A Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant has filed a lawsuit claiming the state Attorney General’s Office is illegally withholding records on a complaint he says was filed about the county district attorney’s conduct, an action the DA says is “dirty politics” amid a judicial campaign.
Fred Cornelius, a detective lieutenant with the sheriff’s office, filed a legal petition in state Supreme Court in Albany County Oct. 18 against the AG’s office; Abisola Fatade, its records access officer; and Kathryn Sheingold, its Freedom of Information Law appeals officer.
Cornelius, who has been with the sheriff’s office for 26 years and is also an elected member of the Owasco Town Board, filed as an individual and not in any official capacity, but he states in the lawsuit that his law enforcement job gave him firsthand knowledge of the complaint, which he says was investigated. In an interview with The Citizen last week, he said the complaint stemmed from a domestic violence case handled by the Auburn Police Department.
Cornelius has been an outspoken critic of the district attorney, Jon Budelmann, during this year’s campaign for Cayuga County Surrogate Court judge, pitting Budelmann against Auburn attorney Ben Susman. Cornelius has supported Susman’s campaign, including donating to the Susman campaign, writing letters to the editor critical of the DA and making numerous social media posts, including one in recent weeks in which he stated his intention to file a FOIL lawsuit related to Budelmann’s conduct.
In response to inquiries on the lawsuit and its allegations, Budelmann said there was no investigation by the AG’s office and referenced a page from the exhibits in Cornelius’ lawsuit as proof.
“This claim, by a member of my opponent’s campaign committee, is nothing more than dirty politics. There was no Attorney General investigation,” Budelmann said in an emailed response to The Citizen’s questions. “The Attorney General’s (FOIL denial) letter … clearly states, there are ‘no records of any matters deemed investigations of Mr. Budelmann.'”
The full paragraph in the AG’s office Sept. 22 letter to Cornelius’ appeal of his original FOIL letter stated: “I have confirmed with the Public Integrity Bureau, the likely custodian of responsive records, that, after a diligent search, it maintains no records relating to one or more closed matters it deems investigations of Mr. Budelmann. Your assertion that the criminal investigations about which you are inquiring are now closed may stem from a difference in your characterization of an investigation and the Public Integrity Bureau’s.”
The letter went on to say that records could also be withheld from public disclosure if there was still an ongoing investigation, but noted that the office was neither confirming or denying that an ongoing investigation existed.
When asked about the lawsuit and Budelmann’s response on Friday, Susman declined to comment.
The records request
According to his petition, Cornelius made his Freedom of Information Law request with the AG’s office on Aug. 1. He requested any documentation regarding AG investigations into Budelmann’s conduct, “specifically but not limited to the status of any investigation into Mr. Budelmann by Public Corruptions Investigators or Assistant Attorneys General.”
That request was denied by the AG’s office on Aug. 30. Cornelius appealed that ruling and was denied again in the Sept. 22 letter, leading to the legal petition he filed this week claiming “that the Appeals Officer’s decision is arbitrary, capricious and further based upon abuse of discretion as she did not follow the current state of the law.”
The AG’s office, through a spokesperson, said it “declines to comment at this time” when asked about Cornelius’ lawsuit and his subsequent statement to The Citizen that the complaint and investigation related to an APD domestic violence case.
Cornelius declined to elaborate on his knowledge of the complaint with the AG’s office beyond saying it involved the APD’s June 2020 arrest of Joel Campagnola, founder of the addiction recovery support organization Nick’s Ride 4 Friends, which has worked with local law enforcement leaders as part of its mission to provide support for people struggling with substance abuse.
“I do have to be careful about things that I have learned professionally that wouldn’t be my place to disclose,” Cornelius said, adding that is one reason he filed the FOIL request.
In addition to law enforcement protocol related to investigations by other agencies, Cornelius said he feels ethically that making a FOIL request was the best route for him to take.
“I wouldn’t disclose anything until I received that information back in a format that the municipality was comfortable with,” he said.
The lieutenant added that the person who requested the attorney general’s office to investigate is someone he worked with professionally, but he declined to say who it is.
“One of the things that I figured would come out as a result of accessing those records would be that information, so I’m not comfortable saying who made the original report,” Cornelius said.
What police records show
In the domestic violence case cited by Cornelius, Campagnola reached out to Budelmann as he was being questioned and ultimately arrested in connection with an incident that took place in the late morning of June 3, 2020, records obtained from Auburn Police Department show. According to the criminal complaint filed by APD, Campagnola came to the apartment of an ex-girlfriend and forced the door open, grabbed the woman by her throat and pushed her into a wall. He was charged with felony trespassing because he was carrying a handgun at the time and the violation of second-degree harassment. Campagnola pleaded guilty earlier this year to non-criminal violations as part of a plea deal made with the Oswego County District Attorney’s Office, which took over as special prosecutor for the case after the initial arrest.
Campagnola also attempted to contact then-Auburn Police Department Chief Shawn Butler to ask for help, but unlike Budelmann, the chief told him he could not intervene. In a text message that’s included with APD’s records for the case, Butler wrote:
“I hope you understand there is nothing I can do to intervene. There is a serious allegation as you know and I cannot be personally involved. I support you as a friend and a person but my officers must do their job and I must support them with that. Stay strong and we will talk soon.”
The district attorney, on the other hand, did initially get involved, APD records show.
According to an investigation summary in the APD case file written by APD Lt. Kyle Platt, Budelmann was speaking on the phone with Campagnola while Campagnola was being held for questioning that afternoon at police headquarters. Platt wrote that he went to the interview room to speak with Campagnola at Campagnola’s request, but when he entered the room, he heard Budelmann on speaker phone talking to Campagnola.
“DA Budelmann could be heard telling Joel that the police should slow down in their investigation and make sure that they had all the facts straight before doing anything,” Platt wrote.
A few minutes later, Budelmann arrived at APD headquarters and asked to speak to either Butler or Deputy Chief Roger Anthony, but neither were available. Platt wrote that he went outside to speak with the DA, who asked him if one of the chiefs was going to be coming in so the investigation could be slowed down. Platt said he was then told neither chief would be available and that he should handle the matter, so he went back outside to speak further with Budelmann.
Butler, who retired from APD in July, told The Citizen via email that he did communicate with Platt at that time.
“When the DA reached out to me on this date I did not answer his phone call/text messages immediately but instead spoke to the command officer on duty, Lt. Platt, and asked him if he had the required and necessary probable cause to make an arrest of Mr. Campagnola,” Butler said. “When he assured me his officers did it was obvious that my involvement regardless of the bequest of the DA would not be prudent; therefore I did not involve myself as I wouldn’t in any other arrest that our officers make on a daily basis.”
Platt wrote that in his subsequent conversation with Budelmann, the DA said he was concerned that police did not have important facts that Campagnola had told him.
“DA Budelmann was advised that his facts were not accurate in that this matter was domestic related and that Joel had a relationship with (the victim) and that Joel had entered (the victim’s) apartment without permission,” Platt wrote. “DA Budelmann believed that my facts about the relationship were untrue at which time he was advised that Joel had admitted same verbally and in an affidavit to police.”
Budelmann continued to say police should slow down and get more information before proceeding with an arrest, Platt wrote.
“DA Budelmann indicated that he felt that an arrest of Joel would cause further issues with Nick’s Ride and all of the good the organization does. I advised DA Budelmann that there was probable cause to support the felony domestic violence arrest and that it would be doing a disservice of not making an arrest. DA Budelmann then stated that he was not telling police to avoid making the arrest but that we should slow down and make sure we have all the facts before proceeding.”
Budelmann left APD at that point, Platt wrote. The DA then had phone conversations with the landlord of the apartment building where the incident took place and the mother of the victim. He called Platt and left a voicemail stating that he was told by both the landlord and victim’s mother that they had given Campagnola permission to check on the victim and that the victim’s mother’s name was on the lease. Police would later confirm that the mother had co-signed the lease and paid the initial deposit and first month’s rent, but the victim was the person living in the apartment and making monthly rent payments.
In a subsequent conversation police had with the victim that afternoon, she told them that her mother had called her and threatened to never allow her to see her children again if she didn’t drop the charges, the APD records state. Her mother also texted her Budelmann’s phone number and said she needed to call him.
While he was at APD and after he left, Budelmann was sending text messages to Campagnola apprising him of what he was being told by police and his conversations with the victim’s landlord and mother, the APD records show.
The Citizen asked Budelmann why he got involved in the early stages of this investigation in this manner, and if it was unusual for him to so. He was also asked why he later voluntarily recused his office from the case.
Budelmann did not answer those questions directly, but said “as District Attorney, I serve as legal advisor to law enforcement and am honored to have their endorsement.”
The endorsement reference was related to the support his judicial campaign has received from law enforcement unions that include NYS Law Enforcement Officers Union, Council 82; New York State Police Investigators Association; Auburn Police Officers Local 195; New York State Corrections Lieutenants Union, Council 82; Sheriff’s Employee Association of Cayuga County; Cayuga County Deputy Sheriff’s Police Association; and New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association.
One person who did view Budelmann’s actions in the case to be unusual was Butler, the now-retired APD chief.
“Never in my 25 year career with the Auburn Police Department have I seen the DA or any of his staff personally appear at APD relative to injecting themselves into an investigation nor have I ever seen the DA personally text message a defendant while they were in the custody of our agency,” Butler said in his email to The Citizen, adding that “this was an alleged domestic violence case whereby our office as well as the DA’s office have shared a historic stance of being pro-arrest.”
Butler said he “was not at liberty” to either confirm or deny the AG’s involvement in an investigation of the matter.
Cornelius addressed the idea that what he is doing could be viewed as an attempt the smear the district attorney in the middle of his campaign for the surrogate court judge seat, since Cornelius has publicly supported Budelmann’s opponent.
“I publicly support the idea of a just and ethical judge. This is is a very important decision that people are going to make and I think that the truth is important,” Cornelius said. “I think that people can spin my motives however they want, but the reality is that all I want to happen is for people to have the information that they are entitled to in order to make an informed decision about who will represent them at the highest levels.”
Noting that he is a registered Republican, Cornelius dismissed the notion that his actions are politically based. Budelmann is running as the Republican candidate for the judge position. Cornelius added that he used to chair the Owasco Republican Committee but he left that group in order to support Susman, a Democrat, because Cornelius felt he couldn’t ethically back Susman and remain on the committee.
“For my own personal and ethical reasons I’m deviating from my normal party line,” Cornelius said. “I mean, that’s how important I think this is.”