Mike Fayette, DOT's top official in Essex County, said he was threatened with termination for talking to The Adirondack Daily Enterprise for a story in which he praised the DOT's response to Tropical Storm Irene. A version of the same story, also from reporter Chris Knight, ran on NCPR.
DOT officials are refusing to comment on Fayette's case. Some observers say it's just another sign of how Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration has worked to limit and control public information. Chris Knight is still following the story.
On Aug. 27 of last year, I sat down with Mike Fayette to talk about the department's response to Tropical Storm Irene. He spoke about the challenges of dealing with what he called the worst infrastructure devastation he's seen in his career.
"We like to think we can take care of everything, and you fight it for as long as you can," Fayette said at the time. "For a while we were holding on, but it just turned into something we had never seen before."
Fayette had no way of knowing it at the time, but that interview, which first appeared in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and then on NCPR, would end up costing him his job.
Last week, I sat down to interview Fayette again, one week after he retired from state service. Fayette says he was forced to retire after DOT tried to fire him for speaking to the Enterprise without getting the OK from his agency's communications office.
Back in mid-August, I had sought approval to interview local DOT personnel for the Irene story from agency spokeswoman Carol Breen. When I hadn't heard back from her after six days, I called Fayette.
Fayette said he granted the interview because of some of the critical media coverage DOT received that summer over the repaving of state Route 86 between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
"I was afraid for the DOT," he said. "I was afraid we'd get potential bad press. I just didn't want that to happen again."
Less than a week after the story came out, Fayette was ordered to report to Albany for "a disciplinary interrogation."
Two days later, Fayette was notified that DOT had filed charges against him for speaking to the press without approval of the agency's public affairs office. If found guilty of the charge, the penalty would be termination.
Fayette initially planned to contest the charges at a disciplinary hearing. He lined up a group of state legislators and county supervisors who agreed to testify on his behalf.
Among them was Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas, who said he was surprised to hear Fayette was being disciplined so severely.
"I was kind of shocked," Douglas said. "I read the article again and I said, 'Jeez, it doesn't look like you did anything damaging; you praised everybody up.'"
Douglas contacted the governor's office to speak on Fayette's behalf, but was told it was "a personnel matter."
Just before his hearing, on Dec. 3, the state said Fayette could accept a demotion and transfer to Albany. He turned it down and, rather than fight the charges against him, retired. At that point, Fayette said he just wanted to move on. "My attorney and the OMCE guy explained my options, and at the end of the day, basically, it's really not worth it," he said.
Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association union, said he's never heard of a state employee facing such harsh sanctions for talking to the press without getting the necessary approval.
"I've been around for 26 years and I don't ever remember any single situation where anyone's been brought up on charges for speaking to the press from our ranks," he said.
Calling it a "personnel matter," DOT spokesman Beau Duffy refused to answer questions about Fayette's case and why it sought such a severe penalty.
However, prior misconduct charges against Fayette played a role in that determination, according to DOT's disciplinary notices to Fayette. In March 2011 he was charged with misuse of the Internet, email, a department vehicle and Blackberry, theft of service and falsification of timesheets.
Fayette said the case stems from a relationship he had with another DOT employee. He said it's the only other time in his DOT career that he's been disciplined.
Some observers say Fayette's case illustrates how far the Cuomo administration has gone to limit its rank-and-file employees from communicating with the press, and therefore, the public.
Diane Kennedy is president of the New York News Publishers Association. "I've heard more complaints under this administration, unfortunately," she said. I've heard more reporters and editors saying, 'We just can't get information. We have to go to the public information officer and wait to see if they get back to us. We've always been able to talk to department heads and other people who work for state agencies, and now that has really dried up."
Why should people care? Kennedy says state employees work for and should answer to the public. She also says the public is better served when reporters get first-hand information.
"When you have to wait for a certain number of days for a response to make its way through the channels, it's just not going to be as accurate as somebody who was there, witnessed and participated in an event that you want the public to know about, and the public has a right to know about."
Despite what's happened, and despite the fact that he agreed to retire, Fayette is pursuing reinstatement. "I'm not looking for anybody to get in trouble. If they want to do an investigation and find some people that have done some things they should have done, then they can do that. I'm just looking for things wrong to be made right."
The state has told Fayette it will not consider reinstatement.