August 23, 2012
Dayton defends his record
Ex-public defender faults county misconduct probe
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Former Cortland County public defender and current GOP candidate for Cortland County district attorney Keith Dayton discusses Wednesday the county’s investigation of him at the McGraw Community Center.
In his first public appearance since an investigation was launched into him earlier this year, former Cortland County Public Defender Keith Dayton defended himself and questioned the motives of his accusers.
He told about 50 people gathered Wednesday at the McGraw Community Center that the investigation was really serving a long-standing political vendetta sparked by former Legislature Chairman Jack Williams in 2009, and that the county lacked any real reason to oust him from office last year.
Dayton made his comments while addressing a special meeting of the county Republican Committee, open to all and attended by five county legislators and various residents and Republicans.
Dayton is the party’s candidate for county district attorney in the November general election.
Republican Committee Chairman John Folmer called Wednesday’s meeting for Dayton to air his side of things.
Dayton, who was not reappointed at the reorganizational meeting in January, was investigated by county labor attorney Mike Surowka from February until July to explore allegations of misconduct.
Surowka’s final report has been passed on to the District Attorney’s Office but District Attorney Mark Suben is seeking a special prosecutor since Dayton is his opponent for this year’s election.
The report concluded that Dayton did not properly account for hours worked, misusing comp time, and that he worked outside jobs at SUNY Cortland and his private practice on county time.
Dayton, speaking vehemently at times, defended his work ethic and criticized Legislature Chairman Mike Park (R-Homer) and Surowka for denying him due process and running an investigation that he said misrepresented the truth.
Dayton said he ran the office in a way that allowed for a flexible schedule, saying attorneys cannot work typical 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. days. He said no comp time was used but rather hours were worked to accommodate obligations like night court and other duties.
Dayton also defended his outside teaching job, saying that previous Legislatures applauded his teaching, finding the involvement to be a positive link between the college and the county.
For this job to be faulted now, after he was reappointed by Legislatures aware of this outside obligation over his nearly 12 year service to the county, does not make sense, he said.
At one point Legislator Larry Cornell (R-Marathon and Lapeer) stood up to attest to the fact that the Legislature was aware of Dayton’s teaching duties.
“We knew he taught a class and had a private office and we thought it was good to have that go-between for SUNY and the county,” Cornell said.
He added that Dayton was always supported for reappointment regardless of which party held the majority and said Dayton “still has my support.”
Dayton told the gathering there was a time when Williams was attempting to disband the Public Defender’s Office in favor of an assigned counsel program until Dayton was able to prove that the office saves the county about $747,000 yearly.
Dayton said Williams was “not happy” he was not able to get rid of the Public Defender’s Office. He remarked that given these savings, the desire to oust him was a very big political vendetta.
Williams did not return a phone call for comment.
Addressing the crowd prior to Dayton taking the floor, Folmer recalled a conversation with Williams in which he asked Williams why he wanted to get rid of the Public Defender’s Office, to which Williams replied he was going to “get rid of Keith Dayton.”
Folmer also faulted the investigation for having a foregone conclusion: to find Dayton guilty of something meriting his removal. Folmer said Surowka was the labor lawyer who advised the county to simply not reappoint Dayton in July 2011 rather than removing him from office at that time when allegations were first coming forward against Dayton. Given his past involvement in the issue, Folmer faulted the county for then hiring Surowka to conduct the investigation.
Dayton urged the people attending the gathering to speak to town justices and members of law enforcement agencies whom he says can attest to the professional working relationship they had with the Public Defender’s Office during his tenure. He pointed to the fact he was named vice chair of the Cortland County Criminal Justice Advisory Board out of respect for his competency and record of winning 16 out of 17 trials.
“That respect is what I want you to trust,” Dayton said.
He also pointed to his nearly 12 years as public defender, saying during that time there was not a single complaint, a remarkable accomplishment given that the population the office serves are often likely to find grievances with their defense.
Kay Burns, a Cortland resident, said she came to the meeting because she wanted to hear both sides of the story.
“I think there are more things going on in the Legislature than the public knows and I’m sorry to hear it,” Burns said after the meeting. Burns said Dayton was railroaded and an attempt was made to ruin his reputation.
Legislators Cornell, John Natoli (R-8th Ward), Susan Briggs (R-Cortlandville), Gordon Wheelock (R-Homer) and Donnel Boyden (R-Solon and Preble) were the only legislators in attendance.
Legislators had been sent a letter from County Attorney Ed Purser advising them to consider the potential for future litigation from Dayton, saying their attendance might leave them facing similar conflicts to what existed in the suit McGraw resident Lee Miller brought against the county. In that case four legislators signed affidavits in support of Miller’s suit.
Wheelock said he was attending as a committee member.
Natoli raised the possibility of bringing the entire investigation before the county Ethics Board to determine if it was conducted appropriately. He remarked on the 2011 decision to not reappoint Dayton, which he said County Administrator Martin Murphy, Park and Williams were part of, calling it “backroom politics.”
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe