So much for the flush of optimism I was feeling as the new year dawned. 2006 was barely 10 days old when I heard a story from one of our reporters that hit me like a punch in the stomach.
Riverhead’s longtime community development director, Andrea Lohneiss, for a six-month period between Sept. 2003 and March 2004, was licensed as a real estate salesperson and had her license “sponsored” by the town’s exclusive real estate broker for EPCAL, Jack O’Connor.
EPCAL is technically owned by the town’s Community Development Agency, and Andrea, an employee of the town, is the director of that agency. She’s served in this capacity since 1988 or ’89, hired by the Town Board on which I sat. I supported her appointment. She had great credentials, and that was good for the town. She was also a registered Republican, and that was bad for me, a newly elected Democratic councilwoman being pressured by her party to appoint someone else. I think of Andrea’s appointment as the beginning of the end of my political career. But I never for a single moment regretted it. She is a smart, hard-working, dedicated public servant. Here’s one example: She gave birth to her third child on a Friday afternoon and was back in the office Monday morning working on a grant application. Andrea has taken Riverhead’s CDA to a new level, winning grant monies the town never before even dreamed of.
In the two decades I’ve known Andrea, I’ve never once seen her do anything that made me question her integrity as a public official. The way she has carried out her duties, ably serving five administrations and always managing to stay out of politics, has always been above reproach.
For a paid staff member of the CDA to have a business relationship of any kind with the CDA’s exclusive real estate broker for EPCAL crosses a line of ethics or intelligence that I would never have expected from Andrea Lohneiss. It creates an appearance of impropriety, and for Andrea not to realize this was uncharacteristically stupid.
But in my heart I don’t believe it’s anything more than that. This controversy is being fueled by an Internet gossip blog populated by people who use the cloak of anonymity afforded by the Internet to advance their own agendas, even if it means raking someone over the coals who doesn’t deserve it. They propagate misinformation, half-truths and sometimes out-and-out lies to do it. And they don’t even have the courage to sign their name to their statements. Andrea has not been the only one to suffer this flogging by blogging. Town Attorney Dawn Thomas was tied to the blog site’s whipping post last fall, along with the supervisor, members of his family, councilwomen Blass and Sanders and, yes, yours truly. Internet message boards can be wonderful means by which to communicate, express ideas and debate public policy — but they can also be the electronic equivalent of bathroom walls where hateful graffiti is scrawled anonymously by mean junior-high-schoolers.
There’s certainly no shortage of people around Riverhead who would love to see Andrea hang. Some of them have an ax to grind with Andrea; some are serving their own political and financial agendas. Some are people I don’t trust at all, because I’ve seen too much of their own questionable behavior to believe that their motives are good, regardless of the issue at hand.
The plain and simple truth is that Andrea is and always has been a stickler for detail and making people follow the rules. That can get in the way of people’s plans, and there are people who despise her for it. And they would like nothing better than to get her out of Town Hall.
Andrea having Jack O’Connor “hold” her real estate license was a dumb thing to do, probably the only dumb thing I’ve ever witnessed her do. I believe Andrea when she tells me it was an honest mistake and she never earned a single cent as a real estate salesperson. I believe her because I know her and I know her character. Andrea is not a liar.
Calls for her resignation by anonymous bloggers on a political gossip message board are based on a short-lived error of judgment that’s now more than two years old — and had no consequence to the town whatsoever. I believe they are overblown reactions by people who have their own motives for castigating the CDA director. Much of it revolves around EPCAL, and much of it revolves around promoting aviation at EPCAL.
There are two lessons to be learned from this episode, in my opinion. First, having an ethics code that contains stringent disclosure requirements of business relationships for all public officials is absolutely critical. Second, as consumers of information, we all have to be very careful about what masquerades as “fact” — in print, on the airwaves, and most especially in the anonymous haven that is the Internet.