Fulton County Sheriff Tom Lorey hasn't had a good run as of late.
It started last summer when a Mayfield woman turned up dead on a rural road, and he had speculated that the designer drug known as "bath salts" may have played a role in her death. When the toxicology reports came back later, there was no evidence that the woman had ever used the drug, as no traces of bath salts were found in her system.
Then came the passage of New York's stricter gun control laws earlier this year, known as the SAFE Act, which prompted the good sheriff to announce to everyone and anyone that he would never allow his officers to go into people's homes and start taking their guns away -- which is all well and good, except that the law doesn't really provide for that. Then he indicated he wouldn't enforce the law, which is kind of odd considering that a sheriff swears an oath to uphold the law.
More recently, a father and son in Broadalbin went missing after heading out on a boat in the Great Sacandaga Lake for a fishing excursion. A few days after a search began, Lorey announced that authorities were scaling back the operation because there was no reason to believe the two men were even in the lake. Some of the so-called evidence indicating the men had left the area, the sheriff has been quoted as saying, was based on statements posted on Facebook, which we all know is the most reliable source of information on the Internets.
About a week after the sheriff made this announcement, the two men's bodies were recovered from the lake, one them being found right around the bend from the initial search site.
The last incidents are the most concerning. After a plane went down outside of Ephratah, a reporter was threatened with arrest for taking pictures of authorities setting up a command center, even though he was well within his rights to do so. Granted, it wasn't the sheriff himself who made that threat, but as the leader of the department, he's responsible for the actions of his officers, and clearly his leadership has given his deputies the idea that they can improperly threaten media outlets.
Shortly afterward, the sheriff allowed his son, Ryan Lorey, the self-proclaimed "press officer" of the Fulton County Sheriff's Office (even though no such position exists) and the operator of a so-called Facebook news page called "Fulton County & Beyond," access to the crash site for photos when other members of media covering the tragedy were not given the same courtesy. Well, Ryan was able to bring along a buddy from a capitol region television station, but no one else was allowed down there.
What the heck is going on here?
The problem is that there's little anyone can do to put a stop to this nonsense. Sheriffs are elected, which means they aren't answerable to anyone but the electorate.
Still, Lorey's statements and actions as of late are a major cause of concern.
Publicizing wrong information in the deaths of the Mayfield woman and the two men from Broadalbin are horrible any way you look at it. For months, local experts were using the Mayfield case as an example of why people shouldn't use bath salts, and this poor woman's family wound up being subjected to speculation about her being all hopped up on the designer drug when in fact there was no evidence this was true.
It's the same thing with the Broadalbin deaths. For starters, why in the world would the sheriff use Facebook as a reason to call off the search for these two men, which basically left their friends and family hanging as they waited for answers about what happened to their loved ones. It also fueled speculation and rumors in the community about this family's private lives, which no one should have to endure.
On top of that, it made those of us covering these stories look like fools because we reported the information given to us. In turn, it does a disservice to people who rely on the local media for information and have a right to know about what's happening in their communities. It also creates a sense of distrust because how the heck are local reporters and photographers supposed to trust Lorey in the future if there's a chance he's going to release bad information?
At the very least, the sheriff owes everyone, particularly the families affected by these deaths, some sort of a public apology for these bungles and misstatements.
The situation in Ephratah is most serious and should be the thing that raises everyone's eyebrows.
For the most part, local media outlets have a solid relationship with local law enforcement and public safety agencies. We understand they have a job to do, and most of them understand we have a job to do. None of us in the news biz have any desire to do anything that would interfere with an emergency responder's ability to deal with accidents, fires and/or crime scenes.
With the fatal plane crash there, a reporter from another area newspaper was dispatched to cover the scene. The reporter is not some wet-behind-the-ears fresh college grad who was thrown into a major news event. He's been at this for a long time -- long enough to know where he can be in order to do his job without getting in the way of other people who are trying to do theirs. I've known this reporter for several years and even worked with him for a time. He knows his job, and he does it extremely well.
There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for him to be threatened with arrest for simply taking photos and recording what was happening. A plane crash is a major news story, and in this digital age of news as it happens now, those of us in the business have a responsibility to our readers and viewers to get information to them as quickly and as accurately as possible, because they have the right to know what's going on.
The officer who threatened the reporter should be disciplined, and the sheriff has a responsibility to make sure his officers know that it's not right to threaten a media person with arrest if there are no laws being broken. I wouldn't hold my breath, though, because it's not the first time it's happened, and I doubt it will be the last.
The sheriff certainly has no right to give his son favored-nation status over the rest of the legitimate media that covers this region. The fact that Ryan Lorey can create a so-called "news" site and print himself a press pass, isn't that big of a deal, as pretty much anyone with a Facebook or Wordpress account and a color printer can slap the word "news" on it and pass themselves off as a journalist. It doesn't necessarily make it so, but whatever. We've dealt with similar individuals like this before, and we'll probably have to deal with it again.
The problem is Ryan Lorey wearing shirts bearing the word "press" on them next to the official logo of the Fulton County Sheriff's Office. For starters, there is no record of any "press" position being officially created for the department, and by wearing that insignia, the younger Lorey is passing himself off as a member of a law enforcement agency. That sounds like impersonating a police officer to me, which in fact is a crime.
Folks in Montgomery County may remember the younger Lorey as the deputy who had a troubled stint with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department and was later fired from the St. Johnsville Police Department for several documented behavioral problems. His father then tried to get the Fulton County Board of Supervisors to waive a so-called "nepotism" clause that prevents department heads from hiring family members so he could get his son a job at the county sheriff's department.
Apparently, that "nepotism" doesn't extend to courtesies offered to media outlets trying to cover major news events. Just because the two share the same DNA and just because his son wants to play journalist this week doesn't give Sheriff Lorey any right to give Ryan Lorey special privileges not afforded to other media outlets. The crash site is on private property, so there are two options when it comes to reporter access: either everyone gets in, or no one gets in.
The result is bad blood between the sheriff's department and the local media. And more importantly -- bruised egos and snarky feelings aside -- the folks who really lose in this case are members of the public who need to have faith that their sheriff's department is adequately investigating whatever incident it responds to and who rely on local media outlets -- whether it's print, radio, television or online -- for accurate and complete information.
The sheriff has a responsibility to put an end to this nonsense once and for all. If he doesn't, then it's time for him to either step down from office or get voted out of his job.
CHARLIE KRAEBEL is editor of the Recorder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.