Truth in Advertising

    Political candidates are fortunate that voters tend to regard specific claims made in campaign advertising dimly, and with good reason: Standards for verification are somewhere between low and nonexistent. This may offer a degree of reassurance to Zachary Cohen, the Democratic and Working Families Parties’ candidate for East Hampton Town supervisor, who was faulted recently for overstating his work on town finances.
    Campaign literature Mr. Cohen has been circulating says he has been a “financial analyst for business and government, including all members of the current town board, the Villages of East Hampton and Sag Harbor, and the office of the state comptroller.” While the first portion of this statement is arguably true, whether he advised all the members of the town board is quesionable, and the last claim — that he worked for the comptroller — is clearly false.
    What Mr. Cohen did do was act as an unpaid assistant to Janet Verneuille, the former East Hampton Town comptroller, who was asked to unravel and set the town’s finances to rights after the resignation of the former budget director. It was Ms. Verneuille who had to answer to the state comptroller, not Mr. Cohen, though he did have some communication with that office. Nonetheless, putting the claim into his handouts was a mistake, and, called on it, he has expunged it.
    Unfortunately for the Democrats, Mr. Cohen is being beaten up for a thankless task. As embarrassing as this looks for Mr. Cohen, it is not the first false claim made in pre-election advertising this year. Among the most notable was a statement in a Republican Party ad that ran under the ironic headline “Can You Handle the Truth?” The statement was a patently false assertion that Supervisor Wilkinson issued a stalwart “no” when the idea came up to sell the town’s commercial fishing docks in Montauk. This was an out-and-out fabrication. The controversy arose in 2010 after the supervisor asked the Planning Department for a list of town-owned properties that could be sold. Like John Kerry, who was persistently ridiculed for his stand on the Iraq War, Mr. Wilkinson was for it before he was against it.
    “To me, the town docks are very much potentially up for sale,” he said. “Others on the board would not necessarily agree, because of an explicit subsidy of some of the commercial fishermen. I then revert to thinking, ‘Should the town be in the marina business?’ It doesn’t pass that test for me.” He changed heart after a sustained outcry from the those who use the docks and others in the town’s multimillion-dollar fishing industry, as well as a legal opinion that such a sale would violate town and state law. As far as we know, the ad is no longer appearing.
    To the extent that candidates are supposed to sign off on their advertising, both assertions suggest Mr. Cohen and Mr. Wilkinson alike need to pay better attention to details. Whether the claim and counterclaim nature of political statements like these will make much of a difference on Nov. 8 is hard to say. We guess that ordinary voters would like to rely on truth in advertising, but that, alas, may be asking too much.
    Meanwhile, the East Hampton Republican Committee has set a new low in political advertising, calling two of the opposing parties’ candidates “thugs.” Whether this reveals desperation or the true feelings of local Republican advocates, this petty insult has no place in a community that prides itself on civility. The G.O.P.’s candidates, if they are to be taken seriously from here on out, should repudiate the message and make appropriate public apologies.