Karen Bisso, a candidate for the state's 115th Assembly District, shattered her credibility with a press release Tuesday morning that was wildly wrong about state land purchases.
If Ms. Bisso had checked it out with any newspaper-reading adult or public official in the Adirondacks, they could have quickly corrected her.
The essay was written by her and members of her campaign team, according to Russ Finley, speaking to the Enterprise on behalf of the campaign. Although it did not specifically mention a deal, signed Sunday, by which the state plans to buy 69,000 acres of timberland from The Nature Conservancy, it was about such state land purchases. It opened with a bang:
"Would you vote for Bernie Madoff for Governor? Would you support a con man for office? Would you intentionally invest your money into a scam where in the end you knew you would be ripped off? Well guess what? If you live in New York and you pay taxes, you have done all of the above. New York is involved in not only the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, but also the largest acquisition of private property in U.S. history."
Not just Madoff-big but bigger, and "the largest acquisition of private property in U.S. history," although with no backing for that. The tone is set for the la-la land of brazen, dramatic conspiracy theories.
"The way the scam works is this," the second paragraph read. "There are environmental groups with nice names like the 'Nature Conservancy', or 'Thousand Island Land Trust'. These groups go out and make offers on large tracts of land. Once the offer is accepted, they apply for a grant from New York State to purchase the property. After they own the property, they then sell New York an 'easement' which these groups then in turn use to buy another piece of property. And again sell an easement. Then, after a couple of years, they sell the property to New York, usually at a profit."
There's no shortage of controversy about the state buying land, especially here in the Adirondacks - but to say New York double-pays groups to buy land and then sell it to itself is just flat-out wrong.
We presented Mr. Finley with the facts that prove this and gave him a chance to present his own, but instead he retreated. He said they hadn't said the Conservancy did such things - although they had: Right after naming it, they had said "these groups" did this stuff. He said he had heard TILT had done these deeds but couldn't remember any specific instance. Amid much defensiveness and pivoting, he admitted the campaign had made mistakes with this release.
There was, apparently, no homework done on this at all - rather, an ideological imagination run wild.
We set out to do some of the homework they didn't do. Jae Lee, a reporter at the Watertown Daily Times who covers TILT, told us that yes, the group has gotten state grants to help it buy land, but it has never, to his knowledge, sold that land, or easements on it, to the state.
Hence, the elaborate web Ms. Bisso spun around this illusion easily fell apart. But more fabrications followed in her essay. The most blatant was this: "Every time the State buys land, it takes it off the tax rolls."
Not in the Adirondacks.
The state pays property taxes to counties, towns, school districts and any other taxing entity for its Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve Land. That's been true since 1886, when the preserve was established. Section 532 of the state Real Property Tax Law specifies that Forest Preserve lands be taxed, and Section 542 says, "State lands subject to taxation shall be valued as if privately owned."
In practice, it's common for an Adirondack town to get 20, 30 or 40 percent of its total property tax income from state for the Forest Preserve.
That's a lot for a state Assembly candidate to be unaware of, especially when half of her 115th District is inside the Adirondack Blue Line.
Our conversation with Mr. Finley, as he backpedaled and ranted, confirmed in our minds that with the Bisso campaign, ideology comes first; facts on the ground are dealt with afterward. By the end of our exchange, he had settled on saying the state shouldn't buy more land - a perfectly legitimate opinion and one we share, but one that apparently wasn't outrageous enough for the Bisso campaign on Tuesday.
In light of this sorry episode, it is hard to rely on what Ms. Bisso says, how she operates or what she knows about state business and the region she seeks to represent.
Meanwhile, there are three other candidates for the Assembly seat. Incumbent Assemblywoman Janet Duprey of Peru and David Kimmel of Cadyville will face off with Ms. Bisso in the Sept. 13 Republican primary (Ms. Bisso will also be on the Conservative Party line in the Nov. 6 election, no matter what happens), and Plattsburgh City Councilman Tim Carpenter will run as a Democrat in November. We're not sure whom we'll vote for, but after this, it won't be Ms. Bisso.