CONFLICT OF INTEREST PLAGUES MOUNT VERNON’S NEW INSPECTOR GENERAL
The activities leading up to the recent confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanagh to the U.S. Supreme Court has brought to the forefront the importance of credibility, temperament, judgment, decency, and impartiality in making appointments to official positions. At the heart of the confirmation issue was whether Kavanaugh’s past activities would impact his ability to make fair and impartial decisions in the future. These same issues are playing out in the recent headlines related to Mayor Thomas’ brazen appointment of his former criminal attorney, Charles Knapp, as Mount Vernon’s new Inspector General. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that Mr. Knapp is a smart, capable, and an experienced attorney. And, by accepting this appointment without pay, he sees it as a generous gesture to offer his public service to the City of Mount Vernon. However, there are many reasons why Charles Knapp’s appointment is a bad idea.
For starters, Mr. Knapp represented Mayor Thomas in criminal proceedings arising from his activities leading up to and while in office. As the Mayor’s criminal attorney, Mr. Knapp has access to confidential information about the Mayor that he may not divulge due to attorney-client privilege. This privilege extends to information that may be material and relevant in any impartial investigation of other activities of the Mayor. He has knowledge of associates, bank records, and conversations that he is prohibited from sharing. By his own admission in his introductory press conference, Mr. Knapp said that he helped bring Mayor Thomas’ new criminal lawyers “up to speed.” Only someone with intimate knowledge of the facts underlying the criminal charges can make such a statement.
The history of the office of Mount Vernon’s Inspector General started in 2008, when then-Mayor Clinton Young charged the Inspector General “with investigating complaints of fraud, waste, and abuse of offices in City government.” Since its inception, only two individuals have held the title and, each only for short periods of time. What became clear was that an Inspector General was just not a very good idea in a small city like Mount Vernon. It was entirely too political, not sufficiently independent, and just plain ineffective. In fact, the office has not been budgeted for several years and even Mayor Thomas’ 2019 proposed budget allocates zero dollars toward the Office of the Inspector General. For the purposes of investigating official wrongdoing in Mount Vernon, it is more effective, cost efficient, and less political to rely upon the Mount Vernon Board of Ethics, and if there are findings of wrongdoing, then referral to the New York State Attorney General.
It baffles the mind, then, that this Mayor, the very same one that has been indicted for multiple crimes and stands a good chance of being incarcerated, would appoint his former criminal attorney as the City’s principal watchdog. Clearly this appointment screams conflict of interest - not just for the Mayor and the City but also for Mr. Knapp. There are several problematic questions that leap to mind. Wouldn’t Mr. Knapp, a good standing officer of the court, have advised the Mayor that this appointment is a conflict of interest? Wouldn’t the Mayor have thought it best to appoint someone whose credibility couldn’t be called into question so easily? And why now? It seems rather suspicious that the appointment is being made at what could very well be the end of the Mayor’s tenure and not at the beginning. Who is Mr. Knapp supposed to investigate? Is there an ulterior motive to all of this? Are others being protected? How then can Mr. Knapp convince Mount Vernon’s residents that he is here as a neutral party, tasked with simply helping seniors and “writing reports”? By the very nature of his relationship with the Mayor, his neutrality is impossible. He is simply the wrong candidate for Mount Vernon’s Inspector General.
Only a couple of weeks ago, I revealed what appears to be improper financial activities at the Mount Vernon Water Department. One wonders how Mr. Knapp will proceed if his investigation reveals that the Mayor is improperly using funds from the Water Department for expenses unrelated to the Water Department or even the City? What if Mr. Knapp recognizes that some of the same characters appear in this investigation as appeared in the Mayor prior criminal activities? Will his previous position as the Mayor’s criminal lawyer make him hinder, delay, or squash this investigation or, worse, falsely report no findings of criminal mischief in order to protect his former client and others? Or, will we see the resignation of another Inspector General? As we speak, is Mr. Knapp tampering with records and destroying files that may implicate the Mayor? We don’t know. But, these are logical concerns, given the relationship between the Mayor and Mr. Knapp.
This is one of those head-shaking moments in Mount Vernon. We could certainly theorize as to the Mayor’s motivation for making this selection however one looks at it, there is an obvious appearance of impropriety. One could conjecture that Mayor Thomas wants to protect himself and his cronies from future prosecution. Or, maybe he wants to obtain ammunition against those in government he perceives as his political enemies. Whatever the motivation, on its face, Charles Knapp is unsuitable for this job. It is an affront to concept of impartiality in the position of Inspector General and, frankly, an embarrassment to the people of Mount Vernon, who have certainly and rightly had enough of these cheap political theatrics from the Mayor’s office.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at ADWCMV@gmail.com.