ONEONTA – The Oneonta office of Catholic Charities, which serves Otsego, Delaware and Schoharie counties, is joining efforts to assist furloughed federal workers.
Through programs like food pantries, counseling, and information and referrals, Catholic Charities can offer some assistance to workers who may be struggling at this time, Paul McEvoy Albany diocese spokesman, announced over the weekend.
The truism, “not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done” – actually, it’s a famed quote from a 1924 British legal case – should apply to court proceedings and – if credibility is to be maintained – to democratic government generally.
With intent interest, the citizens of Otsego County have observed the wheels of justice turn since Memorial Day Weekend 2016, after it surfaced that a resident of Focus Otsego, identified only as M.P., had been left sitting in a chair, largely untended, for 41 hours.
In the subsequent months, four aides and LPNs responsible for M.P.’s care faced criminal charges and were convicted. The state Attorney General’s Office then took up the case, and brought nine charges against two top executives at Focus Healthcare, the Rockland County corporation that owned former county nursing home in Index, Town of Hartwick.
The Focus CEO, Joseph Zupnik, and the financial officer, Daniel Herman, were found guilty of one count of neglect, a misdemeanor, on Sept. 12 in Otsego Town Court. On Oct. 10, Town Justice Gary Kuch fined each of them $1,000 and sentenced each to 250 hours of community service. (The state has also fined the men $1 million, which they will split.)
So far, the proceedings have been transparent. Now, it appears the public is limited to what it can learn about the final step – how and where the 250 hours will be served.
The defendants’ lawyers asked that the men fulfill their obligation near their homes, Zupnik in Rockland County, where he is an EMT, and Herman in New Jersey.
The attorney general’s prosecutor, Kathleen Boland, argued the responsibility should be fulfilled in Otsego County. Judge Kuch sagely observed: “Doing community service at something you love doing – it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
However, he noted court rules prevent him from even making a recommendation. That decision is now in the hands of Alternatives to Incarceration, which has been administered under contract with the county since April 2011 by the Catholic Charities chapter, based in Oneonta.
The director, Ameen Aswad, will immediately tell you he can’t talk about specific cases, but he said that, generally, he assigns defendants referred to him to tasks within the county. The exception can come in cases where a guilty party was visiting for a short period from somewhere far away.
The nursing home’s Family Council has expressed no preference about where the community service should be done, according to its secretary, Bill Hayes.
In a letter to Kuch, Hayes and his wife, Betsy, Family Council chair, urge the men serve their time in “a residential facility’s laundry room, processing soiled garments and the equivalent of the ubiquitous brown washcloths they ordered for residents’ personal hygiene.” However, Bill Hayes said the couple has no firm opinion where the service should be, either.
Here’s another view: The case occurred in Otsego County; the community service should be done in Otsego County. Justice that can’t be observed is justice taken on faith. Is that good enough?
Be that as it may, Aswad said that Alternatives to Incarceration – it is overseen by a 19-person advisory board that includes police, judges, people from community services agencies, even a representative of the college – hasn’t made public what service culprits are required to perform or where.
The Committee on Open Government, which provides advice on the state’s Freedom of Information Law, says that court records are specifically exempt from FOIL. But if, in fact, Alternatives to Incarceration is a county agency – like, for instance, the probation department – it would be subject to FOIL.
There’s no reason why it should get to that.
There are differences of opinion on Zupnik and Herman’s community service. Given the high profile and emotions excited by M.P.’s case, it might make sense – and this may be argued otherwise, too – to allow the culprits to fulfill their obligation without publicity.
This is certain: When it’s over, there should a public accounting. The Alternatives to Incarceration board owes that to the public, for its own credibility if nothing else.
Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.
► Click Here to read report on the October 10 sentencing of FOCUS executives Joseph Zupnik and Daniel Herman in Otsego Town Court.
It doesn’t matter if you’re from Oneonta or elsewhere, if your family is rich or poor, if you’re seven or 17 – if a kid is hungry, Catholic Charities and the First United Presbyterian Church will have lunch ready.
“We realized there was no summer feeding program in Oneonta,” said Nadine Stenson, one of the program’s coordinators at the “Red Door” church. “There’s been a huge need for food for kids.”
It’s a program that Catholic Charities has been trying to get in place for several years, said Christy Houck, program director. “Child hunger goes up in the summer – the schools provide one, sometimes two meals and a snack during the school year, but in the summer, that’s more food the families have to buy. And unfortunately, some kids just go without.”
The Summer Food Service Program is sponsored through a USDA grant and administered by the state Education Department, reimbursing sponsors for meals served. Catholic Charities had the grant application but no way to cost-effectively staff the program; the church had volunteers in search of new community missions, but no plans in place.
“Everyone wants to feed kids,” said Houck.
The two collaborated, and from now through the end of August, Monday through Friday, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., kids up to age 18 can go to the large pavilion in Neahwa park and get a sandwich on whole wheat bread, a piece of fruit, a vegetable and milk.
In the Riverside School district, where the program is located, 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “If we can help these families by eliminating the need to buy one meal a day, it can help them stretch their budgets a little further,” said Houck.
The city gave them free use of the pavilion, and they coordinated times with the YMCA’s park program, which ends at noon, so that children could come down and eat after spending the morning playing in the park. Flyers announcing were distributed at the schools, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club.
“We don’t take names,” said Stenson. “You can come from any county, any state. Any child can just come by.”
On the program’s first day, Monday, July 7, Red Door Church volunteers made 75 chicken salad sandwiches, with baby carrots and an apple. And despite the rain, 24 kids, including several teens on break from summer jobs, stopped by the pavilion for lunch. “We’re hoping for more,” said Houck. “We know the need is out there.”