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Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin acquitted in campaign finance trial

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin was acquitted Wednesday after a two-day campaign finance trial related to the use of campaign money while the Republican was in the state Assembly.

Jurors reached a verdict late Wednesday afternoon.

The 59-year-old McLaughlin was charged with third-degree grand larceny and first-degree offering a false instrument for filing. Attorney General Tish James' office alleged that on November 21st, 2017, McLaughlin withdrew $5,000 from his campaign fund, then directed $3,500 of it go to a former associate, Jennifer Polaro, to repay a personal debt. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Baynes said a property exchange meeting set up through the New York State Police saw Polaro meet with McLaughlin confidant Rich Crist, who handed her a $3,500 check. Earlier the same day, Baynes says, Crist deposited a $5,000 check in a bank account written from McLaughlin’s campaign fund.

Baynes told jurors that McLaughlin, who has staunchly maintained his innocence, listed the $5,000 check as payment to Hudson Valley Strategies, a consulting firm owned by Crist, with the state Board of Elections as a designated campaign expense.

According to text message records Baynes submitted to the court, Polaro, who had served as McLaughlin's chief of staff during his tenure in the Assembly, had for several weeks been texting McLaughlin asking for the return of her iPad, MacBook and $3,500 she says she loaned him. In text, McLaughlin requested proof that he owed her money.

McLaughlin's legal team grilled Polaro about thousands of dollars she admitted stealing from the McLaughlin campaign fund by using a credit card to withdraw money at Rivers Casino, and false filings she acknowledged to submitting to the Board of Elections. Polaro told the court she is under no obligation to make restitution. One attorney implied that she was essentially getting paid to testify for the AG‘s office.

The defense presented documents showing that the check written to Crist was among several from other politicians' campaign accounts in payment for Hudson Valley Strategies' campaign services. Crist was not called to testify at the trial.

During summations defense attorney Benjamin Hill told jurors that McLaughlin had no intention of cutting Polaro a check, that Crist took it upon himself to reimburse Polaro.

Baynes told the court that Polaro was becoming an issue for McLaughlin at the time and that McLaughlin's personal bank account had a zero and even a negative balance around the day the checks changed hands, suggesting the urgency of paying off Polaro neccessitated dipping into campaign funds.

It took the jury less than an hour to return a verdict of not guilty on both counts. Leaving the courtroom in Troy, a jubilant McLaughlin thanked the jury, his lawyers and the people of Rensselaer County.

"They know the good work that we're doing," said McLaughlin. "and you know we're gonna continue to do the good work. I wanna thank Judge Sober for doing a great job on the case. And like I said, I hope I mentioned the jury for their consideration and hard work as well."

In a Thursday morning tweet, McLaughlin asked for an apology from the AG, calling James "a disgrace" who "should be disbarred."

Asked if there are any plans to appeal the not guilty verdict, the AG's office responded by email with a statement from James.

“While I am disappointed in the jury’s finding today, I respect their decision. I am proud of the case we brought before the court and stand by our efforts to hold County Executive McLaughlin accountable. New Yorkers deserve to have faith in their public officials and can always count on my office to investigate allegations of corruption and fight for public integrity.”

McLaughlin's response: "Accountable for what? I did nothing wrong. And they knew it. They spent five years well over a million dollars of the people's money 30,000 pages of documents, six Assistant Attorney General's multiple investigators, and they found nothing."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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