Cop in influence scandal defied superiors in past, records show

Acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale is shown

Acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale is shown in Mineola on Monday, January 30, 2012. (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

A former Nassau sergeant under investigation for his role in the political-influence controversy that cost Police Commissioner Thomas Dale his job defied orders and talked back to frustrated superiors who saw him appeal directly to the commissioner's office to avoid discipline, department records show.

Sgt. Salvatore Mistretta's supervisors filed disciplinary paperwork against him in early October accusing him of inappropriate conduct and tried to discipline him again in late October for insubordination. But Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki told Mistretta's supervisors that it was a "difficult time for the commissioner," and they agreed to delay further discipline until after the Nov. 5 election, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice began an investigation that same month that ultimately led to the ouster of Dale.


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At the same time, Mistretta was actively supporting County Executive Edward Mangano's re-election campaign. Mistretta was listed as one of four points of contact for an Oct. 28 Mangano fundraiser at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury, and he contributed $500 to Mangano's campaign on Oct. 18, according to state contribution records.

Rice later found that Dale, Mistretta and Chief of Detectives John Capece intervened in an election dispute involving the validity of signatures that Democrats had filed against former Freeport Mayor Andrew Hardwick, who was attempting to run a third-party campaign for Nassau County executive. Democrats alleged that Hardwick's campaign -- which was funded entirely by Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius, a Mangano supporter -- was launched to help Mangano by siphoning votes from Democratic candidate Thomas Suozzi.

Mistretta retired from the department in November, shortly before Rice released details of the investigation. He and his attorney did not respond to several calls and emails for comment. Dale also did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked about Mistretta's ties to the Mangano campaign and whether he used those ties to avoid department discipline, Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said top county officials do not know Mistretta and never intervened on his behalf. Mistretta was just one of the hundreds of people who supported Mangano's campaign, Nevin said.

Mistretta's ability to bypass his supervisors and get an audience with the department's top brass is unusual in an organization predicated on a chain of command. Such access is especially noteworthy for a cop with a history of misconduct, including a yearlong suspension in 1997 for beating teenage boys in handcuffs, records show.

Mistretta returned from the suspension and spent the rest of his career in the administrative support staff, making only two arrests between 1998 and 2013. He made more than 600 arrests in the four years prior to the yearlong suspension.

Before retiring, Mistretta had been in charge of the department's Firearms License Section, where he oversaw the processing of pistol licenses. Three department sources told Newsday that an audit of the pistol bureau's operations is underway, but did not specify the reason for the review.

Mistretta earned about $202,000 in 2012, his last full year on the job, records show.

Rice has an active investigation into Mistretta, who served a civil subpoena to former Hardwick campaign worker Randy White while White was in police custody. Rice said the subpoena Mistretta served was "deeply troubling" in a Dec. 12 letter to Mangano. Although Rice found no criminality on the part of Capece and Dale, they immediately retired.

Rice spokesman Shams Tarek declined to explain the focus of the ongoing investigation into Mistretta but said his office had not released all aspects of the probe.

 

Past trouble

Court and police department records show Mistretta's disciplinary problems date at least as far back as 1997, when he was suspended for a year without pay. A suspension without pay is the stiffest penalty short of termination, and in the past 10 years, the longest suspension of a police officer was six months without pay, records show.

Mistretta's suspension stemmed from the October 1994 arrest of three teenagers after a fight in Valley Stream. While the boys were handcuffed in a holding cell and offering no resistance, Mistretta repeatedly banged one teenager's head against a concrete wall and ripped a gold chain off his neck, according to departmental hearing records. Mistretta then hit another teenager in the face because he was trying to protect his friend, records show.

A hearing officer found Mistretta guilty of excessive force and conduct unbecoming an officer. The hearing officer ruled that Mistretta was not guilty of other allegations against him: squeezing one teenager's testicles and improperly handcuffing another one with his arm extended above him.

The hearing officer noted that Mistretta's actions were "not an attempt to control the situation, but an attempt to hurt the arrestee."

After the June 1997 decision, then-Commissioner Donald Kane issued the suspension. Mistretta challenged it in court, saying he was denied due process because he was not adequately notified of the charges against him and that the penalty was too severe. The county's attorney defended the suspension.

 

'A unique position'

"Police officers are in a unique position of absolute authority, especially so when a person is under arrest. As such, conduct such as the violence exhibited by Mistretta cannot be tolerated," the county's attorneys said in court papers.

A state appellate court upheld Mistretta's suspension.

Mark Gallagher, one of the teenagers beaten by Mistretta, sued the county and collected an undisclosed amount in a settlement. Now a businessman in Port Jefferson, Gallagher said in an interview that the experience scarred him.

Gallagher, who said he had never been arrested before, said Mistretta "grabbed my face and slammed it into a wall 15 times. It was a cement wall. I was sitting down handcuffed."

"You don't forget something like that," Gallagher said.

The charges against Gallagher and his friends were dismissed.

After Mistretta returned to work following his suspension, he was assigned to the Records Bureau, an administrative position where he would not be in a position to make arrests. He took over the Firearms License Section in October 2008.

Records obtained by Newsday show that Mistretta had a contentious relationship with his immediate superiors and that they first tried to reprimand him and then tried to move to more formal discipline last year. They felt stymied in their efforts because of his perceived influence with Dale, Skrynecki and First Deputy Commissioner Thomas Krumpter, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Skrynecki and Krumpter, the department's interim commissioner, did not respond to requests for comment.

In September 2012, police records show Mistretta's supervisors attempted to discipline him for being disrespectful to a superior and for failing to follow the chain of command.

Mistretta objected to the discipline, writing on a disciplinary report "This isn't true" and that he was responding to an order straight from "P.C. Dale" -- Police Commissioner Dale. The document does not indicate whether Mistretta was disciplined, but a source familiar with the incident said the commissioner's office overruled Mistretta's supervisors and he was not disciplined.

In August 2013, Mistretta challenged his supervisors' handling of a co-worker's schedule change. Unsatisfied with their explanation, Mistretta declared "I am done here" and stormed out of his supervisor's office, according to a report of violation of department rules.

He later returned and said, "This place is run like [expletive]."

When his superiors told Mistretta on Oct. 8 that he would receive formal discipline, Mistretta got up from his chair, ignored his commanding officer's order to sit down and "walked out the door and went straight up to the Office of Commissioner of Police," the report says.

A handwritten notation at the bottom of the report says, "Not the first incident of this type by Sgt. Mistretta in the Records Bureau."

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