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Monroe County Board of Ethics Releases Report on Flagler-Mitchell Investigation

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

An independent investigation reported that Monroe County Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell violated a section of the county code of ethics. File photo.

This story was updated June 4 with a statement from LaKaya Sinclair, the woman who lodged the complaint.

The three-member Monroe County Board of Ethics unanimously accepted the conclusion of an independent investigator that Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell violated the county’s code of ethics.

Board chair Joanne Guiffrida, secretary Hilda Rosario Escher and Clayton Osborne made the report public June 3, after deliberating behind closed doors in executive session.

The board did not take questions after announcing it had accepted the conclusions in a report prepared by attorney David Rothenberg. Guiffrida said the board would submit the results of the investigation to Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. She said it was not up to the ethics board to determine any repercussions of the findings.

Monroe County Board of Ethics members Hilda Rosario Escher, left, Joanne Guiffrida and Clayton Osborne. Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

“Our role is completed,” she said. “We received the report, we’ve endorsed the report, we are making it available. That’s as far as the Board of Ethics goes.”

The investigation was in response to a complaint by Lakaya Sinclair, who met Flagler-Mitchell at a community event in September after the fatal shooting on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the report, she said the two discussed her difficulty in getting financial aid at Monroe Community College and also her interest in photography and possibly working one of his events.

The report also includes her statements that she received inappropriate messages from Flagler-Mitchell.

The report said he said he had intended to send an explicit photo that went to Sinclair to his wife.

The office of Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley investigated the complaint but did not find any criminal conduct. The DA shared its findings with the Board of Ethics.
Rothenberg’s report said Flagler-Mitchell did not respond to requests for an interview. He wrote that he used information from the district attorney’s files on the matter.

Rothenberg’s report concluded Flagler-Mitchell violated Section 45-13 of the county’s ethics. He said the investigation focused on a portion that prohibits an officer or employee of the county from attempting “to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions for himself or others.”

The report said that interpretation of the code is up to the board, but the investigation found Sinclair presented a “cognizable claim” that Flagler-Mitchell violated Section 45-13. In its conclusion, the report stated that while the section speaks in general terms, sending an explicit photo to a community resident that an official offered to help in his capacity as a public official constitutes a violation.

The report recommended that the Code of Ethics be revised to address two issues of the investigation:

  • expressly prohibit sexual harassment and unwanted sexual overtures;
  • mandate truthfulness in connection with all legitimate investigations conducted on behalf of the county.
LaKaya Sinclair reads a statement outside the Monroe County Office Building on June 4, 2021. Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

On June 4, Sinclair read a statement in front of the County Office Building. She called for Flagler-Mitchell’s resignation and for the legislature to pass an ethics code that would prohibit sexual harassment.

“What will it take to put our ‘enough is enough’ words forward,” she said. “What will it take to finally provide protection for women like me so they don’t fear coming forward. … The real work is long term but it doesn’t mean we don’t demand better in the short term.”

Flagler-Mitchell is the leader of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, which broke from the Democratic Caucus last year and often votes with Republicans. Flagler-Mitchell did not immediately return a text message seeking comment.

Monroe County Legislator Vince Felder, who aligns in many instances with the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, released a statement that called the probe “biased.” He said Flagler-Mitchell introduced him to Sinclair, as she lived in his district, and he offered to help her with her situation at MCC.

Here are excerpts from other comments in response to the ethics board’s announcement.

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello:

Lakaya Sinclair and the other women who came forward with allegations of unwanted, inappropriate and sexually explicit communications against Legislator Flagler-Mitchell showed tremendous courage. Incidents like this break the public’s trust in our government.

Elected officials and community leaders must be held to a higher standard and must be held accountable for their actions. That the victim’s credible and corroborated accounts resulted in a violation of an ethics policy with no consequences shows a shameful lack of accountability built into our current system. I call upon Monroe County Legislature President Joe Carbone and the Republican Majority to pass the ethics reform measures I have put forth and that were recommended by the independent investigation.

The Democratic Caucus of the Monroe County Legislature:

After reviewing the independent report released by the Ethics Board, which concluded Legislator Flagler-Mitchell violated Section 45-13 of the Monroe County Code of Ethics, we call on Legislator Flagler-Mitchell to resign immediately. We further call on President Joe Carbone and the full Legislature to immediately pass the recently proposed Ethics Reform Legislation, which was blocked by the Republican Majority and the Black and Asian Caucus.

Today, we learned that the ethics investigation of sexual harassment against Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell was determined to be consistent with a pattern of similar behavior by Mr. Flagler-Mitchell with other women including a dozen individuals. The inappropriate and unethical behavior of an elected official should not be supported or tolerated by any Legislator, stated Yversha Roman, Leader of the Democratic Caucus.

The Monroe County Democratic Committee:

On June 3, 2021, the Monroe County Board of Ethics found that County Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell was in violation of the County Code of Ethics when he messaged an explicit photo to 19-year-old city resident Lakaya Sinclair last November. Ms. Sinclair’s bravery in coming forward with her story emboldened other women to share similar experiences with Flagler-Mitchell.

Specifically, the Ethics Board found that Flagler-Mitchell violated § 45-13 of the Course of Conduct, which states: Every officer or employee should endeavor to pursue a course of conduct which will not raise suspicion among the public that he is likely to be engaged in acts that are in violation of his trust. He should not use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions for himself or others. He should not by his conduct give reasonable basis for the impression that any person can improperly influence him or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties or that he is affected by the kinship, position or influence of any party or person.

Earlier this year, Flagler-Mitchell was removed from his position as president of the Rochester branch of the NAACP as a result of the allegations against him. If Mr. Flagler-Mitchell was unfit to serve in that capacity, then he is equally unfit to serve as an elected official.

In situations concerning allegations of sexual harassment, it is of the utmost importance that all survivors’ stories are heard and respected, including black women,” said Monroe County Democratic Committee chair Zach King. “Accusations of sexual harassment against elected officials are especially egregious. This exploitation of power and destruction of public trust has no place within our party, within our governments, or within our society.

King continued, “Mr. Ernest Flagler-Mitchell should do the right thing for the women he hurt and the constituents he serves and immediately resign from all public and Democratic party positions. This includes his seat on the Monroe County Legislature, his seat on the New York State Democratic Committee, his position as Leader of the LD 29 Democratic Committee, and his seat on the Monroe County Democratic Committee.”

This situation also serves as an example of why the Monroe County Legislature must pass a stronger Code of Ethics. Mr. Flagler-Mitchell was found by the Ethics Board to be in violation of the code, yet the Board does not have the authority to impose sanctions or enact accountability. I call on Legislature President Carbone and the Republican conference to immediately pass ethics reform. Their vote to table this important legislation is a clear disregard for accountability of elected officials, said King.

From Bridget Harvey, spokeswoman for Monroe County Legislature President Dr. Joe Carbone:

“The decision released by the Board of Ethics is biased and clearly politically-motivated. The Legislature has lost all faith in the Board of Ethics’s ability to discern right from wrong. Just months ago, Ethics Board member Hilda Rosario Escher publicly disparaged and berated one of several brave women who spoke out against Governor Cuomo’ egregious and repeated sexual misconduct. What’s worse, County Executive Bello failed to remove Ms. Escher from the Board of Ethics after this comment was made.

“Ms. Escher’s actions show a lack of objectivity by the Board and further delegitimizes this investigation. The blind partisanship and favoritism shown by Ms. Escher is disappointing, but not at all surprising coming from an appointee of County Executive Bello.”

Asked to respond, Escher said her comments were that the governor should receive due process. “They’re allegations until they are investigated,” she said. “If he’s guilty, then he goes out.”