Saving Mr. Ryan

New York State Fair director, Thomas Ryan

Cuomo Administration keeps new State Fair Director in the shadows

Why is the Cuomo administration so bound and determined to keep their newly appointed New York State Fair director, Thomas Ryan, under wraps? You might think that a new director represents a chance for the fair, and the state, to turn a new page and leave behind the cloud that surrounded the event and the fairgrounds under its previous two directors.

If we had the chance to sit down with Tom Ryan, we might have given him a chance to clear up a few things. But Ryan is being kept away from the media by the Cuomo administration. About a dozen requests to interview Ryan proved fruitless. State Fair officials said that all media interviews would be handled by the commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, Darrel Aubertine. That didn’t happen until we finally caught up with him at a pre-fair publicity event on Aug. 19.

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to impress us with his talk of openness and integrity in government, he could start by allowing his new State Fair director to speak for himself. Instead, the Cuomo people are making Ryan, installed in February to succeed Dan O’Hara, about as accessible as Dick Cheney in his secure undisclosed location.

You have to wonder why. Ryan is a newbie to the fair, but is a veteran public administrator, having run the New York State Thruway and Canal Corporation. So why keep him out of sight? Tom Young, a former Syracuse mayor who long ago served as the State Fair director, is serving as an unpaid adviser to the fair, and he has plenty of confidence in the job Ryan is doing.

Apparently Albany does not. Media handlers and Aubertine cannot even keep their stories straight. From one breath to the next they switch from blaming an early summer biking accident, then they say it’s State Fair reorganization, and then offer that Ryan was hired just to deal with internal affairs at the fair. The whole thing smells worse than the dairy barn on a hot August night.

The past two fair directors, Peter Cappuccilli and Dan O’Hara, did not have their tenures end well.

Cappuccilli left in 2005 with plans to run for Congress in 2008 to succeed Jim Walsh, but that came off the rails when he was charged with grand larceny for using the fairgrounds and its caterers as his personal party venue. Cappuccilli ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct, a slap on the wrist for the man whose indictment was one of Andrew Cuomo’s last acts as attorney general. Cappuccilli withdrew from the congressional race for what he then told us were health reasons.

O’Hara, who took over in 2007 and left earlier this year, was criticized by state investigators for petty corruption and was ultimately rewarded with a cushy new state job working for the Division of Homeland Security. He is best remembered by many who attended the Jonas Brothers concert in 2008 for screaming at an usher who had asked his daughter and her friends to vacate a section of the grandstand reserved for handicapped ticket holders. He was also heavily criticized by the state inspector general for cronyism in awarding contracts and for allowing two fair workers to lodge themselves, wet bar and all, at the fairgrounds.

Is there anything to diminish faith in government more than this: The man who says he didn’t know that two of his employees were sleeping and partying at the fairgrounds he supervised is earning six figures for keeping us safe from terrorists? Are you sleeping any easier knowing that Dan O’Hara has got your back?

The State Fair has some ground to make up when it comes to asking the public to trust top management. All the more reason for the fair management to show that they have put their old ways behind them. If the Cuomoites want to sprinkle a little sunshine as disinfectant into their fair operations, one way would be to give the new boss a chance to talk to the media.

If we could save Ryan from the governor’s clutches, we could ask him about the new exhibit about the future of Onondaga Lake, or the display explaining the history of the State Fair, and of course, given the chance, we would have prodded for a hint as to the subject of this year’s butter sculpture. (That’s wrapped up tighter than Nine Mile One). And then we might ask for a look at the housing for migrant workers, a nasty topic from the 2008 fair. We could ask if he has any unmarried daughters, or when he plans to arrest Ed Kinane.

Those are the kinds of things fair directors can expect to be asked. Unless they are kept hidden by the governor’s people. Wouldn’t you love to ask him what a thrill it was to land a big star like Jon Bon Jovi to play the grandstand? Oops. Turns out Bon Jovi won’t play at the fair, after all.

More than a few people feel that that Bon Jovi was scrubbed because of his appearance at a Cuomo fundraiser set for the first weekend of the fair, but the real scandal in my opinion is that the governor of New York has to bring in a Jersey star for his “End of Summer BBQ” at a Long Island estate.

Not to mention that he can’t find it in himself to trust the man who runs the New York State Fair to speak to the public on his behalf.

Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at [email protected].

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