Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta, sporting a U.S. Attorney Eastern District windbreaker, grilled Suffolk Industrial Development Agency members last month about a firm that makes lighting for corporate jets seeking $160,000 in tax breaks for a $2.2 million expansion.
“He makes $16,000 a year. Are you concerned about that?” asked Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), referring to salary data for the company’s founder/owner on the IDA application. “How can he make $16,000 and pay taxes on his Mount Sinai house?” The IDA dismissed Trotta’s concerns and approved the tax breaks.
While Trotta’s “in-your-face” style is nothing new, the chorus of critics has escalated in the past week after Trotta filed a resolution to create a bipartisan committee with a $100,000 budget and subpoena power to probe county law enforcement operations. The proposal was in response to the indictment and jailing of former Chief of Department James Burke in the beating of a robbery suspect and an alleged cover-up that led to spate of high level police retirements.
Trotta is also likely to be the GOP’s toughest questioner when Tim Sini, County Executive Steve Bellone’s pick for police commissioner, appears before lawmakers for confirmation early next month.
Those critics say Trotta’s salvos are often misinformed or bullying attempts to intimidate foes. They also say he tries to insinuate he has insider information without backup.
Trotta, a retired police detective critical of Burke long before his arrest, makes no apologies. “The bottom line is there is a major scandal going on,” he said. “It’s our obligation under the county charter to look into this, but a lot of people . . . don’t want an investigation for the same reasons cockroaches don’t like the light, because an investigation will expose the truth.”
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) doubted Trotta would get support for a legislative probe, fearing it would interfere with the federal case against Burke. “I think we should let the professionals do their job,” he said.
Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, GOP caucus leader, said the caucus had not taken a position on Trotta’s bill but he will personally support it because Trotta assured him it will not interfere with the federal probe. He also said he will drop his call for a federal monitor for the department if the resolution passes.
Yet such an inquiry is not without precedent. In 1987, lawmakers launched a similar probe at the same time the State Investigations Commission looked into alleged wrongdoing among police and prosecutors in drug cases.
That inquiry led to seven days of hearings involving 33 witnesses, 1,800 pages of testimony and a report that proposed 28 reforms and led to the hiring of a respected outside professional, Dan Guido, as commissioner in 1988. “It caused no problems . . . with the work of other agencies, but provided a clear blueprint for making dramatic changes,” said Paul Sabatino, who was counsel to the probe.
But Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, maintains Trotta’s effort, windbreaker and all, is an attempt “to create an aura that he is sitting in the middle of the U.S. Attorney’s conference table . . . his actions make a mockery of the whole process.” He added, “If I were the U.S. Attorney, I’d have asked for the jacket back.”
Trotta called the jacket a “nonissue” and emphasized that a committee would not interfere in any criminal prosecution, only repair the damage to department operations caused by the scandal.
When he retired as a police detective, Trotta said, colleagues from the “FBI gave me a plaque which read, ‘All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.’ There’s a lot of good people on the legislature and unfortunately they have done nothing and that is why we are at the point we are today.”
With James T. Madore