Watkins Glen: Corruption, Justice, Hope
Trigger Warning: There is language that may be upsetting to some veiwers and scenes describing sexual assault.
In the heart of upstate New York, nestled at the southern end of Seneca lake where the ridges rise and fall with vineyards stretching across open fields and gorges carved by receding glaciers dive into the earth, is a little village on the edge of a marsh.
Yet, the village of Watkins Glen lies in anything but provincial languor. The village is at a moral precipice and its government in the flux of a transition following political upheaval. After the mayor resigned from allegations of sexual misconduct, the town is left mayorless, torn between a polarized board of trustees, and waiting for restoration.
Deputy Mayor Louis Perazzini and longtime trustee Laurie DeNardo have both announced their candidacy for mayor. However, which path is the one towards betterance for the community?
In order to make decisions in the present, one should understand the past, a past that holds patterns of sexual misconduct, unprofessionalism, and conflicts of interest. At the heart of the story lie the accounts of the women who raised allegations against the former mayor Luke Leszyk, and a grassroots movement to defenestrate him.
A Change in The Wind After The MeToo Movement
This struggle of Watkins Glen is not isolated to small towns, the abuse of power has been witnessed throughout the world. It has been eons since one human did not take advantage of another human. As the Communist Manifesto so brazenly suggested, society is in a constant flux of oppressors and the oppressed. With either, “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”
It could be said that the MeToo movement is an archetype example of Marx’s class struggle. In a study released by JAMA Network Open, researchers found that between the years 2006 and 2019 reports of sexual assaults reported to emergency rooms had increased 15 fold. The researchers concluded that one of the possible causes of this increase has been the growing awareness of sexual assault from the MeToo movement.
With the rise of the MeToo movement the public is discovering that assaulters come from all walks of life, including governmental. According to Pew Research, public trust in the government is low, undulating around 20%. The onslaught of government officials being accused of sexual assault certainly does not boost public trust. Some names that have become headlines because of women’s bravery are Trump, former New York State Governor Cuomo, former Congressman Tom Reed, and the mayor of Watkins Glen, Luke Leszyk. From presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and finally to mayoral, no area of the government is left untouched by corruption.
One beautiful and chilled April night, Martha Horby, 45, went to the local bar Landon’s in Watkins Glen. She was wearing her work clothes, a long sleeve jacket, hair: brunette fading into an ombre honey blonde. She had just come from a local event and decided to stop at Landon’s for a drink or two before heading back to her home in the village.
According to Hornby’s retelling of the evening with WetCouch Radio, she saw a few acquaintances in the establishment and felt relatively safe. Yet, another familiar face emerged: Luke Leszyk the mayor of Watkins Glen. The tall barrel chested man sat in the barstool beside her and she initiated small talk with him.
Yet, the small talk turned sexually egregious. In the interview Hornby continued, “I was not aware of how intoxicated certain people were because I don’t know them personally, and at some point very suddenly very out of the blue, the mayor said to me ‘so you know who I am right’ and I said, ‘well yeah, you’re the mayor, you’re luke.’ and he [then] went into some story about people trying to take him down, cancel culture, then suddenly, he stood up.”
A mutual acquaintance of Hornby and the mayor joined them and according to Hornby, Leszyk said, “‘now that I know that you know who I am I expect you to fuck me and my friend but on different days because if it was on the same day it would be gross.’ Hornby believes she replied, “‘Did you really just say that to me?’”
She took it upon herself to control the situation as she became concerned about how the mayor may behave to other people. She took her phone out and pressed record. She recorded roughly nine and a half minutes inside the bar, “being a middle aged woman, and being a bartender years and years ago, I’ve learned how to try to deal with people who are highly inappropriate, in ways to number one, keep myself safe, and number two, try to keep everyone else around them safe. So when I pressed record I said ‘go on,’ and we continued on, the conversation was still highly inappropriate.”
During the nine and a half minutes inside the bar Leszyk attempted to force Hornby to let him kiss her on the mouth by both physical and verbal means. “He also did this by attempting to grab my head with both hands and turn it toward him, he also did this by attempting to turn my barstool towards him when he couldn't move my body with his hands. He was unsuccessful. I realized then that he was not just intoxicated, but so intoxicated that I was actually more concerned about him getting home to his wife safely than I was about my own discomfort,”
she shut off the recording and had been attempting to have him tell her how he was going to get home. No one else in the room who she thought were friends with him seemed to be concerned about his safety or actions. She walked out of the intoxicated atmosphere of the bar with him and into the dark night and pressed record once again on her phone. She was concerned for her own safety but more for the safety of others who were on the road. Mindful of the continuing recording, all she could think of was “if he does something I'll have proof.”
Hornby has gone through similar situations before and said that it was not lost on her that everyone always wants proof. She became entirely focused on making sure that he did not drive but got home safely even if she “still had to argue him away from physically touching” her. She started trying to make jokes and use humor as a way to distract Leszyk from sex.
They then entered the parking lot outside Landon’s around the curve to the side of Bleachers, another local bar. Hornby tried to get him to say that he would not drive home. She remembered saying, “‘Listen, really, I really would prefer that you don’t drive.’” but then he became fixed on trying to force Hornby to be close to him.
After putting a to-go box in his truck Leszyk came after Hornby. He held her as she was trying to get away. By putting her forearms facing outwards between the two of them she was able to keep him from kissing her face. “And I was still just trying to say, ‘stop, you’re too drunk, I just don’t want you to drive your car home.’ to refocus him off of my body”
At this point in her interview Hornby’s voice starts to become higher and at the edge of emotion. “At some point I was able to get him off of me, he had not been able to stick his tongue down my throat even though that’s what he was trying to do. At some point I got him to let go of me, I hadn’t been screaming for help because no one gave a shit inside anyway so nobody was gonna give a shit outside.” “When I got him to let go of me I remember quickly starting to walk backwards. He was so drunk that he couldn’t walk straight so I thought I could get away because I was not intoxicated”
She continued, “I got away from the parking lot when he got in his truck, I pulled my phone out of my pocket because I thought it would have stopped by now with us physically tuzzling, but it was still recording. And I pressed stop and I ran down the side street where there are no lights because I didn’t want him to see me.”
After that evening Hornby decided to open an investigation of the mayor with the State Police in Chemung. However, after being met with difficulty due to various levels of bureaucracy and not being able to press charges because what Leszyk did is not counted as illegal by the DA, she decided to discount pursuing a civil lawsuit or doing any further investigation. Instead, she grabbed her evidence and decided that what she wanted was not lawsuits but change in her community.
Hornby is not the first woman to step up with sexual misconduct allegations against the mayor. In the midst of the pandemic Spring of 2021 Danielle and Sergeant Brandon Matthews brought a lawsuit against both The Village of Watkins Glen and mayor Luke Leszyk.
The account of the Matthews and Leszyk is long and complicated to say the least. The couple first came into the public spotlight in July 29, 2020, according to a report by MyTwinTiers, for an investigation by the State Police for growing marijuana on their property. However, in the notice of claim filed by the Matthews in early 2021, the couple claimed that the investigation was in “retaliation” to Danielle Matthews refusing sexual favors that mayor Leszyk requested. In another article by MyTwinTiers it says, “According to the notice of claim, in November 2019 Leszyk allegedly made sexual advances towards Matthews’ wife Danielle while she was a bartender at Bleachers Sports Bar and Grill in Watkin Glen and threatened her husband’s job if she did not comply.”
However, the veracity of these claims comes into question as the owner of Bleachers, Bob Decker, said that while he was not aware of the claims made against Leszyk, he encourages his staff to report to him any misdemeanors from patrons and he had never seen Leszyk, a regular at the bar, become overly intoxicated.
These allegations become even more muddled as a set of claims filed by the Matthews were dismissed by the court citing that the complaint, “‘fails to allege any facts that support any element to the proposed clauses of action.’” As reported by My Twin Tiers.
Even more so, on Dec 3rd, 2021, the Mathews are arrested by State Police and charged with perjury. However, come March 22, 2022, the local newspaper, The Observer Review and Express stated that the Matthews case finally reached a settlement with The Village of Watkins Glen and the mayor for $93,000. However, Luke Leszyk was still in power.
Mayor No Longer
On Jul 5, 2022 The allegations of scandal escalated to a tipping point at the Public Be Heard section of the village board meeting. In a video of the meeting recorded by Wet Couch Radio, Hornby stepped up to the front of the desk where four board members and the then current mayor Luke Lezyk sat.
When Hornby stands Leszyk folds his arms around himself. After referencing the villages Code of Ethics, Hornby said, “these are documents that I received from the New York state troopers when I asked them to do an investigation for an attempted assault by our mayor,” While shuffling the papers Leszyk lifted up a hand and said, “Stop right there,” Hornby retorted, “No, I will not stop,” and the audience erupted in her support.
Hornby, who is holding a portable speaker, asked the audience if they want to hear the recording of the attempted assault; several voices announced their support. At that, the mayor says that she needs to be excused “right now.” In the eighth minute of the board meeting Hornby is escorted by security.
However, the pandemonium did not stop as villagers continued to espouse their discontentment with the mayor’s actions. Two days later an official letter was sent by Leszyk announcing his resignation as mayor of Watkins Glen. He cited “The harassment and false accusations have become too” much for him and that he “can no longer effectively lead the village with all the distractions.”
While the mayor has faded into the background as many other politicians do after allegations of sexual assault, the question remains if corruption will continue to sit in the mayoral seat.
Leszyk's letter of resignation said that Deputy Mayor Luis Perazzini would become acting mayor, however, as I found out in my interview with trustee Laurie DeNardo, that is not the case. Instead, the mayor's office sits empty and the village mayorless.
An Atmosphere of Unprofessionalism
Late in the Summer I entered a somewhat musty room of The Village Offices with Trustee and mayoral candidate, Laurie DeNardo. She has been Director for Human Resources at Cornell University for 36 years and is also the longest serving trustee in Watkins Glen.
In our conversation DeNardo disclosed a pervasive atmosphere of sexism. She said that Luke Leszyk “didn't respect women, he certainly didn't respect me” nor did he respect the other female board member, Nan Woodsworth. Not only did he not respect the women he was working with but he also treated them differently than his male coworkers.
DeNardo continued, “Even the way we were communicated to was different to than he was communicating to the males.” One problem in Leszyk’s mayoral administration was a lack of cohesion in the board. Laurie DeNardo explained to me in the meeting that in a village there is the mayor, however, they are not the only leader.
In addition to the mayoral head there is a board of trustees that make decisions. A balance of power to make sure all voices are represented in the village.
The atmosphere of sexism and inequality amongst the sexes was a problem in the mayor’s office, however, it was not the root cause of the mayor allegedly making unwanted sexual advances towards Hornby and Matthews. If the allegations of sexual misconduct were an earthquake then there were fault lines too; waiting to for an earthquake to break from the beginning.
Part of Matthews' lawsuit against the mayor was that Leszyk had used his background as an investigative police officer to get them investigated for illegal farming of cannabis. Not only did unprofessionalism abound in Leszyk’s actions towards the women accusing him, but also in public business as well.
The popular short term rental business, AirBnb, has increased exponentially in recent years for the village. While Watkins Glen decided on a temporary moratorium and then an official cap on short term rentals there were conflicts of interest behind the decisions. DeNardo sees the cap on the number of short term rentals as positive but if she is elected mayor she will be working to change economic discrepancies that Leszyk and his deputy mayor encouraged.
In Watkins Glen, AirBnb’s have to pay a slightly higher rate for electricity than bed and breakfasts do. While the mayor’s inn is right outside the village in the Town of Reading making him not as culpable for conflict of interest, deputy mayor, and cohort of Leszyk’s, Perazzini owned an inn inside of the village.
When DeNardo brought up the discrepancies she was shut down by Leszyk and Perazzini. The same Perazzini who is now running for mayor against DeNardo. In the interview DeNardo went on to say that due to the lack of cohesion and polarization in the board there Bob Carson, Perazzini and mayor Leszyk would supply the three necessary votes for initiatives, leaving Laurie DeNardo and Nan Woodsworth outvoted.
DeNardo continued, “it’s frustrating because something like [discrepancies between bed and breakfasts and short term rentals] where Louis should really have recused himself because he did have a conflict but he didn't and then they shut it down because they didn't want us to go there. Because he’d be paying more.” While the problems in Leszyk’s term may seem surface level at first the fault lines in Watkins Glen’s mayoral office run deeper than him.
Insidious Patterns of Abuse of Power in Watkins Glen
In 2009 a $21,000 settlement was made to Melanie A. Barnes for a federal lawsuit against the Village of Watkins Glen. This settlement was elicited from the Village insurance in the wake of legal charges against the then current mayor Bob Lee for two counts of second-degree harassment in May of 2005.
A second woman also stepped forward by the name of Melissa Morse, yet, according to court documents, her civil suit was dismissed on the grounds of failure to prosecute. However, Morse was an included recipient of a letter of apology from Lee. In addition to a fine of $500 and sentence to an alcohol rehabilitation facility, Lee resigned from being Mayor of Watkins Glen (a position held since 1986) and Police Commissioner.
Similarly to Hornby’s allegations against the mayor, what Lee did was not criminal but counted as a violation. Both violations against Morse and Barnes happened at semi-public events where the mayor was in attendance.
A New Era of Transparency and Empowerment
As I was having that conversation with DeNardo, I expressed my doubt to her that there could be lasting change to upend the local government’s propensity towards mayors with dubious sexual ethics. The mayor that took over after Bob Lee was Judith Philips. Despite the fact that Lee’s successor was a woman, which could signify change in Watkins Glen, her mayoral stint did not stop Luke Leszyk’s actions.
Would not DeNardo be held to the same fate as Phillips? An empowering mayor for a term and then whatever good would be made could simply be undone by the next mayor.
However, DeNardo recognized her limits and told me what she sees as a building block for transparency and ethical practices. She said, “What I'd like to see is to build a foundation. You're only as good as the people that you're with, I'd like to build that foundation with my board.” While she admitted that somebody else may step up as mayor after her first term (if she is elected) but that she can at least make a foundation for an ethical village government.
“There are things we can make a difference on and they might be small little things, but I want people to be able to feel safe.” What DeNardo does not think she has to do is create an entirely female based board. Instead, she sees having an ideologically diverse board of trustees, where all opinions can be expressed respectfully, as the first step towards respecting democracy and each villagers’ vote. “[Trustees are] the four that really drive…what that change will be. So what I'm doing right now is considering who's gonna be on my team. I want people that are forward thinking, I want people that are gonna be ethical,”
DeNardo noted that she and her board members may not always see eye to eye yet she is not afraid of differing opinions. Instead, she wants others to respectfully challenge her if they feel the need. She wants to create “the opportunity for [the trustees and her] to work together and be respectful” In the past she stated that “it was more like a dictatorship, it's my way or the highway, and that’s just not the way I work, it’s not conducive to respect,” To DeNardo, being mayor is not about power, it is about the community.
When it comes to new practices that she would like to utilize in her term she wants to promote the village’s Code of Ethics, “It’s something that we should all take very seriously and if you violate it there should be sanctions in place.”
DeNardo also cited the need for awareness in the community of what power they hold as residents of Watkins Glen. “The public needs to know that we fall within a code of ethics.” A position of power does not dismiss actions that are unworthy of leadership.
Speaking of the tumultuous day on July 5th, DeNardo stated that it has never been mandatory for there to be a Public Be Heard section at board meetings, and that is why Leszyk “would shut people down if he didn't like what they were saying. Well, how cohesive is that? That’s part of my transparency, I want people to come, all of us need to know what’s going on, we might not all agree, we might not be able to fix it tomorrow, but at least bring it and be respectful, It’s not a position when your in a board meeting to debate, it's not what we're there for, but were there to listen and if we can: fix something.”
Her closing words were, “I want people to feel comfortable to come to the board meeting and feel like they can be open and heard. It’s professionalism, it's being a good steward, it’s being a good person. Be kind!”
Power With The People
The world is made small by the universe, yet there is so much at stake in the daily comings and goings, even in the small villages of the empire state. While DeNardo and Perazzini are the potential representatives of the people of Watkins Glen, their policies are simply the fruition of the people.
DeNardo is highlighting the People Be Heard because of the community standing up to Lezyk on July 5th. While I failed to interview Perazzini, he still represents the wishes of many people in Watkins Glen along with DeNardo.
Democracy is at work in Watkins Glen, even if DeNardo cannot create practices that will outlast her possible stint as mayor, neither could Perazzini, and that is The United States.
Decisions that are either seen as good or bad in the moral pendulum of humanity only last a second in the grand scheme of democracy where the people have the power to represent their beliefs. The power is with the people in Watkins Glen, let’s make sure it stays that way. General elections in Watkins Glen will be held March 21, 2023.