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Private Intimidator

The presence of an Albany County PI taking photos at a vigil leads some to question why he’s even on the payroll

by Erin Pihlaja on May 22, 2013

On May 9, at around 6:30 PM, a small group of union members, citizens, and employees of the Albany County Nursing Home held a peaceful vigil outside of the home of Albany County Legislator Mary Lou Connolly. The action was part of a series of similar events held to protest Albany County Executive Dan McCoy’s proposal to privatize the nursing home. The group had also canvassed Connolly’s neighborhood with leaflets, which urged people to contact Connolly to persuade her to vote against McCoy’s proposal.

By all accounts, the vigil, organized primarily by the Albany County Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO (ACCFL), was pretty typical as far as these events go. Mindy Berman, communications director of 1199SEIU, the union that represents the ACNH workers, said that the Guilderland police had been called in advance and the group “had permission to be there.” The event was promoted on the Capital District Area Labor Federation (CDALF) Facebook page.

But there was one person on the scene whose presence seemed questionable to many eyewitnesses.

He was dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt, and his nearly-white hair was neatly combed as photographs from the event indicate. These images also show that he traveled lightly—in addition to a phone clipped to his belt, a pen in his breast pocket, his wristwatch and eyeglasses, the man carried a point-and-shoot digital camera and a notebook. One picture shows him taking pictures, in another he appears to be writing in the notebook, and in one other frame, he is in the center of the photograph looking straight into the lens.

Multiple sources on the scene identified the man as Anthony Salerno, a former Albany police officer and Altamont public safety commissioner. A comparison of a photograph of Salerno in his police days, and the photos of the man taking pictures that evening, all but confirm that the man at the vigil was Salerno. But since he wasn’t taking part in the event, and eyewitnesses claim that he was photographing them and taking notes, many are wondering: Just what was Salerno doing?

Many believe that Salerno is one of two private investigators hired by the county executive’s office last year. The salaried positions were created by Resolution No. 246, which was adopted 26-10 by county legislators in July 2012.

The language of the proposal was simple: “Create and Increase Line Item A1230 1 4130 001 Investigator by $21,635 with an annual salary of $45,000,” and “Create and Increase Line Item A1230 1 4130 002 Investigator by $24,038 with an annual salary of $50,000.”

Too vague, said legislator Dave Mayo, who was one of 10 who voted against it. “There just wasn’t enough information,” he said. “No background checks, no names—it wasn’t to my satisfaction.”

Legislator Tim Nichols also voted against the resolution, and now he would like to see some more transparency. “When I found out one of the two investigators was there,” he said, “I found it disturbing. We need to know exactly what these people are doing, who they are, and who they are watching. Was this after-hours? Do they get overtime? Is this in their job description? What is their purpose?”

Nichols added, “In our county charter, the legislature cannot fire or eliminate any of the executive’s staff positions.” In other words, the investigators are here to stay.

Mary Rozak, spokesperson for the county executive’s office, confirmed that Salerno “is a county employee whose job title is investigator, and he is part-time.” She also said that there are many good reasons to have the investigators on staff. “They have found inconsistent billing practices, with an employment program that saved over $70,000,” she said. “[They] were critical in partnering with the city attorney in the Cash for Gold scheme, which [yielded] $4,000.” She added that they also investigate theft of property and potential patient abuse at the nursing home, calls and letters to the county executive that are “threatening or suspicious in nature,” and help with fact checking for the county attorney’s office.

Rozak said that she couldn’t speak to whether or not there were any county investigators at the May 9 vigil. She said that “to the best of [her] knowledge there was no one on the county payroll” at the event. 

A background scan of Salerno’s work record results in a varied report. According to a 1997 Times Union article, Salerno was involved in a case, as an Albany police officer, in which three youths testified that Salerno and at least two other on-duty cops used excessive force against them, which included a police dog handled by Salerno. A 1998 article in The Daily Gazette reported that Salerno was cited in a lawsuit stemming from the same event. The article also said, “A police department investigation into the August 1997 incident found no evidence of excessive force or racism, [Albany Police Chief Kevin] Tuffey said. But the investigation did rule the use of a police dog at the scene was improper even though it was within regulations at the time, he said.”

The Altamont Enterprise reported that Salerno ran for the position of Albany County Sheriff in 2011. According to the article, more than 50 people applied for the position and fewer than 10 were selected for a final interview, and Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin explained: “Salerno was not among them, largely because the city was looking for someone with ‘more supervisory experience’ and more experience with unions and community policing.”

The same piece reported that “Salerno stirred controversy here before leaving the village police department when he failed, after five years of what was to be a probationary period, to take and pass a Civil Service police chief exam. Salerno was praised by village trustees and the mayor as having brought the village police department up to a high standard. ‘Tony represents . . . the epitome of what we believe is the community policing model,’ Mayor James Gaughan said last August of the primary reason the village board was committed to keeping Salerno.”

Salerno wasn’t the only county employee spotted at the May 9 vigil. Brad Maione, who works on the county executive’s communications team, was also photographed on the scene. Of the potential presence of county employees there that evening, Rozak said, “I go to various events and photograph things. People have their own private lives.”