By Nadine Cafaro
“I care more about this article than any national news story,” wrote Assemblyman Brian Maher (R-Walden) in an email to the Wallkill Valley Times on Tuesday. “This is my home. People know me. They need to know the extent of this horrible hoax.”
The “horrible hoax” resulted in a national news story about homeless veterans being displaced from a Newburgh hotel to make room for asylum seekers being bused in from New York City. It made the front page of the New York Post.
But it wasn’t true.
And it was only after he had introduced a bill in the State Assembly to prohibit the displacement of homeless veterans that Maher said he learned that the story was false. By then, the story of how the head of an organization that advocates for homeless veterans had apparently recruited homeless men to pose as displaced veterans had been circulating through the media. The Yerik Israel Toney Foundation (YIT), headed by Sharon Toney-Finch is an organization that advocates on behalf of homeless veterans.
Maher, who has worked with Finch closely in the past during his time as Town of Montgomery Supervisor, stated he was “devastated” upon hearing this.
“I am devastated and disheartened upon a conversation with Sharon Toney-Finch at approximately 3:15 p.m. today, where I learned that the information regarding the YIT Foundation about homeless veterans being displaced is false,” said Maher in a statement released last Thursday, one week after buses carrying asylum seekers arrived at the Crossroads Hotel in the Town of Newburgh.
Maher said he was no longer affiliated in any capacity with YIT or offering them any more guidance.
“I am calling for an immediate investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office and the Orange County District Attorney into the YIT Foundation based on the new information that came to light today. While I believed Sharon was telling the truth, I do want to apologize for those that have been negatively impacted since this news broke,” stated Maher.
Finch, who has long worked with the Town of Montgomery on finding homes for veterans, had no specific comments when contacted. She said, “I’m working with PR and my lawyers. I will soon make a statement.”
Maher provided screenshots of texts with someone named “Christopher,” who claimed to be driving the Veterans. He also stated that two people pretended to be homeless veterans that spoke to him.
“It is important to me that our local community knows I had multiple conversations with folks, not just Sharon, who were confirming what was supposedly happening to these homeless veterans,” Maher said. “Just looking back and really seeing all of the messages and going over all the details of the events of the past week just makes me sick to my stomach.”
The grassroots organization For the Many, an advocate for the asylum seekers, released a statement last week, condemning the actions of the media outlets and elected officials who ran with the story.
“In resharing Finch’s false claims, the New York Post, Assemblyman Maher and other media outlets and elected officials from both sides of the aisle have proven to be either incompetent or outright liars,” wrote Aaron Narraph, communications official of For the Many. “ Either way, the damage is already done. This fake story of George Santos proportions has already made its way into the national media and kicked up a storm of anti-immigrant hatred. It has turned local residents against migrants, sending xenophobic, racist outrage toward asylum seekers who are simply trying to make a new home for themselves in Newburgh.”
The Orange County Democratic Party doubled down on State Senator Rob Rolison (R-Poughkeepsie) who had offered his support for Maher’s legislation.
“This is a new low for political discourse,” said Zak Constantine, Chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, “Veterans are not props to be exploited for political convenience. They deserve real solutions, not to be used as fodder in a political war of words. It’s time for Senator Rolison to acknowledge the falsehoods, apologize to our community, and commit to truthful, constructive discourse moving forward.”
The future of YIT is currently unknown. The Montgomery Town Board last year agreed to lease the organization space in the newly-restored Arnott House to house homeless veterans for $1 per year.
“The town has a non-binding letter of intent, and no lease has been issued or executed at this time,” said Montgomery Town Supervisor Ron Feller.
There are currently approximately 200 asylum seekers housed in the Town of Newburgh. Both the Town of Newburgh and Orange County have filed lawsuits to prevent further asylum seekers from lodging in the Orange County.
Last Thursday, Town of Crawford Supervisor Charles Carnes and town board members passed a resolution similar to the executive order issued by Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus on May 17.
“Our state officials have remained silent on the issue, but I’m not going to remain silent on the issue. I don’t think the town board is, so we’ve been in touch with Orange County and we have a resolution tonight that will deal with the town of Crawford,” said Carnes.