When I met with Robert Smullen in June, he said the same thing he always says when questioned about the combat veteran property tax exemption, which until recently he received on both his Johnstown and Niskayuna homes.
He understood, he told me, that he had made a mistake, but it was an innocent mistake. He simply answered in the affirmative when asked whether he qualified for the tax exemption while filling out paperwork.
And he righted this wrong by removing the exemption on his home in Niskayuna and agreeing to pay back about $4,437 to the town, Schenectady County and the Niskayuna school district.
Smullen is running as a Republican in the 118th Assembly District, and there’s a chance his explanation of how he came to obtain a tax reduction intended only for primary residences on two homes will pass muster with voters.
But it’s of no interest to the New York State Police, who on Tuesday charged him with first-degree filing of a false instrument.
Mistake or not — I lean toward not, though I have no way of knowing — Smullen is accused of committing a serious crime, and his bid for the state Assembly is in serious trouble.
The New York State Police’s involvement in the situation makes it much harder for Smullen to dismiss his actions as a mistake, or to claim he rectified the situation by paying back the money.
Now that Smullen has appeared in court to answer to a felony charge, voters are much more likely to take exception to his version of events, if they haven’t already.
Property tax fraud is no laughing matter, and it becomes even less funny when committed by someone seeking state office.
Public officials are expected to uphold and follow the law, and to be savvier about navigating government bureaucracy and paperwork than the average Joe.
Owning multiple homes, as Smullen does, entails certain responsibilities, such as distinguishing between a primary residence and a second home, and understanding which tax exemptions apply to which properties.
Pleading confusion when caught claiming a primary-residence-only tax exemption on two properties simply isn’t acceptable.
Smullen has said he intends to fight the charge in court, and will not withdraw from the Republican primary on Sept. 13.
He better hope he prevails: A felony conviction would disqualify Smullen from serving in the Legislature.
When I met with Smullen, it was to discuss the residency controversy that was starting to dog his candidacy.
His political opponents have accused him of residing out of the district, in Niskayuna, where his wife and children live and go to school.
After spending time with Smullen at his Johnstown home and talking to the New York State Board of Elections, I concluded that Smullen met the state’s residency requirements for state Assembly.
The troopers’ investigation supports this: State police charged Smullen with filing false veteran tax exemption paperwork in Niskayuna, which implies that his primary residence is elsewhere.
In many ways, Smullen is a strong candidate, with impressive credentials: a career with the Marines, a stint as a White House fellow under President George W. Bush, a stint heading the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District.
But these impressive credentials only go so far, and the controversies swirling around Smullen jeopardize his candidacy.
It’s a mess of his own making — and it will be interesting to see how voters respond.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]