Our Karen Baer Case File — Hundreds of Pages for Holiday Reading

Categories Ithaca, Politics

Keep in-depth TruthSayers reporting coming by making a donation today.

By Josh Brokaw

ITHACA, N.Y. — The hearing in the case of Karen Baer, suspended Tompkins County Human Rights Director, is scheduled to conclude on January 5, 2018.

Update: TruthSayers received an email from Baer’s law firm that states the next hearing session is scheduled for January 5, so we have changed that from January 3, above. Baer’s attorneys have also filed a motion for judgment in her favor, and a request to change the venue to the Ithaca Town Hall.

TruthSayers’ Josh Brokaw — that’s me! — will be there, listening  to the last session of the hearing, after two full days of testimony were made on December 7 and 8, 2017, at the Tompkins County Health Department building, up by the airport.

A local leftist asked me about the Baer case last week, with words to the effect of: “I want to know who to root for!”

Karen Baer, second from left, at a December 9 hearing. Josh Brokaw/TruthSayers

If you’re looking for rooting interests, you’ve come to the wrong place. That’s not to say that your correspondent is some flying-above-it-all New York Times reporter, stating facts devoid of obvious slant, only skewed in their reporting by a corporate culture that discourages outside-the-box thinking.  [“I’m an anarchist/pacifist/unionist/et al,” says the interviewee. “That’s totally cute,” says the blue blazered Times reporter, “but you can’t be serious, right?”]

This case is just far too complex, in the power dynamics and in the details, to say that there is some David against some Goliath, or otherwise to frame it in the classic dualist narrative of “good versus evil” or even “good versus not so good.”

Baer and her supporters on the Human Rights Commission seem to view the allegations of exclusion she made as not only true, but also a means of raising awareness of structural racism in the county. A list Baer made of times she said her office was excluded from county business was similar in effect to the “types of old-school tactics used for decades to exclude people like us,” Baer wrote the county legislature in July 2016, with “people like us” referring to the people of color who work in the Office of Human Rights.

The county legislature that eventually recommended Baer be terminated seem to have taken Baer’s words  as harsh allegations, potentially legally actionable, which the Human Rights Director then did not back up with hard evidence. The charges of insubordination that form the bulk of the county’s case against Baer are all to do with her not participating in a 2017 study into her own claims of retaliation and racism by Albany-based attorney Timothy Taylor.

Suspended by County, Human Rights Director Claims Retaliation

See my December 12 story on the county’s case for more on the nitty-gritty details of the case.

Tompkins County Makes Case Against Suspended Human Rights Director

Before we dump hundreds of pages on your head for holiday reading, there are a couple portions of testimony from the December 9 session we should note now.

First, Baer began her testimony by telling about her childhood, as “one of two or three black families who lived in the village of Penn Yan.” Baer’s father was black, a gospel singer and preacher who mowed lawns for a living.  Baer’s mother was for the most part, she said, a stay-at-home mom and church organist.

“Growing up black in Penn Yan was a very unique experience for me,” Baer said on the stand. “It was where I formed my identity. The community people saw me as black, because of my dad, and so did I. So it was only when I left Penn Yan, and the confines of my hometown, that I realized strangers saw me as a white person. It was that dynamic that really helped form my views on race and my interest in human rights work.”

Second, much of Baer’s testimony on December 9 circles around the “Hooks report,” made in 2016 by attorney Edward Hooks. Below, you can find an embedded version of the “Hooks report,” paid for by the county legislature to investigate allegations that Baer originally made in November 2015 that her office was being excluded from county business. Those allegations had their origins in a March 2015 “kerfluffle” over a press release between then-Human Rights Commissioner Pat Pryor, and Baer and HRC comissioners of color Jamila Walida Simon, Amos Malone, and Talyse Hampton. Much of the email file in the Hooks report that TruthSayers is publishing is centered on this 2015 dispute, which ended with the August 2015 resignation of Pryor, a former county legislator, from the Human Rights Commission. It is Baer’s position that this is when her office started getting excluded from county initiatives.

Baer said on the stand of the Hooks report that there are 38 findings in this document, “and not one of those findings is based on anything a person of color had to say.” Walida Simon, Malone, and the late Leon Lawrence interviewed with Hooks. Baer and Walida Simon both testified that they saw Hooks “close his eyes” during interviews, as Baer put it.

The Hooks report  “grouped people of color as one voice … while white witnesses got unique voices, they had their own opinions, they were single voices,” Baer said on December 9. “One of my witnesses was Leon Lawrence, who was a very well-respected and prominent black man in this community. He had a lot to say to Mr. Hooks … you don’t see Leon’s voice in this anywhere. His voice was completely redacted out.” Baer said, her voice cracking.

“I want to tell my story,” Baer said. “This report doesn’t tell my story. This report tells somebody else’s story.”

While TruthSayers has done our best to track down the written record in this case, the whole case is not in the record. While the two investigations looking into Baer’s claims her office was being excluded from county business were based largely on the email record, emails are not the whole story. Phone calls are made between political actors. Lunches are held. Conversations are made face-to-face, believe it or not.

Freedom of Information Law requests put in by TruthSayers a week or so after Baer was suspended on October 13 were returned with admirable promptness by Erin Murphy of the county attorney’s office, just before and after Thanksgiving. About 900 pages of emails between Baer and Human Rights Commissioners, with legislators, and with retired county administrator Joe Mareane were returned to TruthSayers.

Most of the documents in the file, published by TruthSayers for the first time, are screenshots of emails returned to us from the FOIL request. I chose to screenshot because the emails comes back with whole strings attached to each response. It’s likely there are a few other responses from FOIL requests that are either in folders I haven’t looked at recently, or are still percolating at the county; we’ll add to the trove when we can.

Also included are a couple of documents, referenced in this case, relating to the 2016 county Climate Survey, which might point more to the  internal feeling among county workers.

Before you get to read the documents, you have to read our pitch.

Keep TruthSayers Reporting Chugging Along

TruthSayers reporter/founder Josh Brokaw has spent at least 29 hours so far requesting and reviewing documents, attending hearings, and writing stories on the Karen Baer case. TruthSayers has no advertisers, no grant funding, no golden goose funding sources. Someday, we aspire to pay our reporters at least minimum wage, like all the corporate outlets. Today, you can pay Brokaw part of that minimum wage.

If you want to keep TruthSayers reporting this and other important stories, please consider making a donation to TruthSayers today.

See TruthSayers’ full Karen Baer case file at Document Cloud.

Here’s the embedded Hooks report below, or hit the link to read it at Document Cloud:

Karen Baer & Tompkins County – Edward Hooks report (Text)

Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.
Email josh.brokaw@truthsayers.org with tips, story suggestions, and gentle criticism.
Twitter: @jdbrokaw