In Bonilla case, a different set of rules

Left, Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray and members

Left, Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray and members of the Hempstead Town Board at the press conference where they called upon Town Clerk Mark Bonilla to resign his post in the wake of a credible allegation of sexual harassment, among other issues. Right, Bonilla leaves Nassau District Court after being arraigned in Hempstead. (Sept. 22, 2012) (Credit: Karen Wiles Stabile; Howard Schnapp)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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You'd think Hempstead Town officials would have better leverage than a news conference in urging Mark Bonilla to stay home. But the same Public Officers Law that state Assemb. Vito Lopez is using to hang onto his state Assembly seat protects Bonilla, too.

Bonilla, the Hempstead town clerk, was charged last week with three misdemeanors stemming from allegations that include sexual harassment of subordinates.

In the criminal matter, Bonilla is entitled to the presumption of innocence. It remains to be seen whether prosecutors can prove the charges of official misconduct, second-degree attempted coercion and petty larceny.

But what goes on in court is different from what goes on in the typical workplace. And that's where Bonilla, as an elected official in New York State, holds more cards than the rest of us.

Absent new criminal charges that result in a felony conviction, there is no easy way to remove Bonilla from office, officials acknowledged Monday.

There's not even a way to -- as so often happens in the workplace -- suspend him with pay until the town and the Nassau County district attorney complete their investigations.

"He is an elected official," said Joseph Ra, the town attorney. "He is under a different set of rules."

Those rules operate under the general presumption that what voters giveth, only voters -- absent extreme circumstances and difficult-to-meet legal requirement -- can taketh away.

Bonilla is not up for re-election until next year. Meanwhile, Ra said, Hempstead is researching whether it can build an official-misconduct-related case compelling enough to persuade a judge that Bonilla should lose his position.

"You need a pattern of misconduct and abuse of authority," Ra said.

Meanwhile, the town has -- at employees' requests -- moved Bonilla's accusers to other departments, which means he wouldn't supervise them should he decide to return. "We wanted to get them out because we can't get him out," Ra said.

It is not unusual for elected officials to hang on to their jobs, which sometimes end up as bargaining chips in criminal investigations.

Lopez got a hand from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a fellow Democrat, in slowing public disclosure of misconduct allegations against him.

There've been no criminal charges filed against him arising from sexual harassment allegations from women who worked in his office.

In Hempstead, Bonilla, a Republican with a reputation for doing things his way rather than following the party line, has no Republican support.

The majority-GOP board, which had been briefed confidentially about the investigation, called the news conference after the DA's office determined allegations against Bonilla serious enough to arrest him.

Monday, Bonilla, through his attorney, said -- no surprise -- that he would not resign.