RAY BROOK - Paul Van Cott has been removed as the supervisor of the state Adirondack Park Agency's enforcement division, just days after he sent an e-mail to Essex farm owner Sandy Lewis calling him a "sociopath."
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said Van Cott has been reassigned to other legal duties within the agency, calling it a "lateral move."
"We have been doing some reorganization in the legal division, and Paul is not going to be supervising the enforcement program," he said. "He's going to be working with (general legal counsel) John Banta and the counsel's team doing litigation, project review and focusing on some other responsibilities."
Agency Senior Attorney Sarah Reynolds will now be assuming some supervisory responsibilities in the enforcement division, McKeever said.
The shake-up took place shortly after Van Cott e-mailed Lewis, who earlier this year won a lengthy court battle with the APA over farmworker housing on his property and is seeking to recoup more than $200,000 in legal fees and expenses from the agency.
For months, Lewis has been sharing his disdain for certain APA officials, especially Van Cott and Banta, by e-mailing heated rants to a long list of reporters, publishers, local officials, lawyers, environmentalists and state agency officials.
In a Nov. 10 e-mail, Lewis said the APA is in need of an overhaul and called Van Cott "simply not competent."
Van Cott responded, using his agency e-mail, and called Lewis a "sociopath."
"Please shut up," Van Cott wrote. "Go out and get a shovel and work like a real person on your farm. Enjoy life and be a real farmer. You are very fortunate. Realize that and get a life."
McKeever said the agency doesn't condone Van Cott's statements and said he was recused "from any cases that were directly or indirectly related to those matters."
The decision to remove Van Cott as head of the enforcement division was part of an "ongoing, aggressive transition" in the APA's legal division that's been prompted by recent and pending retirements of agency attorneys, McKeever said. Apart from Van Cott and Reynolds, every other agency attorney is of retirement age.
"As we go through this transitional period, we're looking to maintain the integrity of the enforcement program and the effectiveness of legal services, which are utmost priorities for the agency," McKeever said.
When asked directly if the reassignment of Van Cott was connected to the e-mail to Sandy Lewis, McKeever acknowledged that it played a role.
"He was going to be moving in that direction anyway," he said. "It just moved it up some."
The APA hired Van Cott in 2001, and he took over the enforcement division in 2003. Before joining the APA he was a lawyer for the state attorney general's office under then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Van Cott is also a former member of the village of Saranac Lake Planning Board.
During his tenure at the APA, Van Cott has been involved in several high-profile cases, including the Sandy Lewis case, the Leroy Douglas enforcement case, which the APA recently dropped, and a lengthy legal battle with Arthur and Margaret Spiegel, who claimed the agency maliciously targeted their Lake Placid house for an enforcement investigation. In September, the Spiegels lost their federal case against the agency; the state's lawsuit against the Spiegels is still pending, with the attorney general's office representing the APA.
McKeever said Van Cott is an extremely valuable employee for the Park Agency.
"Under his supervision, the agency's enforcement program resolved over 2,000 cases, which is a direct credit to Paul," McKeever said. "The credibility of the enforcement program, which Paul has built up, was affirmed at the highest level with the recent federal dismissal of the Spiegel matter."
Contact Chris Knight at (518) 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.