The Nassau County Legislature's presiding officer, testifying yesterday at a contempt hearing for allegedly violating a federal judge's confidentiality order, said he regretted publicizing information disclosed to him in secret.
U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt could fine or jail Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) if he finds the lawmaker in contempt of court for revealing details of a still-secret police report into the death of Jo'Anna Bird, a domestic violence victim whom the department acknowledged it failed to protect from her eventual killer.
Nassau County has settled the case for $7.7 million, and Schmitt was allowed to learn details from the report because the legislature had to approve the settlement -- but the judge had ordered that people who viewed the report reveal nothing about its contents to the public.
Among the details of the police mistakes Schmitt said the report revealed were that before the March 2009 slaying officers gave Bird's abuser, Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, a police informant, a cellphone to be used in jail -- a phone he used to harass her 35 or 40 times.
"It might have been better if I had not said what I said, but I said it," Schmitt testified he remembered thinking. He acknowledged "it would have been prudent not to" tell the information to News 12 Long Island. His attorney, Paul F. Millus, said improper disclosure, if any, was minimal.
Schmitt also said the police force didn't enforce orders of protection or perform mandatory arrests -- disclosures he said he wasn't the first to make.
Spatt said he would issue his ruling in writing.
The police union, the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, had asked Spatt to have Schmitt held in contempt, arguing that Schmitt's statements to the cable station jeopardized the officers' rights to due process.
Before Schmitt's testimony, Spatt sealed the courtroom in Central Islip, while he took the testimony of Assistant Chief Neil Delargy, head of internal affairs for Nassau at the time of the Bird investigation.
Spatt denied a request by Newsday and The Associated Press from the gallery to keep the proceedings public or adjourn them so the organizations' attorneys could formally argue against the closure. Spatt reopened the courtroom halfway through Schmitt's testimony.
Bird, 24, of New Cassel, was murdered by Valdez-Cruz, against whom she had the orders of protection. Numerous Nassau police officers were scrutinized after investigators concluded the department failed to adequately investigate domestic violence calls. The number of officers involved, the extent of their discipline and most details of what happened have all been kept secret.
Schmitt also testified he may need to discuss the Bird case at legislative hearings into a wave of scandals befalling the department. With Joye Brown