Nassau lawmaker Schmitt in contempt; vows appeal
Nassau County Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt Friday vowed to appeal a federal judge's contempt finding that he went on television and discussed secret details of an investigation into police misconduct despite a gag order.
Schmitt (R-Massapequa), whom the court fined $2,500, said he'd also ask the court to publicly release a redacted version of the 700-page police report on that misconduct, which led up to the 2009 murder of domestic violence victim Jo'Anna Bird of New Cassel.
Schmitt said he's challenging the gag order because he's worried it might prevent him from holding planned oversight hearings into the scandal-scarred police department.
"We are not talking about a secret plot by al-Qaida to blow up Nassau County," he said. "We are talking about a number of police officers who failed to carry out their duties."
County Executive Edward Mangano, the police department and the rank-and-file officers union have opposed the report's release on the grounds that the publicity would jeopardize the officers' livelihoods. County Attorney John Ciampoli said Friday the county's position has not changed.
Democrats, the legislative minority, said they support the release of the Bird report.
In the 21-page contempt ruling, federal Judge Arthur D. Spatt of U.S. District Court in Central Islip said Schmitt's comments, which aired in February on News 12 Long Island, met the legal standard for contempt. "The court finds that the statements made by the presiding officer were significant, of importance, and most troubling, broadcast to the general public," Spatt wrote.
Schmitt said he'd ask the county to pay any fine against him, and his legal fees, because he was acting as a public official during the TV interview. If Schmitt, who earns $67,226 a year, seeks to be reimbursed for the fine, the matter would go before a three-member county indemnification board.
The contempt proceedings were initiated earlier this year by the union, the Nassau Police Benevolent Association.
"We feel that justice was served and that in the future Mr. Schmitt will refrain from violating the court order," said union president James Carver.
Schmitt learned about the contents of the report under the court's gag order.
But Schmitt's attorney, Paul Millus of Manhattan, signed a confidentiality agreement that anyone who signs and breaches would be personally liable and blocked from seeking county reimbursement. Since Schmitt didn't sign, it's unclear whether he will be blocked from making the county pay the fine.
In testimony on May 31, Schmitt acknowledged he shouldn't have revealed that police gave Bird's estranged boyfriend a cellphone to be used in jail -- a fact in the still-secret report detailing how police failed to protect Bird from her ex-boyfriend. Schmitt's defense was that any disclosures were nominal and unintentional.
Among the other police failures he mentioned in the TV interview: Bird had orders of protection against her now-convicted murderer, Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, but cops ignored her pleas for help and repeatedly refused to arrest him. He's serving a life prison sentence.
The Bird report was at issue because her mother had settled for $7.7 million a wrongful-death lawsuit against Nassau, which conceded there was "a breakdown in the system concerning domestic violence."
Schmitt learned of the report's contents after initially refusing to sign off on the settlement without knowing the extent of police failures.