Suffolk Closeup: Pay-for-play politics part two

Kara Hahn

With one bill — the Campaign Finance Reform Act — already before the Suffolk Legislature and aimed at corruption in the county’s electoral process, a group of Suffolk legislators led by Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) is putting together another measure that would set up an office to investigate corruption, fraud and waste in Suffolk government and protect whisteblowers.

The Campaign Finance Reform Act (which was featured in this space last week) would restrict campaign contributions from county contractors and public employee unions including police unions, which have become big players in Suffolk politics with large campaign contributions. Authored by Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) it says: “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.”

Legislator Hahn said “we have a bipartisan group putting together a bill that would provide strong oversight.” She explained that “we don’t have a final version” yet, but it might happen by the end of the year.

National “experts,” she said, in fighting governmental corruption are being consulted. “We’re treading very carefully and I’m hoping at the end we’ll have something that everyone — or almost everyone — will support,” she added. “We want a significant measure.”

A likely title of the new entity the bill would create is the “Suffolk County Office of Public Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.”

From my perspective as a journalist based in Suffolk for more than 50 years, I’d say it’s an understatement that this measure has long been needed.

Indeed, when I began as a reporter in Suffolk in 1962 in Nassau County, its just-elected reform-minded county executive, Eugene Nickerson, had appointed Milton Lipson as commissioner of accounts. (The title subsequently became commissioner of investigations.) “Mitch” Lipson was ideal for the job, and quite an extraordinary person. He cut his teeth conducting investigations in the first campaign of reformer Fiorello LaGuardia for New York City mayor, became an attorney and then joined the U.S. Secret Service and was the personal bodyguard of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Further west, the City of New York Department of Investigation was founded in 1873 (initially as the Office of the Commissioner of Accounts). As it says on its website: “DOI is one of the oldest law-enforcement agencies in the country, formed in the 1870s following a scandal in which the corrupt William “Boss” Tweed and his unscrupulous cronies skimmed millions from the city coffers. Investigations may involve any agency, officer, elected official or employee from the city, as well as those who do business with or receive benefits from the City. As New York City’s watchdog, DOI’s strategy attacks corruption comprehensively through systematic investigations that lead to high-impact arrests, preventive controls and operational reforms that improve the way the City runs.”

And what about Suffolk County?

When I started as a reporter my older peers in journalism were still talking about the “Suffolk Scandals” of the 1950s. A series of special state prosecutors had been sent into Suffolk to investigate governmental corruption. They found it on a wide scale. The county was still undergoing changes largely caused by the “Suffolk Scandals,” including getting a charter form of government headed by a county executive. But scandals have continued through the decades.

The current Suffolk County executive, Steve Bellone, is critical of the bill being developed. He was quoted in Newsday saying “we don’t even fully understand how our current agencies failed.” And Noel DiGerolamo, president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, asserted: “We have district attorney investigations, federal government investigations — adding another level of bureaucracy to do what?”

When it comes to corruption, especially in a place like Suffolk with a long tradition of it, there’s no such thing as too many agencies fighting corruption. We’ve had a mixed bag of District Attorneys here in dealing (or not dealing) with the problem. Moreover, in New York City there are five D.A. offices, one for each borough, and that hasn’t meant its Department of Investigation is unnecessary. Similarly, there have been differences among U.S. Attorneys with jurisdiction over Suffolk and state attorneys general. The more entities with missions to battle corruption the better, notably for Suffolk with a record that would make “Boss” Tweed envious.

Ms. Hahn knows Suffolk County well. She’s been a legislator since 2011 and previously worked for the legislature. She and her colleagues are on the right anti-corruption track.

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