Suffolk Closeup: State politicians, county police and corruption

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

The recent corruption convictions of ex-State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, two of the three top political figures in New York State government with Governor Cuomo rounding out the trifecta, came as no surprise me.

As a reporter for the daily Long Island Press, I saw firsthand how outrageous it was that state government ran so counter to the democratic process. Major decisions were made then, and continue to be made now, by what’s become a sorry political description: three men in a room.

“When did 20 million New Yorkers agree to be ruled like a triumvirate in Roman times?” asked U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the honest, independent prosecutor behind the investigations and convictions of Messrs. Silver and Skelos and a long line of other crooked state officials in recent years.

The three-men-in-a-room New York political phenomenon, preventing transparency and public participation — or even participation of other elected officials — is just one of the many very serious ills up in Albany.

This year the Center for Public Integrity gave New York State government a D-minus. It examined political financing, electoral oversight, public access to information, executive accountability, legislative accountability, budget processes and procurement, among other issues.

An especially disgraceful aspect of the Silver trial was the insistence by his lawyers that the fraud, extortion and money laundering with which he was charged were just the normal ways of Albany.

Power corrupts, it’s often been said. Take another close-to-home case: The indictment last week of James Burke, who had been chief of the Suffolk County Police Department and its top uniformed officer, and who is now being held without bail for what federal prosecutors and a judge described as corrupting the department.

My first beat at the Press was “cops-and-courts,” the cops being the Suffolk County Police Department, which I got to know well.

But this was years ago, soon after the department’s formation in 1960. Great care was being taken for the new agency to set off on the right foot. The department — and a charter form of government in Suffolk with a county executive in charge — came after what was called the “Suffolk Scandals” in the 1950s. Widespread corruption was uncovered by a series of special state prosecutors.

Now, years later, we see Suffolk police unions as aggressive political actors in the county, spending $564,000 in the past election to influence results.

The largest amount was poured into the Town of Riverhead in a move to expand the county department’s boundaries into the East End.

Mr. Burke has been charged with beating a suspect in a police station and orchestrating a cover-up involving many officers as well as committing other wrongful acts. U.S. District Court Justice Leonard Wexler agreed with federal prosecutors that Mr. Burke should be held without bail for what has been described as his campaign of coercion and secrecy. “I find the corruption of an entire department by this defendant is shocking,” Judge Wexler said. “The evidence is clear.”

On the “courts” part of my old beat, I regularly covered a pre-eminent Suffolk criminal defense lawyer, whom I knew then as Lenny Wexler, a brilliant attorney. His findings now as judge in the Burke case should be of great public concern.

As for corruption in Albany, U.S. Attorney Bharara is racking up major victories. In addition to the Silver and Skelos convictions, ex-Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith was sentenced in July to seven years in prison for trying to pay his way onto the Republican ticket for New York City mayor with $500,000 in state funds.

And the Suffolk Police situation continues to churn with the Republican members of the Suffolk Legislature last week calling for a “federal monitor of” the department “in light of” the Burke indictment. Newsday is blasting Democratic County Executive Bellone’s choice of his deputy, Timothy Sini, 35, as new police commissioner. Mr. Sini was an assistant U.S. attorney for four years and was defeated running as a Democrat for a county legislative seat in November.

The “department needs a strong, inspirational leader. But Bellone will never know who was best for the job because he never even looked,” Newsday editorialized. The GOP legislators also objected to the Sini selection.
“Stay tuned,” said Mr. Bharara of his continuing probes into state government.

We can say the same about the Suffolk County Police Department.

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