Suffolk Closeup: The Suffolk Scandals

“Suffolk County Scandals Investigations: A Reminiscence,” is the title of a recent book written by Warren Liburt, a 90-year-old former lawyer from Suffolk. Now retired in Maine, Mr. Liburt lived through the series of scandals that rocked this county through the 1950s in what was widely known as the “Suffolk Scandals.”

I spoke to Mr. Liburt from his home in Augusta, Me. He wrote the book, published by Outskirts Press, under the pen name William Young. He said he enjoyed putting down on paper his reminiscences of a politically turbulent time in Suffolk.

When I started as a journalist in Suffolk in 1962, I heard many stories about the “Suffolk Scandals” of the prior decade. Many people in politics and the legal system whom I would meet, and county government itself, were affected by it. Reading Mr. Liburt’s eyewitness account was fascinating since I knew personally the people he writes about, and many others by name.

The “Suffolk Scandals” rocked the county Republican Party and led in 1960 to Democrats taking over the then county governing body, the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors, with reform-minded H. Lee Dennison, although an enrolled Republican, running on the Democratic ticket and becoming Suffolk’s first county executive.

Mr. Liburt approaches the “Suffolk Scandals” from the perspective of the steadfast Suffolk Republican he was. He was president of the Young Republican Club in Huntington. He was law assistant in the Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court from 1956 to 1959. And he ran for the Huntington Town Board on the GOP line, but lost, in 1959.

Indeed, by 1959, GOP politicians in Suffolk were in the opposite position of where they had been in the early 1950s. “As for the Republican Party in Suffolk County,” Mr. Liburt writes, in 1950 “we held all the county-wide elected offices, the Congressional seat for the county and all the county’s seats in the state legislature. Of equal if not greater importance for the organization, we held seven out of the 10 town supervisorships following the 1953 election.”             

If you were a Republican, and “you were nominated, you would get elected.”

“But then,” in the election of 1959, “we lost control of the Board of Supervisors for the first time since 1933, winning only four of the 10 town supervisorships, and losing other town elective offices across the county. By the time the polls closed that Tuesday, we had lost control over a massive amount of patronage. A number of party stalwarts of long standing in elective and appointive offices would be out of jobs coming the first of January, 1960.”

The “genesis of the debacle,” he says, occurred when W. Averell Harriman, a Democrat, was elected New York’s governor in 1954. The problem for Democrats in the state was that “they could not increase their vote in New York City,” it being solidly Democratic.

“The only way for them to survive and prosper was to reduce the Republican pluralities in upstate New York … and in the strongly Republican counties surrounding New York City” — among them Suffolk. The Democrats got the idea of how to do it, writes Mr. Liburt, “from the person who was totally in charge of the Republican Party of New York from 1943 to 1955,” Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

Mr. Dewey, formerly Manhattan DA, “in his first term as governor, would furnish a notable example of the use of the criminal process as a weapon in political warfare,” says Mr. Liburt. He had a special state investigation launched into the Albany County “Democratic machine” of Daniel O’Connell. When Mr. Harriman became governor (which, he believed, writes Mr. Liburt, to be a stepping stone to run for U.S. president) he appointed J. Irwin Shapiro, a former assistant DA from Queens who had become a New York City magistrate, to head the state Commission of Investigation. A special focus, says Mr. Liburt, was Suffolk County.

An early target was William S. Hart, who had been assistant director of Suffolk’s Office of Civil Defense and sold the county through “intermediaries” thousands of dollars worth of furniture “for county offices.” Then came a state assemblyman from Suffolk, John A. Britting, former deputy county treasurer, charged by Mr. Shapiro’s office with having “participated in ‘fraudulent land deals’… which had cheated Suffolk County taxpayers out of millions of dollars in county-owned property.” The list of investigations and charges, month after month, year after year, is recounted in Mr. Liburt’s book.

The New York Times would run an editorial the day after the election in 1959 that declared: “The sordid history of corruption and malfeasance that has been undergoing a long process of exposure in Suffolk County, ancient stronghold of Republicanism, was sufficient reason for the voters of eastern Long Island to give control to the Democrats for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.”