The FBI investigation into Suffolk Conservative Party chairman Edward Walsh is not just about allegations that he collected wages for hours he did not work as a county correction lieutenant, William Wexler, Walsh's new criminal defense attorney, said in an interview Friday.
But before federal investigators can pressure his client into helping them go after other targets, they first have to make a wage-theft case against Walsh stick -- and that will be tough, Wexler said.
"The FBI is not interested in time sheets. They want to use Ed to get to something else," said Wexler, a North Babylon attorney with a history of representing Long Island officials in trouble. "But I don't think they are going to be able to do it."
Newsday has reported that Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco began an internal investigation into Walsh in February. Though he hasn't publicly revealed the findings of that investigation, DeMarco suspended Walsh for 30 days in June. Three weeks later, DeMarco filed departmental charges against Walsh and moved to fire him.
It was expected that Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota would handle the Walsh investigation from there, but the FBI now has the case.
On Tuesday, FBI agents questioned two correction officers after they arrived for work at the county jail, according to a law enforcement source close to the events.
Garden City attorney James Druker acknowledged that his client, Charles Vallillo, was one of the correction officers that agents questioned. The name of the second officer could not be verified Friday.
"He has nothing to hide," Druker said of Vallillo, who has worked for the sheriff's office since 1989. "And as far as I understand, he is not the subject of any investigations himself."
Wexler, Walsh's attorney, said he has heard that Vallillo and the other officer questioned by agents are both scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury. Druker declined to comment on whether Vallillo had been asked to testify before a grand jury.
Officials with the Suffolk County Correction Officers Association, the union that represents Vallillo and the other officer, did not respond to requests for comment. Sheriff's office spokesman Michael Sharkey also declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
Firm might be in probe
Wexler said he believes that federal investigators ultimately want Walsh to help them with an inquiry involving Interceptor Ignition Interlocks, a company that made ignition-locking devices that aim to prevent drunken driving.
Newsday has reported that Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius made a deal with the company's founder, John Ruocco, in which Melius would earn shares in Interceptor in exchange for helping win public contracts. Within months, Nassau and Suffolk counties tailored their policies on such devices in a way that aided Interceptor.
Then, with a December ruling in a legal dispute between Melius and the company's founder, Suffolk Justice Thomas Whelan effectively handed control of Interceptor to Melius.
Whelan's ruling came after Melius attempted to get his friend and ally Frank MacKay, chairman of the state Independence Party, appointed to Interceptor's board. Whelan is godfather to MacKay's daughter, and MacKay is Whelan's longtime political benefactor.
Whelan recused himself from the ongoing litigation involving Melius and Interceptor's founder after Newsday reported the ties between Whelan, MacKay, Melius and Interceptor.
Newsday originally obtained the records from the Interceptor legal dispute hours before Suffolk Chief Judge C. Randall Hinrichs granted a motion by Spota to seal the case. Spota's request came after an unknown assailant shot Melius on Feb. 24. Melius survived the attempt on his life and the assailant has not been caught. Hinrichs unsealed the case in May.
In a February story based on records from the legal dispute, Newsday reported that Walsh attended an Interceptor board meeting on Feb. 21 -- the first board meeting since Whelan's ruling gave Melius control of Interceptor.
Walsh said he was there to offer Melius "moral support." Melius was shot three days later.
After reading the story, Sheriff DeMarco checked time sheet records and learned that Walsh was supposed to be working when he attended the board meeting with Melius.
Wexler said Walsh has done nothing wrong.
The policy of the sheriff's office had long been that certain employees who missed a portion of an assigned shift could work the hours later, and that's what Walsh did, Wexler said.
So while Walsh was absent during periods of some shifts, he made up the time and worked every hour he was paid for, Wexler said.
"I am not quite sure, again, if the FBI understands how the sheriff's office works with shifts and tour changes," Wexler said. "Time sheets are not an accurate reflection of the hours that you worked."
Wexler said that in April, the sheriff's office changed its policy so that exact hours worked must be reported. He said the change shows that precise reporting had not been considered necessary.
Walsh joined the sheriff's office 23 years ago and was paid $163,044 in base pay and $51,479 in overtime last year. After his suspension ended on July 25, he contested his firing and has chosen to have a hearing officer selected by the county consider his case.
Call for prosecutor
As it became known that the FBI was involved in the Walsh investigation, County Executive Steve Bellone publicly called on Spota to name a special prosecutor in the Walsh case to avoid the appearance that politics might influence his decisions.
Spota, who won three elections with the backing of Walsh's Conservative Party, said he had his own investigations to keep him busy and he was glad that the FBI had taken on the probe.
In Wexler, Walsh has an attorney who has previously represented public officials under scrutiny or criminal investigation.
In 2001, Wexler represented then-Suffolk Sheriff Patrick A. Mahoney, who stood accused of using his office for political purposes and of coercing employees to make campaign contributions.
Then-District Attorney James Catterson brought a felony charge and 54 misdemeanor counts against Mahoney.
Mahoney kept his job after pleading guilty to three misdemeanors, which Wexler characterized as a victory over prosecutors.
Mahoney's then-deputy in the sheriff's office, Edward J. Morris, also faced charges in the case and pleaded guilty to defrauding the government, a felony.
Morris, Walsh's political mentor, was represented at the time by Spota, who defeated Catterson later that year in the race for district attorney.