Lake George Watershed Coalition theft trial postponed indefinitely

QUEENSBURY — The trial of a man accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of state and federal grant funds was postponed indefinitely Wednesday amid a dispute between the defendant’s lawyer and state agencies over what documents he should be given pursuant to a subpoena.

David J. Decker, former head of Lake George Watershed Coalition, was to stand trial starting April 22 for the alleged theft of $440,000 and years of tax evasion.

But Warren County Judge John Hall postponed the trial without date after a hearing Wednesday that involved three state agencies, two of which have not provided documents to Decker’s counsel as required by subpoenas issued by Hall in late January.

Decker’s lawyer, Karl Sleight, told Hall he has gotten some documents from the state Comptroller’s Office, including what he called an “explosive” memo that he said severely undercuts the prosecution’s case.

The July 2017 memo, from a state Comptroller’s Office auditor, shows that Decker’s contract with the state to oversee watershed coalition grants allowed funds to be paid directly to him, Sleight said. It shows that the Comptroller’s Office had concerns about the contract, but that Decker got funds as it allowed, Sleight said.

“Mr. Decker couldn’t steal the money because it’s Mr. Decker’s money,” Sleight told Hall. “There was no larceny here … This case is falling apart before our eyes.”

The state Department of Taxation and Finance turned over tax return documents to Sleight, but Christine Stevens, a lawyer for the agency, said she planned to file a formal motion to quash the subpoena because the defense effort is an illegal “fishing expedition.”

Lawyers went back and forth for nearly an hour about a variety of issues related to the subpoenas, with an attorney for the Comptroller’s Office saying at one point the office shouldn’t comply with subpoenas because it was part of the investigation. That would make its information subject to pretrial evidence “discovery” instead of subpoena.

“I want to make sure he gets a fair trial and his attorney gets as much legal information as he needs to represent his client,” Hall said.

Sleight also questioned the Warren County District Attorney’s Office getting assistance in prosecuting the case from the state Attorney General’s Office, but Warren County District Attorney Jason Carusone said after the hearing that his office briefly consulted with a single assistant attorney general who is no longer involved with the case.

“They had some involvement in the case as an adviser,” he said.

Hall said trial in the case was likely in July, in light of a busy trial schedule with other cases scheduled between April and July.

The watershed coalition is a loosely knit consortium of environmental groups and municipalities in the Lake George basin that have received millions of dollars in grants for environmental protection projects.

Decker, 67, of Burnt Hills, has pleaded not guilty to a 22-count indictment that includes multiple charges of corrupting the government, grand larceny, falsifying business records and tax fraud.

He was arrested in March 2017 and is accused of stealing $440,000 while working on coalition projects between 2013 and 2017. Some of the money was allegedly funneled to a shell contracting corporation he created that did not provide any services or materials to the projects for which it was paid.

He has claimed the money he received was legitimate payment for his work, but he is accused of tax fraud for not claiming the money on his state taxes in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office investigation began after the Warren County Treasurer’s Office and Queensbury resident Travis Whitehead, a government watchdog, questioned financial irregularities with some of the projects overseen by Decker.