BALLSTON SPA -- Saratoga County Court Judge James Murphy chastised John Cole on Monday for a public relations campaign the judge suggested was an effort to influence the outcome of his vehicular assault case.
Cole, the owner of Cole’s Collision, is standing trial in Saratoga County on charges he was drunk when he lost control of his car a year ago on Sitterly Road in Halfmoon. The crash left Deanna Shapiro, a passenger in Cole’s vehicle, paralyzed.
But the start of Cole’s trial last week coincided with a media campaign orchestrated by Cole’s Collision to highlight the company’s philanthropic deeds.
The television campaign, portions of which are still available online, only mentioned the company, not Cole himself. Representatives of various local charities speak into the camera about the company’s donations to them.
At least two of those charities have since distanced themselves from Cole and the campaign.
In comments Monday in court and outside the presence of the jury, Murphy referenced an admonishment he first gave to Cole last week on the issue. Specifically, Murphy expressed frustration that the TV spots continued to air over the weekend.
He also appeared to reference media reports concerning the TV ads that indicated the ad campaign began in February. Cole’s trial started March 5.
Murphy referenced the Red Cross’s decision to distance itself from the campaign.
The judge also referenced the public relations firm working with Cole’s Collision, Baker Public Relations. He questioned the motives of the campaign and suggested it was to paint Cole in a favorable light to the jury.
“It’s offensive. It’s inappropriate and it’s unethical,” Murphy said. “My job, as you know, is to make sure there is an even playing field here. The [prosecution] is entitled to a fair trial, just as much as your client. That I am beginning to worry about here.”
Though the judge addressed Cole’s attorney, Cheryl Coleman, the judge made clear his frustration was with the defendant, whom he emphasized paid the PR firm and has control over what they do.
Coleman indicated that, after last week’s admonishment, her client directed the spots to be taken off television, but some couldn’t be removed in time. The judge allowed a break so Cole could relay that message again.
Once the jury was brought back in, the judge asked each juror in general terms if they had seen anything in the media that may have impacted their opinions. One juror repeated a reference to something she spoke of in a similar questioning last week, but none of the jurors reported new issues.
On March 4, The Daily Gazette published a profile of Cole for its Outlook section, the newspaper’s annual special section on the local business community. The story, which did not mention Cole’s criminal case, was published a day before jury selection began for Cole’s trial.
“Unfortunately, the writer of the Outlook piece wasn’t aware of the criminal charges pending against Mr. Cole,” Daily Gazette Managing Editor Miles Reed said. “If we had known about the pending trial, we would not have published the story.”
The online version of the Outlook story now includes an editor’s note about the ongoing trial.
Cole also garnered a positive article in the Albany Business Review in November. The Business Review later attached an editor’s note to its story, explaining that it learned of Cole’s charges after the story’s publication.
At the trial Monday, New York State Police Investigator Jeremy Shultis completed testimony about his reconstruction of the accident. Coleman asked pointed questions, suggesting deficiencies in his analysis, but Shultis stood by his work.
Shultis said on Friday that Cole’s BMW was going as fast as 80 mph before it left the road. State police previously said Cole had a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent at the time of the crash.
The Daily Gazette has also learned that Cole has previous convictions dating to 1991 in Rensselaer County. He was convicted of burglary, attempted assault and possession of stolen property in one case, state records show, and a weapons possession conviction in another. If he is convicted of charges in the current case, however, his previous convictions are not expected to automatically impact his sentence, since he completed his sentences for the prior crimes nearly 20 years ago.
Among the charities that participated in the TV ads for the “Cole’s Cares” campaign was the local American Red Cross. Regional CEO Gary H. Striar said in an email Monday that the Red Cross was asked by Baker Public Relations in early February to appear in a 15-second commercial spot as part of the campaign.
Striar said he recorded a spot for the campaign on Feb. 19.
“When we realized that the Cole’s Cares TV spots were airing at the same time that John Cole was standing trial, we requested that any version of the spots featuring the Red Cross be taken off the air, in order to avoid any perception of partiality on our part,” Striar said in a prepared statement.
Several of the spots continued to be present on the Cole’s Collision web page Monday, but the Red Cross testimonial one was no longer there.
A call Monday to Baker Public Relations was returned by Baker attorney Dan Tyson, who relayed a brief statement: “Baker Public Relations is not in a position to comment or respond to media questions while the trial is pending.”
Tyson referred to his original statement when asked further questions about how the charities were included in the campaign and whether they were aware of the charges against Cole’s Collision’s owner.
Another charity, Lifesong, of Clifton Park, also recorded a spot for the campaign. A representative told The Daily Gazette on Monday that they had asked for the spot to be taken down, though it remained visible Monday afternoon. By 5 p.m., however, it had been removed from the Cole’s site.
A representative of Make-A-Wish of Northeast New York, which also continued to be featured in the campaign material posted to the Cole’s website, issued its own statement without referencing the trial.
“Make-A-Wish Northeast New York regularly seeks opportunities to recognize our donors for their support and encourages our donors to share their commitment to make local wishes come true,” the statement reads. “Over the more than six years that Cole’s Collision has been a wish sponsor and supporter, we have regularly recognized them for their philanthropy. That the company has publicized their support of Make-A-Wish and other charities through Cole’s Cares for Kids is consistent with that partnership.”