The Grand Jury’s Secrets
We attended District Attorney Holly Carnright’s press
event on the final results of the county’s six month Grand
Jury investigation into the county jail debacle a couple of
weeks ago. The mood in the room, filled with reporters from
as far away as Albany and New York City, was deadly serious
and not a little contentious.
Carnright, standing before a table piled high with boxed papers,
noted that as a public lawyer, he had strict guidelines for
what he could do. Only a small portion of what was uncovered
ended up involving broken laws. That resulted in the indictment
of former Public Works and Highway commissioner Harvey Sleight
on misdemeanor charges that could possibly land him in jail
for a year, but will likely mean a fine. As for the rest —
including the leadership of former legislative chairmen Danny
Alfonso, Ward Todd and Richard Gerentine, and the advice of
former county attorney Frank Murray — it seems no laws
were broken. Lots of bad decisions, yes… but nothing anyone
could get hammered for.
It has been said countless times over the years that bad governance,
which covers such faulty decision-making, gets handled in our
system by the political process. Sure, that means real reform
tends to take much longer than most people want, and in softer,
more spun ways than is really effective. But it’s the
way things work, and the reason we have grand juries such as
the one that ended with such a sputter in recent weeks.
It’s also the reason such grand juries have always been
controversial. They were founded as a means of looking into
charges of bad governance to separate the political from the
criminal. But being reined in by sealed reports, they never
quite achieve the level of reform they were established for
in the first place. They look good but achieve little.
The disappointment in the stunningly designed new jail lobby
when Carnright held his recent press conference was based more
on the fact that the pile of paper in front of everyone was
being sealed than any averted bloodletting. The question on
everyone’s minds had to do with finding ways of learning
lessons from bad governance… not just as related to the
timeline of how things went so wrong with this project, but
the human means by which things got out of control.
Everyone wanted a narrative instead of a timeline… a story
involving individual characters’ motivations and regrets.
The minutiae that came up in hours of testimony. The contradictions
and raw humanity of how government works. But all that is now
off-limits to viewing… forever.
You’d think that once people are given the public’s
trust, they are henceforth required to open their public lives
to that same public while in office. It seems part of the job
agreed to upon election, or appointment, much more than the
sorts of private life queries and investigations that have become
the stuff of endless cable news programs in recent years.
But our laws don’t reflect that… yet. And so we
never really learn what to look for in our leaders’ foibles
except via backroom conjecture. Which can be corrosive.
The problem with our system is that it’s based on the
19th Century Progressive ideal that things keep getting better
of their own accord and looking back only creates acrimony and
discord… and that such things are basically “unpatriotic.”
And yet the means by which past wrongs are corrected is more
Carnright did his job doing what he could within the Grand Jury
system. So did the new legislative majority in asking for such
But getting to a point where we don’t repeat such mistakes
on a local or national basis will take concerted effort to be
more open with our government, and investigations into it. The
fact that the present Grand Jury system is so wishy-washy is
what continues its controversial nature.
To face the challenges that lie ahead for us all as a changing
nation, we have to be able to do better.
Fortunately, all the problems our misbegotten jail caused us
pale compared to the mess we may be in on a federal level. Which
means that, in the end, new methods for getting at such challenges
will likely have to work themselves out sooner than later.
Just like they did back when the present systems were first
put into place…
We move on. PS