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County administrator Karen St. Hilaire. Photo: Julie Grant
County administrator Karen St. Hilaire. Photo: Julie Grant

St. Lawrence County DA seeks grand jury probe of county administrator

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A legal feud is brewing between two top officials in St. Lawrence County.

First-year district attorney Mary Rain wants a grand jury to investigate whether county administrator Karen St. Hilaire mishandled two cases involving county money.

One regards a microphone system for the Board of Legislators. The second deals with a $500,000 grant the county failed to get. But a former county official says there's a reason for the missed grant.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

For 15 years, St. Lawrence County has gotten a grant to pay for two victims advocates. David Haggard, the chief assistant district attorney to St. Lawrence County DA Mary Rain, says they serve an important role. "They help provide restitution, medical services, and a variety of other things, as well as counseling services," Haggard says.

But Haggard says his office was surprised to find out no one had reapplied for the grant this year. "We found out in June that we had lost the grant because the application was not made."

Rain herself was at a family funeral Wednesday and unable to do an interview.

Haggard says the DA is calling for a grand jury investigation into the matter because a grand jury, in addition to investigating criminal cases, can also be used to investigate public officials for "misconduct, nonfeasance or neglect."

"It is our position that this loss of a grant and the lack of filing of the application is something that needs an independent investigation," said Haggard, "and the proper body to do that is a grand jury."

The St. Lawrence County Courthouse, built in 1893. Photo: Mark Kurtz
The St. Lawrence County Courthouse, built in 1893. Photo: Mark Kurtz
Rain alerted County Administrator Karen St. Hilaire to her intention in a letter Monday. St. Hilaire says she found it surprising and “bizarre.”

"This seems to be a little bit over the top," St. Hilaire said.

St. Hilaire says the failure to apply for the grant was an administrative fumble, the result of miscommunications and new personnel, but not the result of any wrongdoing.

"Everybody missed it. Probation missed it. District attorney missed it. Miscommunications between the two departments. It just didn’t get applied for."

The woman who originally applied for the grant in 1999 seems to corroborate that story.

Francine Perretta is now a deputy commissioner for probations in Westchester County. The former St. Lawrence County probations director said over the phone Wednesday that her staff applied for the grant on behalf of the district attorney’s office. Perretta said that was because the DA at the time, current county judge Jerome Richards, didn’t have anyone on staff who had experience writing grants.

Perretta said three factors probably led to the error — a new district attorney, Mary Rain; a new probations director, Timothy LePage; and a new federal grant process that turned a routine re-application into a nationwide open competition for the funds.

LePage told the Watertown Daily Times he’s seeking other sources to fund the two victims advocates.

District attorney Mary Rain (right) during her campaign last summer. Photo: David Sommerstein.
District attorney Mary Rain (right) during her campaign last summer. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Mary Rain is also asking the grand jury to investigate St. Hilaire regarding another matter.

Rain accuses St. Hilaire of using $12,000 for a new microphone system in the legislative chamber, money she says should only be used for law enforcement or prosecution purposes. She says she’s also called the state Comptroller to investigate.

St. Hilaire says using the funds for that purpose was justified because the chamber was used as a court for hearings or depositions some 30 times last year. She says she welcomes an audit on the issue.

Chief assistant DA David Haggard says the call for a grand jury inquiry makes sense because Rain is just doing her job, "to determine whether there is any nonfeasance, neglect, or, in fact, any activity that would constitute a crime here."

St. Hilaire says a visit down the hall or a contact makes more sense in these particular cases than tying up county resources in a grand jury investigation.

"We have email. Pick up the telephone. I won’t say it’s a waste of time, but…", St. Hilaire paused, then added, "yes, I will. I think it’s a waste of time. But that’s certainly her prerogative."

Haggard says Mary Rain still hasn’t officially asked a superior court judge to convene a grand jury, but he said that will come soon.

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