Suffolk Closeup: Preventing pay-for-play politics

Rob Trotta

With money corrupting the democratic process becoming a major issue in the United States, Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) has introduced a bill to limit campaign contributions from county contractors and public employee unions.

The latter would include police unions, which have become big players in Suffolk politics by providing large campaign contributions. Mr. Trotta, a member of the Suffolk County Police Department for 25 years, ties this to pay increases Suffolk police have received.

Shelter Island has retained its own police force but receives assistance from specialized county police units such as the homicide and arson squads, and the town pays substantially for that and toward county police headquarters functions.

Mr. Trotta’s measure is titled the Campaign Finance Reform Act. Mr. Trotta is blunt about the corrosive influence of dollars in Suffolk politics today. As to prospects for his bill, Mr. Trotta said, “I would hope that given the current climate of corruption, my colleagues will support it.” Asked about which governmental levels he is linking to corruption, he responded, “National, state and Suffolk County.”

Many Americans, indeed, see big money having a heavy hand in U.S. presidential races and manipulating the U.S. Congress, which has descended to record lows in public respect. In New York State, the number two and number three highest state officials, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-New York) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), are likely heading to jail after federal corruption convictions. That’s been the destination of a long line of state lawmakers in recent years.

Zephyr Teachout, a law school professor and author of the book “Corruption in America,” did extraordinarily well in a Democratic primary challenge last year to Governor Andrew Cuomo in which she focused on corruption in state government. She’s now running for Congress. And, for Suffolk, a federal probe into wrongdoing in the justice system is underway. This includes a grand jury investigation into Christopher McPartland, the top corruption prosecutor in the Suffolk District Attorney’s office, Mr. Trotta noted.

His bill opens by declaring that the “general public perceives that ‘special interests’ use campaign contributions to gain extraordinary access to, and favorable cooperation from, government officials.” The “general public believes that this ‘pay to play’ culture results in government contracts being awarded on the basis of connections and contributions rather than merit,” it goes on.

And, “Suffolk County residents also perceive that large monetary donations from the county’s public employees unions improperly influence the officials responsible for negotiating and ratifying collective bargaining agreements.”

It states that “elected officials must take appropriate steps to eliminate not only corruption but the appearance of corruption and thereby strengthen the public’s faith in political institutions … Limiting the amount of campaign contributions that contractors and public employee unions can make to county officials is a reform measure that will strengthen public confidence in the integrity of the political system and increase the likelihood that county contracts will, in fact, be awarded to the best qualified individuals and businesses.

If signed into law, it would restrict to $2,000 contributions to a candidate for a seat on the 18-member Suffolk Legislature from any “professional business entity” that received a contract that year from Suffolk County government. If that entity’s contracts totaled $25,000 or more during the year, it would also be limited to $2,000 in campaign contributions to any “candidate for county-wide elected office.”

The same limitation of $2,000 in contributions to candidates for the county Legislature and for county-wide office would apply to public employee unions. And these would include the now highly politically engaged Suffolk police unions.

Limiting “the contributions that contractors and public employee unions can make to elected county officials and candidates for county office,” says the measure, would “reduce special interest influence in the county’s contracting process.”

Mr. Trotta criticizes the extent of pay increases given in contracts with county police in recent years. “I don’t blame the police unions. I blame the politicians who approved these contracts,” he said. He is particularly critical of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. The increased pay for county police — many now make with overtime more than $200,000 a year — is “not sustainable,” Mr. Trotta said. This is telling criticism from a man who began as a uniformed Suffolk cop, was promoted to detective and for his last decade in the department was assigned to federal task forces including the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force.

In a prepared statement as he introduced his bill, Mr. Trotta said: “With all the corruption we are seeing in the various levels of government, I believe that this measure is a step in the right direction toward curtailing the process of doing business as usual in Suffolk County.”

Top photo: Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R- Fort Salonga). (Credit: Facebook/Friends of Rob Trotta)

Karl GrossmanKarl Grossman’s syndicated “Suffolk Closeup” column is printed in the Shelter Island Reporter, a Times Review Media Group publication.