Campaign to elect Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell may be taking advantage of taxpayers at the Putnam County Golf Course? Ricky Flores/lohud
The Journal News
When the Three Arrows Cooperative in Putnam Valley booked the association’s 80th anniversary celebration in 2016, Leni Glauber followed the protocol at the Putnam County Golf Course’s catering hall.
She signed a contract stating the price. She agreed to an 18 percent service charge to tip the wait staff. She paid the county’s 8.375 sales tax on food and beverages. And when the night was through, she paid the full bill.
It’s a protocol followed by most private organizations that booked parties at the county golf course’s catering hall, Tax Watch found in a review of 282 events catered there in 2016 and 2017.
So Glauber was surprised to learn that the campaign committee for Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell didn’t adhere to that same protocol for many of the 15 events it held there since 2015.
The campaign wasn’t assessed the service charge on seven events. It didn’t pay sales tax on a $3,960 food tab. Two contracts stated the Odell campaign would pay nothing, though it did later pay for those events. She never paid her catering bill the day of the event. And some of Odell’s events were given preferential rates, the investigation found.
Another group that deviated from the policy was the politically connected nonprofit called Putnam Community Cares, whose board president is county Legislator Amy Sayegh, R-Mahopac, and whose executive director works as Odell’s public relations assistant and paid political consultant. It held three fundraisers over the past three years.
Community Cares rented the function rooms for the cost of cash bar – a deal no other nonprofit received. And no contract exists for Community Cares’ 2017 event.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” said Glauber, the cooperative’s vice-president. “Everybody should be treated the same. I’m looking at my bill. We had a service charge of $648. We paid sales tax too.”
Odell’s campaign spokesman said events for the Committee to Elect MaryEllen were done on terms offered by the county’s private golf course contractors.
“Never has the price been negotiated, nor has the campaign ever asked for special consideration,” Odell spokesman Nick Fannin wrote. “All pricing, billing, and payment terms are set by the independent proprietor at the golf course.”
Tax Watch has learned that the caterer who holds the contract has operated on a month-to-month extension of its contract since February, 2017 as the county seeks bids for a possible new caterer, said County Attorney Jennifer Bumgarner.
Odell said the discounts given to Sayegh’s nonprofit were part of her administration’s commitment to helping causes she supports. Odell said she has raised more than $20,000 for an organization called United for the Troops at her holiday parties at the golf course by requiring each attendee to donate to the non-profit that sends holiday packages to soldiers deployed overseas.
“Nothing can be said that’s negative when you are trying to do something nice for people and trying to raise money and awareness,” Odell said. “There is no burden on the taxpayers. Actually, if you look at in the way I look at it, we are helping people, we are helping taxpayers.”
The deals received by the Committee to Elect MaryEllen Odell and her political allies cost Putnam County taxpayers thousands of dollars. Four percent of Putnam’s 8.375 percent sales tax goes to county coffers. The county also receives 30 percent of gross revenues from the private catering operation, run since 2013 by Homestyle Caterers and Food Service, of Yorktown.
Town of Kent Councilman Paul Denbaum, who will challenge Odell in a September Republican primary, said he was troubled by the arrangements for Odell and Sayegh at the Putnam County clubhouse.
He said Odell’s actions reminded him that the GOP clique called “Club Putnam,” which thrived under disgraced former state Sen. Vincent Liebell before his imprisonment on corruption charges in 2011, was still in control today.
“It makes sense if you have a good client to do favors for them because it helps with client retention,” said Denbaum, an attorney with offices in Poughkeepsie. “But that’s not how it works with government. It seems like a conflict of interest. She’s the boss of the contractor, and its client.”
Michael Sussman, one of New York’s leading civil rights attorneys, whose clients have included former Putnam District Attorney Adam Levy, said what’s happening at the Putnam County Golf Course can occur when you mix one-party rule and a privately run public facility.
There are no Democrats among the legislature’s nine members.
“In my opinion, this is an unhealthy collaboration, fueled by those in power, who split it up in various ways,” said Sussman. “It’s another indication of the kinds of perquisites that some elected officials in this state think they are entitled to.”
Catering hall’s top customer
The catering deals provided to Sayegh’s nonprofit and the Odell campaign were discovered in a review of contracts and financial information from 2016 and 2107 at the county-owned facility. The Odell administration provided 282 contracts, but redacted the names of 96 individuals, maintaining that revealing the names of residents under contract for a party with Putnam would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
Over the past three years, Odell’s campaign has emerged as the catering hall’s biggest customer, with 15 events costing her campaign about $77,000.
The campaign events include golf outings, brunches, holiday parties, as well a buffet and drinks that follow her State of the County address each spring, and county budget message each fall.
The Tax Watch investigation found:
- Odell’s campaign received discounts on some events because neither the catering hall’s 18 percent service charges nor sales tax on food and beverages was added.
- The Odell campaign paid less for its buffets and cocktail parties than others.
- While many customers were told to settle their catering bills on the day of the event, the Odell campaign paid an average of 26 days after they occurred.
- The Odell campaign paid for its 2015 golf outing with a campaign check signed by Odell for $6,310. Yet the payment was not disclosed in her committee’s campaign finance reports as required by state law.
Conflict of interest raised
Odell made each arrangement for each event, personally, in her name, according to the contracts. She signed each campaign committee check to close out the bills. That means deals that candidate Odell inked were on terms set by the county contractors whose contracts the Odell administration approves and oversees.
The future for Homestyle remains uncertain as proposals for the catering contract are solicited under new IRS rules that have left it operating on a month-to-month extension for the past 17 months. Both the catering hall and golf complex are overseen by the complex’s private general manager, Mike McCall.
Applied Golf LLC, which runs the golf operation, has contributed $1,000 to Odell’s campaign since 2014 while Homestyle donated $1,000 to the Putnam County GOP in 2017, records show.
Fannin said the campaign wasn’t assessed the service charge on eight events because the campaign was told that gratuities were included in the price it paid.
However, Homestyle Cateters owner Al Ciuffetelli said that was not his policy. Tax Watch found the 18 percent charge was added to seven other Odell events since 2015, and to the bills of scores of individuals, companies, and organizations who had parties at the county clubhouse.
“I’m surprised,” Ciuffetelli said. “It’s automatic with me. They should pay the gratuity. I’m looking into it myself. Everybody should pay the service charge.”
Odell’s cozy relationship with the golf course management was in full view on April 11, three days after her campaign’s annual brunch. She was among the speakers that morning, at which 110 attendees were reminded that Odell was running for re-election in November.
They were greeted at the golf club’s Hill Street entrance by one of Odell’s campaign lawn signs. Another was festooned to the clubhouse exterior while a third was planted in the grass by the catering hall entrance.
Tax Watch asked Marla Behler, the Child Advocacy Center’s program coordinator, about the campaign signs at the event to support outside assistance for her county agency.
“The county does own the golf course,” she said.
Putnam County, however, is not the Committee to Elect MaryEllen Odell.
Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner said that allowing the county executive to place campaign signs on county property was an example of an elected official using her public office for political advantage.
“Who else is getting to put lawn signs on county property?” she asked. “These signs are campaign material. It’s not OK, unless every other campaign gets to do so.”
Lerner said that any arrangement involving elected officials and entities they oversee must be kept at arm’s length.
“The county executive should not get discounts for events at county facilities,” she said. “It looks like self-dealing. It looks like she is getting discounts and favors not available to the general public.”
Fannin declined to say whether it was appropriate to plant campaign signs on county property. But he acknowledged that the signs on April 11 were from a campaign event at the golf course, three days earlier.
“The signs were put up for the annual brunch held on April 8th and were supposed to be taken down immediately after the event,” he said. “They were taken down a few days after.”
Breaks for events
A review of contracts for Odell’s 15 events – and 267 events catered for others – found that the county executive’s campaign received favorable treatment at the county-owned facility.
Take the cocktail reception on April 19, 2017, to celebrate the retirement of a longtime county employee named “Bill,” records show. The campaign paid $1,001 for the affair.
The cocktail party contract includes no charge for alcohol, at a venue where the going price for an open bar is $20 a head. Some customers opt for a cash bar, for which they pay the bartender $75. The campaign was not charged for a bartender.
The party featured a “simple buffet,” the fare of choice at 89 golf course events in 2016 and 2017. The average “simple buffet” charge was $23.77, plus an 18 percent gratuity charge. That brings the average price to $28.05 – before paying for any cocktails.
Odell’s campaign paid $18.47 per person, without gratuities added, a discount of 34 percent.
Odell campaign spokesman Nick Fannin said Homestyle Caterers set the price, which was not negotiated by Odell or anyone else affiliated with campaign. The tip was included in the $18.47 per head cost, he said.
“It was explained to us that all gratuities are paid in the gross price,” he said.
Other discounts included:
- A dinner buffet for $15 a head after the budget address in Oct. 1, 2015 – with no service charge. That’s 47 percent less than the average buffet price.
- A $20 per person buffet on March 9, 2017. If the gratuity was figured in, that lowers the price of the buffet to $16.95 – that’s 29 percent below what the average customer paid.
- The average cost for brunches at the golf club was $34.10. Yet the Odell campaign paid $23 a head April 10, 2016, and Feb. 26, 2017,– at $23 a head – a discount of 33 percent.
- At the campaign’s April 8, 2018, brunch, it paid $25 a head for the food, plus $10 a head for mimosas and Bloody Mary’s. Yet this time, the 18 percent service charge – which would have come to $472 – was not added to the bill.
- The Odell campaign didn’t pay sales tax on a its food bill of $3,960 for the campaign’s 2017 golf outing.
When first contacted, Jim Woods, the golf pro for Applied Golf Management, insisted that Odell’s campaign was treated as everyone else.
“There’s no favoritism,” he said. “It’s business as usual.”
Then Tax Watch showed him the receipt for the campaign’s June 2017 golf outing, which indicated there was no sales tax charged to its food bill for $3,960, which would come to $346.
Wood acknowledged the error and agreed in early June to bill the campaign for the sales tax.
Several customers at the golf course said when they had an event, payment was required on the day it occurred. That’s in keeping with Homestyle Caterers’ contract, which only allows for an extension if there’s a written agreement. The Odell campaign’s golf outings were also booked with a contract stating that payment is due on the day of the event.
Three Arrows Treasurer Brad Abrams said he paid, as expected, the day of his co-op’s anniversary party.
Ken Ross, chairman of the Putnam SPCA, said he made final payment the night of his organization’s affair in October, 2017.
Dr. Patrick Delamere said he receives a final bill on the day of the annual county prayer breakfast, and pays it then.
The Odell campaign never paid on the day of its events in 2016 and 2017. In fact, it pays an average of 26 days after each event, which includes the 76 days in took to pay Putnam County for the campaign’s affair in October, 2015.
Odell campaign spokesman Fannin said it pays its bills when they are received, which in the case of its golf outings, come on average 20 days after the event takes place.
The county contract with Homestyle Caterers requires it to receive payment on the day of the event, which ensures prompt payment of Putnam’s 30 percent share of catering hall receipts. Ciuffetelli said some nonprofit organizations get billed, and have up to 60 days to pay.
He said he was unaware that the Odell campaign – his biggest customer – routinely paid late.
“I never have looked at it,” he said.
Golf pro Woods said he cuts some organizations slack because they need to deposit checks collected the day of the event.
“We sometimes hold the check until I get the okay from the event coordinator that there are sufficient funds to cover the final invoice,” he said.
The Odell campaign declined to release any written agreements regarding late payments, which are required by the county contract with Homestyle Caterers.
The missing campaign check
The Odell campaign’s golf outing on June 11, 2015, drew 96 supporters for a day on the 18-hole course, with a breakfast, barbecue lunch and beverage cart. The event cost $14,196, records show.
An invoice provided by Putnam County indicated the bill was covered by two checks from the campaign, but it only provided a copy of a check for $6,310, signed by Odell, to cover the golf expense. There was no copy of a check for $7,886 to pay for the food.
The Odell campaign’s July, 2015, finance report, however, showed a payment of $7,886. But there was no entry for the $6,310 check to pay for the golf. There was no additional payment in the campaign’s next report in January 2016. The campaign ended that reporting period with just $930 in the bank.
Under New York state law, campaign committee are required to record every payment and contribution, said John Conkliln, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections.
Campaign spokesman Fannin declined to say where the Odell campaign found $6,310 to pay for the golf and why the check for $6,310 was not reported.
“If there are any clerical errors in the financial reports, we will work to resolve them,” Fannin said.
Follow Tax Watch columnist David McKay Wilson on Facebook or on Twitter @davidmckay415.
Tax Watch stops by the golf outing for MaryEllen Odell’s campaign committee
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