October 4, 2012

Editorial: Misuse of power


---- — Two high-ranking members of the Clinton County Clerk’s Office made unjustifiable errors in judgment related to records searches.

The New York State Inspector General’s Office recently released a report on actions over a number of years. They prove to be a sad indication of misuse of power.

The first involves then-Deputy County Clerk Glenn Olds, who was sought out by Chris Ortloff, a powerful local politician, New York State Parole Board member and former assemblyman. Ortloff asked Olds to use Department of Motor Vehicles records to track down a license-plate number and identify the owner of a car that he said had cut him off in traffic. Olds complied. Turns out, the car was linked to investigator on Ortloff’s trail.

We won’t even address Ortloff’s blame in this, which is abundantly clear. Because of sex charges involving children (for which he is imprisoned) and years of questionable political maneuvering, he has already irretrievably sullied his own name.

But Olds is not without blame. By all reports, he was an efficient worker who was respected by members of the public, but he knew that what he was being asked to do violated policy. Even though he was pushed to do so by a person of authority, he should have resisted. It was a test of his integrity, and he failed. He also lied to investigators at first about what he had done.

The other person to misuse his position was County Clerk John Zurlo. An immensely likable person, Zurlo is known as the consummate politician in that he always remembers names and people and exudes a friendliness that seems to indicate true caring.

So when the inspector general’s report revealed that Zurlo had asked Olds to use DMV records to track down the birth dates and addresses of constituents so he could send them birthday cards, it would be easy to wink and smile.

But that would be irresponsible. Zurlo, who, as county clerk, doesn’t have access to DMV records, said what he did was not malicious, and we believe that. But, no matter how well-intentioned he was, the fact is that he violated the policy of his own office and misused a staff member and department records. And it wasn’t an occasional error; Olds said it happened at least once a week starting in 1996.

Beyond that, DMV staff accessed the state databank by using Olds’s ID and password. They actually had it on sticky notes at their work stations. This kind of laxity goes on in business offices all around the country, but that doesn’t make it right. These employees are dealing with information that the government should be protecting.

Olds has already paid his penalty, having resigned in 2011 from a job he had held for 17 years. Zurlo is in an elected position and can’t easily be removed except by the voters. They may decide to do that or instead to overlook his transgressions in light of his body of work.

But it is clear that Zurlo owes the public an apology and the reassurance that he will re-establish public trust by making sure his office is operating at a responsible level of security.