When Bonnie Brennan decided to run for a seat on the Town Board in New Windsor earlier this year, she knew it would be an uphill battle.
A Democratic candidate hadn’t been elected to the all-Republican Town Board in more than two decades and it was the first time she had ever run for political office.
But nothing could prepare the 54-year-old attorney for the political campaign that followed – a campaign that pushed the boundaries of political ethical conduct, questioning a police agency’s application of state law and laying bare the personal life of a candidate with a history of domestic abuse.
“I had been forewarned they practiced dirty politics,” Brennan said, in an interview with the Mid Hudson Times earlier this week.
About a week and half before the election, an ad appeared in The Sentinel newspaper which included a mug shot of Brennan. She appears disheveled and distraught in the photo. A large question mark appeared opposite the mug shot. The words, ‘A paid political announcement,’ straddled the top of the ad. The photo was credited to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
The mug shot was taken in 2009, following a domestic incident in which Brennan claims she was physically abused. A few weeks after the incident, a judge issued an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD), effectively dismissing any charges against her if she remained out of trouble for the next six-months, which she did.
Seeing the photo aroused painful memories from a “horrendous” time in her marriage, said Brennan, who had no prior criminal record.
“This was not politics,” she said. “It went way beyond that. It was destructive at a personal level. They wanted to literally destroy me as a human being.”
The ad ran on three separate days. And, on the weekend before the election, flyers began to appear in mailboxes throughout the town of New Windsor. The mailers featured the same mug shot along with a caption reading, “Candidates should be running on their record… not have a record.”
The mailers had a return address belonging to the New Windsor Republican Committee.
New Windsor Republican Chairman Carmen R. Dubaldi Jr. declined to comment when contacted last week to discuss the ads. However, a Mid Hudson Times request submitted to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office under the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) revealed that Dubaldi also sent a FOIL request to the sheriff’s office requesting “all copies of photographs pertaining to the arrest or arrests of Bonnie Brennan” on Oct. 22.
The bottom of the one-page letter clearly shows Dubaldi’s handwritten signature.
Brennan went on to win the seat over incumbent Republican candidate Giachino D’Angelo by (4,838 to 3,962 votes); almost 1,000 votes. D’Angelo was appointed in June to fill the vacancy left after the passing of board member Susan Weyant. He could not be reached for comment in time for this story.
Though Brennan has tried to keep a “stiff upper lip” in the face of the ad campaign, she was forced to relive the trauma of the incident with each new wave of ads, she said.
As Brennan recalls, it occurred at her home sometime in the winter months of 2009. She and her husband were arguing and the exchange became violent. He called town police. “His representation was that I had been abusing him, when, in fact, the reverse was true,” Brennan said.
She admits her seven-year marriage has been rocky and that police have been called “many times” in response to the couple’s arguments.
On this occasion, however, Brennan was arrested and eventually brought to Orange County Jail, where her fingerprints and mug shot were taken as part of the jail’s booking process.
After staying overnight, Brennan said, she was released on bail. A few weeks later, a judge issued an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD). Among other police agencies, her records remained at the county sheriff’s office.
“Under state law, if you’ve had a mug shot and fingerprints taken as a result of an arrest and the arrest resulted in a charge and the charge is disposed of through an ACD, then, at the end of the time period associated with the ACD, the mug and fingerprints are destroyed in a period of six months or a year,” said civil liberties attorney Michael Sussman, convener of the Orange County Democratic Alliance.
“In this case, it was six months,” he said.
Article 160 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law states, “Upon the termination of a criminal action or proceeding against a person… the record of such action or proceeding shall be sealed and the clerk of the court wherein such criminal action or proceeding was terminated shall immediately notify the commissioner of the division of criminal justice services and the heads of all appropriate police departments and other law enforcement agencies that the action has been terminated in favor of the accused, and unless the court has directed otherwise, that the record of such action or proceeding shall be sealed.”
But the records were not sealed at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. When Brennan’s mug shot was requested by Dubaldi in October – three years after the charge was dismissed – the county sheriff’s office handed it over.
“Under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), we have an obligation to release information that is public,” said county sheriff’s office Undersheriff Kenneth Jones.
But, by then, according to Article 170 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law, her arrest had been dismissed and she had no criminal record to speak of.
The law reads, “The granting of an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal shall not be deemed to be a conviction or an admission of guilt.” It goes on to state, “Upon the dismissal of the accusatory instrument pursuant to this section, the arrest and prosecution shall be deemed a nullity and the defendant shall be restored, in contemplation of law, to the status he occupied before his arrest and prosecution.”
Jones said the matter was looked into at the sheriff’s office. “What we found was the town (New Windsor) sent a sealing order to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, they sent a copy to the town police department, but they did not send one to the sheriff’s office,” he said. “Under the court criminal procedure law, the court clerk, whoever had the case, is supposed to forward a sealing order to all the affected parties, to the people who would have records.”
Sussman, who became involved in the case shortly before the election, described the ads as “crossing the line of decency.” He rejected the assertion that the county sheriff’s office bore no responsibility in releasing Brennan’s records.
“If the sheriff (office) is going to release records, that office has a responsibility to ensure that records it releases are not sealed or confidential,” Sussman wrote in an email Monday. “In this case, it failed to exercise that responsibility and is now seeking to blame others, like court clerks.”
On Nov. 13, the county sheriff’s office reported that Brennan’s records were sealed and no longer available to the public.
Last Wednesday, Sussman and about a dozen others appeared at a New Windsor Town Board meeting to express their indignation over the use of the photo and what he described as a “misrepresentation” of the facts by the New Windsor Republican Committee. He and at least two other people were ordered out of the meeting by Town Supervisor George Green.
In a press release issued on behalf of the Democratic Alliance days earlier, Sussman described the committee’s use of the ads as deserving “repudiation by every voter in New Windsor, men and women alike who have no patience with politicians trying to capitalize upon the tragic circumstances which Ms. Brennan has had to endure and overcome.”
Brennan said she received ample support from friends and voters throughout the campaign. “There’s no question it backfired on them,” she said, referring to the committee. “It’s my hope, not just for myself, that they’re now on notice that you can’t behave this way and get away with it.”
Brennan and her husband have remained married since the 2009 incident. “We have sought professional help,” she said.
By Shantal Parris Riley