The story of migrants displacing homeless veterans that caused outrage and death threats was manufactured, according to local officials who had a role in amplifying the hoax.
Sharon Toney-Finch, a veterans’ activist in Poughkeepsie, allegedly recruited homeless men last week to pose as veterans who were kicked out of a hotel in order to make room for newly arrived migrants.
The story was first published by the New York Post last week, which then prompted Orange County Republican state Assemblyman Brian Maher to vent his outrage on Fox News and introduce legislation to halt any further uprooting of homeless veterans.
The headlines caused shock and condemnation across the state and in Washington D.C., but now that the story is being called false, lawmakers are taking back their statements and calling for investigations.
Maher says he was lied to by YIT, the Hudson Valley nonprofit, and apologized for the role he played. Toney-Finch, the founder of the veterans advocacy group and woman at the center of the controversy, denied any wrongdoing.
“Once Sharon told me what was happening, I had no reason not to believe her," Maher said in an interview with Capital Tonight on Friday.
In introducing legislation, Maher said he was acting as a spokesperson for the supposedly displaced homeless veterans. But he later learned there were no veterans at all, and says it was all made up.
"I was very upset, and I asked her why she would do this," Maher said. "It hurt a lot of people, the information that you gave me and many others. Folks donated."
Maher said Toney-Finch told him last Wednesday that up to 20 veterans were being kicked out of The Crossroads Hotel in the town of Newburgh to make room for incoming migrants from New York City. He said he never spoke to the hotel himself, but did leave them a message.
Crossroads received threats after the news story broke.
Asked how many times he tried contacting the hotel, Maher said he attempted to confirm the story with Crossroads just one time, but claimed that other people reached out as well. It’s not known how many people tried to confirm with the hotel.
The Orange County Republican sent a press release last week, announcing legislation aimed at protecting displaced veterans. He also asked people to chip in their time and money to assist.
But this week, Mid Hudson News reported on holes in that narrative from Toney-Finch, including fabrication of documents and a failure to produce specific evidence showing veterans were being displaced.
After the new details emerged, Maher said he followed up with Toney-Finch who, he said, eventually admitted to making up the story.
"Some really horrific responses came from this. Life-and-death threats were made to hotel staff which, in hindsight, is something I wish I had focused on more as a potential possibility," Maher said. Toney-Finch told Spectrum News 1 that she was being mischaracterized and taken out of context.
Mid Hudson reported Toney-Finch paid homeless men to portray themselves as the displaced veterans and coached them on what to say.
"I never paid somebody to say that they were veterans, or even offered to pay somebody saying that they were veterans," she said Friday. "That's something that we don't stand for. We actually take care of veterans. I want to apologize for any confusion, but we were not trying to put veterans against asylum seekers."
Maher is calling for an investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James. A spokesperson for the AG's office said they "are aware and looking into the situation."
Elected officials from Gov. Kathy Hochul to Hudson Valley congressmen also addressed the apparent hoax.
"These individuals were sent there with a legal contract between the city of New York and a hotel owner," Hochul said. "They're allowed to contract that way and if people want to fabricate stories to undermine the whole process, I think its reprehensible."
Rep. Marc Molinaro, a Republican, said, “The fabrication is so disheartening and wrong. It undermines the work of helping our veterans and makes more difficult our efforts to stop NYC from illegally moving migrants to Upstate New York communities without resources or their approval. This must stop.”
Fellow Republican Rep. Mike Lawler released a statement, saying, “the false claims made by YIT Foundation Executive Director Sharon Toney-Finch are truly appalling. Her decision to exploit our veterans and the genuine admiration and love our community has for them could have turned an already tense situation into something much worse. I am glad the truth was uncovered and trust those responsible will be held accountable after a full investigation by the proper authorities."
The story ensnarled Democrat Rep. Pat Ryan, who a week ago expressed outrage that the “incompetence by New York City government” displaced homeless veterans.
On Friday, Ryan called for solutions to the dual problems of the country’s immigration system and homeless veterans.
When I first heard this story, I was furious.— Pat Ryan 🇺🇸 (@PatRyanUC) May 19, 2023
We’ve now learned it was a blatant lie.
But here’s what remains true: our immigration system is broken. And veteran homelessness is a national epidemic.
We need to come together as Americans to solve both crises.…
When asked if anti-immigrant rhetoric contributed to the debacle, Maher said the issue was more about putting local residents first.
“But the rhetoric got to a level after this story broke that really showed the worst in people,” he said.
Asked if he would be more discriminating in his media consumption, Maher didn’t commit, but said “I will absolutely be learning from this.”