GLOVERSVILLE — Republican candidate for the 118th Assembly District Robert Smullen faced criticism from district residents Saturday over his having filed two primary-residence-only military combat tax exemptions on homes he owns in Johnstown and Niskayuna.
Smullen and his Assembly opponent, Democrat Keith Rubino of Herkimer, squared off for a debate/forum conducted on WENT radio’s “Talk of the Town” talk show Saturday. The show was hosted by Matt Myers.
During the forum two callers, both known as conservative voices on the show, asked about the exemptions, which have dogged Smullen’s campaign.
“Mr. Smullen, if you were elected to the Assembly, I place you with [former Assembly leader Sheldon] Silver and [former Senate leader Dean] Skelos, trying to take advantage of the taxpayer. You are not trustworthy,” the caller said.
Myers asked Smullen to respond to the accusation.
“I think I’ve covered it adequately before,” Smullen said.
Then a woman called and blasted Smullen on the same subject.
“The other man who just called just beat me to it. I feel that you Mr. Smullen, this is addressed to you, can’t really be trusted to handle things for us,” she said. “Unless you’re saying it was a mistake, I would again say this, if you can make a mistake like that, what qualifies you really to be doing things for us the people?”
Saturday was the second time Smullen and Rubino have met for a candidate forum. The first was in September at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. During the FMCC event, Smullen refrained from commenting on the controversy, but he responded to a question from Myers about it Saturday.
“Well, I just want to be sure that everybody knows, as we saw in the primary, the dirty politics that go on in New York state’s political arena. That’s clearly what this is. It was politically motivated, it’s political theater, and not to get ahead of the process, but I really do believe in the rule of law and following the constitution and following that process. I’m completely confident, as is my attorney, that this will be exposed for what it is, which is dirty politics and a factually meritless accusation,” Smullen said. “I’m really looking forward to getting this cleared up as quickly as possible.”
Smullen admitted to having filed for the two exemptions after The Daily Gazette reported on May 3 that he had been receiving the exemption on both his homes for a period of about two years and a 70-percent disabled veteran tax exemption on the Niskayuna home.
Smullen then removed the tax exemption on his Niskayuna home and agreed to pay back the town, Schenectady County and the Niskayuna Central School District about $4,437. He has argued the multiple tax exemptions were a mistake and he had no criminal intent to defraud taxpayers.
He was arrested by state police in July and charged with filing false tax exemption paperwork with the town of Niskayuna for the purpose of receiving a military veterans tax reduction intended only for a primary residence. Smullen filed for the exemption at 2169 Appletree Lane, but he was already receiving the exemption on his residence at 265 Route 309 in the town of Johnstown, which he first filed in 2009.
The arrest came after two Johnstown Town Board members — Don VanDuesen and Timothy Rizzo — went to the state police with a complaint that they thought Smullen was committing property tax fraud, although they argued he was really a resident of Niskayuna and owed the town of Johnstown $691. That’s important because if Smullen lived in Niskayuna, he could not run in the 118th Assembly District, as Niskayuna is not in that district.
In their complaint, the board members included a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, obtained by Smullen’s Republican primary opponent Patrick Vincent of Cold Brooke, through a Freedom on Information Law Request. The letter showed Smullen claimed to be a resident of Niskayuna.
But the state police disagreed with the VanDuesen, Rizzo and Vincent and charged Smullen with filing the false instrument in Niskayuna, affirming that he is a resident of Johnstown. Smullen’s wife and children, however, appear to live in Niskayuna, at least during the school year.
Smullen now faces a grand jury proceeding in Niskayuna, where he has vowed to testify, waiving his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, in a bid to quash the charges against him. If the grand jury chooses not to indict Smullen, the charges against him would likely be dismissed.
Smullen defeated Vincent in the Sept. 13 Republican primary, but Vincent has said he is still running for the Assembly as a write-in candidate.
If convicted of a felony, Smullen will become ineligible to serve in the Assembly.
Rubino chose not to go on the attack over the tax exemption issue.
“The rule of law is important and that is something we will see,” Rubino said. “Neither myself nor my opponent chooses to focus on that because we know the issues of the 118th District are far greater than this.”
During the rest of the forum the two candidates expressed the same positions they’ve held in previous candidate forums, including the one held at the Pine Tree Rifle Club in May.
Both candidates favor repeal or modification of the SAFE Act. Smullen basted the law for being passed “in the middle of the night” against the wishes of most upstate New York voters. Rubino said he’d use his position as a member of the Democratic majority in the Assembly to try to modify the law to allow for the return of pistol grips for certain weapons. He said he understands people who wear shirts that say, “Cuomo turned me into a criminal.”
One area of sharp contrast between the candidates is the issue of legalization of marijuana. Rubino said he favors legalization and would like a well-regulated and taxed market for recreational marijuana use. He said he believes that big pharmaceutical companies benefit from keeping marijuana illegal, and the public would benefit from having access to less expensive cannabinoid products that would be safer and less addictive than deadly opioids.
Smullen said he favors legal medical marijuana, like the products produced by Vireo Health in the Tryon Technology Park, but no recreational marijuana, which he views as a “slippery slope” and a “gateway drug.” Smullen acknowledged that marijuana is becoming legal in neighboring states and Canada, but said federal law still prohibits the drug and he doesn’t want to create confusion by legalizing it on the state level.
Smullen said he favors term limits, but he’d also like to see the terms of Assembly members lengthened from two years to four years to prevent the constant need for fundraising for the next election. He said two or three 4-year terms would be a good limit.
One caller asked why Smullen would be any more effective than retiring Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, who often spoke of the difficulties inherent in attempting to introduce legislation in the Assembly as a member of the Republican minority.
Smullen said he has the temperament to be an effective legislator.
“I’m going to do that in three different ways. I call it: fight, talk and build. First thing is to fight for the values that we want in upstate New York, and that we need to have expressed in Albany, that the people of this district demand that their representative [advocate for], regardless of whether they are in the majority or the minority,” he said.
“The second thing is to be able to talk to people. I’ve worked for people all over the world from all walks of life. I’ve worked all over the country. I’ve done a lot of strategic planning in the Pentagon, and I really believe I have the ability to get things done in these committees down there … because I really do care about building New York for the future.”
Rubino said he would be a more effective legislator in bringing upstate values to the Assembly as part of the majority than Smullen can from the minority.
Prior to the forum Rubino requested that the event be live-streamed on Facebook, but he said Smullen would not agree to streaming. Smullen declined to be interviewed after the event.
“We’ve got 80,000 people in this district, some of them can’t reach 1340 AM,” Rubino said. “I had people in Herkimer who wanted to listen to this, but couldn’t get the signal. I thought a compromise would be a lives tream, but my opponent who talks about being a voice for all of the people, apparently doesn’t care about all of the people getting information,” he said.
Rubino said several listeners to the event streamed it on Facebook anyway, but he was not involved in those postings.
Smullen and Rubino are scheduled to meet again Nov. 3 in Herkimer in front of the Business and Professional Association at 3 p.m. at Herkimer High School. Rubino said he will push to get that event streamed live as well.
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