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POLITICS

Cayuga County Democratic chair, professor at CCC, used college email for political work

Dia Carabajal

Auburn City Councilor Dia Carabajal speaks at the Cayuga County Democratic Committee headquarters in Auburn in 2019 as she was seeking another four-year term on the council. In the spring of 2021, she became chair of the committee.

Dia Carabajal, a professor at Cayuga Community College and chair of the Cayuga County Democratic Committee, repeatedly used her college email account to send and receive messages for political purposes over the past two years — a violation of the school’s policy regarding the use of its computer systems.

Cayuga Community College’s acceptable use policy states that the computer system, which covers the use of college email accounts, "shall be used only for official business, except that it may be used for rare and necessary personal purposes, provided that such use is in a limited amount and duration and does not conflict with the proper exercise of the duties of the college employee."

The policy continues, "Supervisors are authorized to require employees to cease or limit any personal use that interferes with job performance or violates college policy. Incidental, rare personal use of the computer system is a privilege that may be monitored, restricted or revoked at any time."

Later in the acceptable use policy, one of the prohibited uses is identified as “operating businesses, unauthorized fundraising or using the computer system in some other way for personal gain, for the benefit of a third party, or for activities that are inconsistent with the college’s tax-exempt status (such as political campaigning).”

The Citizen reviewed thousands of emails sent and received by Carabajal on her college account over a two-year period dating back to 2019. The files were provided by Michele Locastro Rivoli, an Owasco resident who obtained them via a Freedom of Information Law request with the college. Rivoli has been a critic — at public meetings and in social media posts — of what she views as the Democratic Party’s involvement in Auburn school district matters. Rivoli’s husband, Kevin, is a staff photographer for The Citizen, but has not been involved in the reporting for this story.

Carabajal, who joined the CCC faculty in 2002, regularly used her college email account for her political activities.

While serving on the Auburn City Council in 2019, she used her college email account for campaign-related communications during her unsuccessful reelection bid.

When she ran for state Assembly in 2020, she sent and received emails related to the creation of a fundraising committee. In one email sent to four other people, she suggests using her college office to host a committee meeting. One of the recipients, former Auburn Mayor Melina Carnicelli, questioned the proposed use of her workplace for political purposes and recommended finding a new location.

A few weeks later, in a separate email exchange, Carnicelli advised Carabajal to stop using her work email for communicating about her Assembly campaign.

But Carabajal's use of the college email account for political purposes continued this year. After Ian Phillips announced he would step down as chair of the Cayuga County Democratic Committee, Carabajal used her CCC email to inform committee members that she would run for chair. Her signature included a personal email address and she sent a carbon copy of the email to that account.

Carabajal was elected chair on June 15. Two weeks later, the committee sought to hire a campaign coordinator for the upcoming local elections. Using her college email address, she created an account to post the job listing on a website. She then received several emails from applicants interested in the position and communicated with Stephanie Hutchinson and Phillips, both members of the county committee, to discuss the candidates and schedule interviews. (Hutchinson also serves on CCC’s board of trustees.)

Carabajal told The Citizen last week that she is working with CCC to “untangle” her emails.

“This is between me and my employer,” she said. “I apologize to anyone who is listed in my emails. I apologize for the inconvenience to my employer and to any community members that are disappointed.”

Holly Liapis, a spokesperson for the State University of New York, which oversees public colleges and universities, said state law “expressly forbids employees of SUNY system administration and all state-operated campuses from using their SUNY email, or any other state resources for political purposes.”

Liapis added that “any employee found to be out of compliance with that policy would be subject to discipline pursuant to any applicable collective bargaining agreement.”

Under CCC’s contract with the Cayuga Community College Faculty Association, a union representing Carabajal and other professors, there is a progressive disciplinary process that begins with verbal notifications. Repeat offenses could lead to written warnings, suspensions (with or without pay), or termination.

Whether Carabajal will face any disciplinary action is unknown. CCC did not disclose whether Carabajal received verbal or written warnings, or if she has been disciplined in any way.

“Cayuga Community College’s policy governing the usage of its computer system states Cayuga’s computer system should only be used for educational and business functions of the college,” said Andrew Poole, a CCC spokesperson. “As the matter in question is a personnel issue, the college will not issue further comment at this time.”

As of Friday, Carabajal remains employed at CCC. When The Citizen contacted her for this story, she was preparing to teach a class.

Based on emails sent and received in mid-July, it appears Carabajal has ceased using her work email for political activities. After being included in discussions about a campaign event, she asked others in the conversation to use her personal email address. She had a similar response when a candidate emailed her about the printing of palm cards for the upcoming election.

Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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