Use of county email for reelection notice draws criticism

Keith McNall 

LOCKPORT – The primary spokesman for the Niagara County Legislature could face disciplinary action after issuing a lawmaker's reelection notice during business hours from a government email address.

Chairman Keith McNall, R-Lockport, denied knowledge of Public Information Officer Douglas Hoover's action Tuesday when reached by telephone. 

"I don’t know how this came about," McNall said, before declining to answer additional questions and telling a newspaper reporter to expect an emailed statement. 

Hoover's email, sent Sept. 30 at about 3:23 p.m., promoted the incumbent Lockport Republican's candidacy under the county seal and with McNall's standard government photograph. 

The subject line read: "McNall Announces Re-Election Bid." It contained quotes attributed to McNall, touting his accomplishments and positions. Prior to this week, McNall had competed in the June primaries on the Green and Working Families party ballot spots, winning both lines. 

The chairman's statement on Tuesday said he became aware of Hoover's release "this morning" and admonished Hoover's actions.

"The use of county resources for political purposes is strictly prohibited, and at no point did I direct Mr. Hoover to release the information in this manner," the statement read. "Mr. Hoover’s actions are currently being reviewed by the Niagara County Department of Human Resources, and the department will determine if disciplinary action is to be taken. Although done without my knowledge, I am more than willing to reimburse the county for any expense incurred related to this matter."

McNall did not respond to follow-up questions on Wednesday concerning who authored the original notice, nor did he explain how Hoover had come into possession of his reelection material or whether he had authorized the quotations Hoover attributed to him.

Hoover did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hoover was hired in the public information officer role in February. He succeeded former PIO Christian Peck, who resigned last year after a decade on the job. Peck was the first to hold the position after it was created by the legislature's Republican-led majority in 2008.

The job description publicized before Hoover was hired described the role as a media liaison for the legislature with additional duties, including communicating information on "programs, service and activities of the county" regarding government "resources available, economic development programs and initiatives."

It is nominally an apolitical, bureaucratic post. 

Members of the Niagara County minority caucus said Hoover's actions violate county ethics codes and may be illegal. They drew attention to Section 8 of the county ethics code, which in part discusses the use of county positions. 

"No county officer or employee shall directly or indirectly compel any non-elected officer or employee of the county to participate in an election campaign," the section reads. In addition, the code says "no county property or equipment shall be used in connection with any election campaign or to aid any political party, political party organization, election campaign, or candidate."

Outgoing Legislator Jason Zona, who was selected as the Niagara County Democratic Committee Chairman last year, said lawmakers should consider an investigation independent of the HR department's work.

Zona said campaign promotion with government resources amounts to an ethics violation for "illegally using taxpayer money." He said he considered it unlikely Hoover would have chosen to issue the notice on his own.

"You’re not supposed to do political work on county time and that’s what’s clearly being done," he said. 

Hoover was hired at a salary of $57,137, but Zona, D-Niagara Falls, said his total cost to taxpayers is closer to $100,000 when benefits and pension contributions are included.  

Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said the matter should be referred to the Niagara County Board of Ethics, a five-person board made up of individuals not serving in the legislature who are tasked with reviewing and enforcing county ethics guidelines.

If Hoover was directed by another individual to send out the material in question, Virtuoso believes that person also deserved scrutiny under the county ethics rules. 

"We have to find out who directed him to do this because they would be in violation of ethics code too," Virtuoso said.

Democrats previously attempted to have the PIO position eliminated from the county budget. Virtuoso said he will once again suggest the position be cut at budget time, saying he believes the job is a patronage position for the GOP. 

"I’ve been complaining about that for years, that the PR person was the actual PR person for the majority and that’s it," he said.

"This job is not needed," he added. 

According to a brief analysis by the Gazette, the vast majority of Hoover's press advisories and releases have either directly quoted or mentioned members of the Republican majority. Of the nearly 70 communications Hoover has sent the Gazette in his eight months on the job, two have quoted Democrats. 

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