another department a raise. It isn’t going straight from the DA’s fund to the county administrator’s pocket.

That being said, it probably couldn’t hurt to get some official guidance on appropriate use of that fund just so there is a clear understanding about what the DA can and can’t do with it.

Meanwhile, Ms. Rain also vowed to vigorously investigate the conduct of unidentified county department heads. She didn’t give a specific reason why. We have heard rumblings that perhaps she is trying to intimidate department heads into going along with her plan to relocate her offices, which some oppose because of the disruption it would cause to their own operations. The Legislature’s Space Committee has suspended its review of her office space proposal pending the outcome of those investigations, however, so even if that was her motivation, it hasn’t helped her cause.

I told Ms. Rain just before the holiday weekend that I disagreed with her actions and wanted to give her the chance to explain herself in this column. She unfortunately did not get back to me before my deadline, so I hope I can devote a future column to her explanation. As things stand now, it’s safe to say I’m not the only one confused by what she is doing.

Convening a grand jury to look into why somebody missed a grant application is, I believe, an inappropriate use of that prosecutorial mechanism. Implying that the county administrator and former DA did something criminal in using seized drug proceeds to replace a sound system in a board room that doubles as a court — with the Legislature’s knowledge and blessing — is going a little too far. Investigating unnamed department heads for unnamed offenses seems like a witch hunt.

If she has reason to believe that some officials’ actions have not been above-board, she should let an independent agency like the county Ethics Board investigate so there is an objective set of findings. She otherwise runs the risk of appearing to carry out personal vendettas against certain officials.

There are serious crimes in need of prosecution in this county, and Ms. Rain needs to focus on them. She was elected to mete out justice for crime victims, not run a public smear campaign against her fellow county officials.

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