Preston sold jewelry from the 'people's office'

By Matt Porter

March 12, 2014 Updated Mar 13, 2014 at 12:40 PM EDT

Binghamton, NY (WBNG Binghamton) Broome County Executive Debbie Preston is under fire after selling her handmade jewelry from her office in the county building downtown.

Since the holiday season in 2012, she has displayed a collection of handmade jewelry on her sixth floor office in the Broome County Office Building.

An article in the Broome County Charter -- C301 -- states the county executive cannot conduct any other business while in office.

It reads:

"The County Executive shall be required to give his whole time to the duty of his office and shall not engage in the practice of any profession or the conduct of any business, trade, occupation, or employment."

An article in the county's Code of Ethics -- 106-4, Section L -- reads "No person shall beg, hawk, peddle, or solicit within buildings or grounds."

Gabriel Osterhout, spokesman for Debbie Preston, said the county executive never thought of the work as a business.

"It was a hobby of hers," Osterhout wrote in an email to Action News. "It was more about socializing with other women in the County Office Building than it was about making a profit."

Osterhout said Preston sold no more than a few hundred dollars, and items usually ranged from $5 to $20.

Broome County Attorney Robert Behnke said the employee handbook allows for an exception to the rules regarding sales on county property.

The handbook allows employees with permission from a supervisor to solicit items during meal and rest breaks provided it doesn't interfere with normal business.

"It didn't break any rules or laws," Behnke said.

The exception is normally used when employees wish to sell Girl Scout cookies or candy bars to benefit a non-profit cause.

In this case, Preston benefits from the money, but Behnke said she didn't sell the items for a profit.

"It was a hobby. It would be no different if somebody knit sweaters or blankets, or makes a bird house as a hobby," he said. "If people in work found out about them and wanted to buy them, it's a hobby. Not a for-profit venture."

Unlike other county employees, Preston has no supervisor and by Behnke's interpretation can freely choose to sell her wares from the building.

"She's the department head, she could give herself permission," Behnke said.

Preston asked a secretary to take and keep money for the jewelry, Behnke said the request didn't constitute a misuse of county employees.

"It's no different than if I put a slip out front or if I put a box of candy out front, and people in the office or people in the building who came in and wanted to buy a candy bar," Behnke said. "Gave the dollar to the secretary and put it in the envelope."

Preston earns $92,083 a year for her salary as Broome County Executive.

The county executive's office said Preston has taken down her jewelry display and will no longer sell her handmade items from the office.

This is the second time in two months the Preston administration has come under fire for questionable ethics.

Preston's decision to wear a Broome County Sheriff's Uniform at a political fundraiser on January 29 is under review by the county ethics board.