Party boss' past casts shadow on his rise to power
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Edward Walsh, the Conservative Party's Suffolk County chairman and a county correction lieutenant, has risen to positions of power and influence despite incidents that could have derailed his career.
Civil service and sheriff's records from Walsh's background check show in 1988 he tested positive for the barbiturate phenobarbital in a failed bid to work for the NYPD and was arrested in 1984 as a University of Maryland student and sentenced to 12 months' probation for a misdemeanor sex offense. Walsh did not disclose the Maryland arrest on his application, as is required.
Walsh was arrested again on a felony criminal mischief charge in 1989, less than a year before he applied to work for the sheriff's office. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a violation, according to the documents.
Two years ago, Suffolk County law enforcement officials raided a Medford business and discovered illegal gambling, drugs and more than two dozen people, including Walsh. Although he was not among those arrested, Walsh's presence amid illegal activity sparked an investigation, the results of which have never been made public.
Now, Walsh, 48, is among the targets of a sheriff's investigation into whether correction department employees stole wages by padding their salaries with hours they never worked.
In interviews with Newsday over the past six weeks, Walsh denied he had done anything wrong and blamed political enemies for trying to undermine the positive work he does for Long Island and the Conservative Party.
"It is what it is, and there's nothing I can do about that," Walsh said. "I go to work every day. I do my job. I'm passionate. I try to help my community. I try to make a difference in the world. That's what I do by being in the Conservative Party."
The Smithtown News in December 2011 first reported about Walsh's Maryland sex offense charge and the challenge he faced later in applying to the sheriff's office. The story was based on documents widely circulated by Lawrence Gray, a former state prosecutor and frequent Walsh critic, who called on Walsh to register as a sex offender.
Newsday obtained those same documents and is writing about them for the first time.
Walsh emerged from the roughly yearlong vetting process with an offer to join the sheriff's office, despite its initial objection to his eligibility because of the information uncovered during his background check. The reason for reversing Walsh's planned removal from the applicant pool is not indicated in the documents.
Walsh -- whose father, Ed Walsh Sr., served as a committeeman alongside fellow Islip Conservative Michael Mahoney, the brother of then-Sheriff Patrick Mahoney -- has worked for the sheriff's office for the past 23 years. He made more than $200,000 in 2013, according to payroll records, and at least another $62,000 as the county's Conservative Party chairman, a position that has made him an influential political figure in Suffolk County.
Michael D. O'Donohoe, a longtime Suffolk County Conservative Party committeeman, former county legislator and Suffolk's current commissioner of jurors, said high salaries inside the sheriff's office and allegations of stolen time have "tainted" the Conservative line. O'Donohoe supported the investigation into Walsh and other employees by Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, who, like Walsh and O'Donohoe, is a member of the Conservative Party.
"He has to square this up," O'Donohoe said of DeMarco. "This isn't going down well with Joe Six-Pack."
DeMarco declined to discuss the specifics of the probe but confirmed that Walsh had been officially notified about two weeks ago that he is the target of an ongoing internal affairs investigation.
Asked whether he would have hired Walsh given his past issues, DeMarco said: "We have sought to have people disqualified for less."
Mary Salins said she didn't need to call the police the night she was attacked outside a University of Maryland dorm. They came running to her.
"I screamed, and that's what alerted the security police," Salins said.
A December 1984 police report from the incident shows that cops arrested 18-year-old Edward Walsh, a former star athlete at East Islip High who was then a 6-foot-6, 250-pound freshman on a Maryland football scholarship. Salins said she had been walking on campus when Walsh suddenly knocked her boyfriend down and then groped her between her legs.
As frightening as that was, Salins said what stays with her to this day is going to court to testify and seeing Walsh, flanked by several of his football buddies, making fun of her and directing a vulgar comment her way.
Court records show Walsh was charged with a misdemeanor fourth-degree sex offense and that the disposition of the case was 12 months' probation before judgment. Years later, after Walsh applied to join the Suffolk County sheriff's office, a Maryland judge granted his request to have the records expunged.
Walsh did not respond directly to questions about the Maryland case. His attorney, Frank Tinari of Central Islip, said Walsh denies that he committed a sex offense and says that the charge against him had been dismissed.
John Kudel, a criminal defense attorney and the immediate past president of the Maryland State Bar Association, said probation before judgment does not mean a charge has been dismissed.
Kudel, who was not involved in Walsh's case, said probation before judgment indicates the defendant pleaded guilty or no contest or was found guilty at trial. Either way, "the judge finds that person guilty," Kudel said.
William Welch, a Maryland criminal defense attorney who has been practicing law for 21 years, agreed that a "finding of guilt" precedes probation before judgment.
"You get a conviction," said Welch, who also was not involved in Walsh's case. But the conviction is temporary, and once the defendant agrees to waive his right to appeal, "the court strikes the conviction," Welch said.
Salins, whose last name was Hughes at the time, had not spoken to the media about her encounter with Walsh until she was contacted by a Newsday reporter. She said she didn't know Walsh before the incident and was unaware that he had gone on to become a Suffolk County political figure and law enforcement officer. Salins does not live in New York.
Tinari said that the way the Maryland case ended suggests that Salins' credibility was in question.
"I want you to consider the fact that maybe the prosecutor in Maryland, after the prosecutor interviewed this woman or this person who made these allegations, didn't believe the person or didn't feel that the person's allegations made any sense or were believable in any shape or form," Tinari said.
The disposition of Walsh's case does not indicate doubt by the prosecutor, Kudel said.
"The prosecutor may very well be opposed to a probation before judgment, but the judge granted it anyway," Kudel said.
Besides records related to the Maryland case, the documents Gray circulated from Walsh's background check included letters between sheriff's investigators and the Suffolk County Department of Civil Service.
According to an October 1990 letter from Frederick Brotschul, the commanding officer of the sheriff's personnel investigations unit, Walsh did not mention his Maryland arrest on his candidate questionnaire.
"Mr. Walsh denied that he has been arrested until certain specifics of the arrest were brought to his attention," Brotschul wrote.
Another letter, from Administrative Lt. Frank Jenkins, states that in 1988 the New York City Police Department found Walsh "not qualified due to an unauthorized substance in his system during his health examination."
The drug for which Walsh tested positive, phenobarbital, is a central nervous system depressant with a potential for abuse, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Walsh said in an interview that he doesn't use recreational drugs and had been prescribed the phenobarbital but couldn't remember why.
Jenkins wrote in his letter that Walsh had "the opportunity to submit a valid prescription to overturn his disqualification" for the NYPD job but was "unable to produce one."
Walsh said he missed the deadline to submit his prescription.
"I have chronic sinus infections and to this day, when I go to the doctor, I'm always on Claritin and everything else," Walsh said. "It had to be something like that, and when I sent the appeal back I was too late. I was an idiot kid."
Joseph Nathan, an associate professor of pharmacy with Long Island University, said the FDA approves of the use of phenobarbital as a sedative and for the management of seizures. He could not find any information suggesting it could treat chronic sinus infections.
"Although medications are commonly used for non-FDA-approved uses, I am not aware of such a use for phenobarbital," Nathan said.
Walsh: Spota cleared me
Jenkins also wrote that Walsh "attempted to mislead the investigation process by supplying deceptive information which contradicted the factual information supplied by other governmental agencies."
In an October letter to Walsh, Alan Schneider, the county's Civil Service chief, wrote: "The Suffolk County Sheriff's Department has submitted a formal challenge to your eligibility to remain" on the list of candidates. Walsh was given nine days to offer an explanation and submit facts to help his cause but never did, according to a source involved in vetting his candidacy.
Still, the sheriff's office dropped its challenge to Walsh's eligibility before the nine days expired and then-Sheriff Mahoney hired Walsh two months later. Mahoney did not respond to a call for comment.
After the Smithtown News wrote about Walsh's background investigation, Suffolk County Legis. Kate M. Browning (WF-Shirley) announced during a February 2012 meeting of the Public Safety Committee she chairs that she thought an independent, state investigation into Walsh's hiring might be appropriate.
"I can't tell you how disturbing this is and how upset I am to see something like this," Browning said to sheriff's office Chief of Staff Mike Sharkey. "Again, if you lie on a Civil Service application, you don't get the job. And I want to know how this person got the job, if, in fact, any of this is true."
Sharkey told Browning that Sheriff DeMarco and Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota's office were already investigating the matter.
Before Browning ever raised the issue, Spota had already concluded his review and informed Walsh in a letter that the Maryland case ended "without a finding of verdict, or, in other words no conviction for a criminal or noncriminal offense was entered."
Therefore, Walsh did not need to register as a sex offender, as Gray had suggested, according to Spota's letter.
"Since you have never been convicted, no registration under the Sex Offender Registry Act is contemplated or required in this State or another. A plain reading of the Sex Offender Registry Act makes that abundantly clear," the letter states.
Browning said Tuesday she doesn't believe that her request for an investigation was handled adequately. She said she wants state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to investigate whether Walsh lied on his civil service application and determine if he should have been "eligible for the job."
"I think the attorney general needs to step in," Browning said. "I think that's where it should go."
Walsh said that Spota's letter exonerated him of wrongdoing.
"I did nothing wrong," Walsh said. "I'm telling you that that cut-and-paste stuff and all that other junk is garbage. Just talk to the district attorney. They don't give anybody a free ride."
Robert Clifford, Spota's spokesman, wrote in an email Wednesday: "This office did not exonerate any person. We simply recited the fact that after review, Mr. Walsh does not have a criminal conviction."
Four months after Browning's call for an investigation into Walsh, the Suffolk County Police Department raided an illegal gambling operation in Medford. Court records show about 30 people were present at the June 12, 2012, event.
Though he is not named in the court papers, Walsh acknowledged to Newsday that he was there to play cards.
Police arrested at least three people on illegal gambling charges, according to court records. Two of them have been convicted of promoting gambling in the second degree, a misdemeanor. The case for a third defendant is ongoing.
Walsh said police did not handcuff him or arrest him. He said after a period of time they told him, "OK, Mr. Walsh, have a good day" and sent him on his way.
"It's absolutely not illegal to play cards," Walsh said. "If you want to write a story that says Eddie Walsh plays cards, he definitely does."
Browning sent a letter to DeMarco 10 days after the raid asking whether Walsh had been drug-tested or suspended pending an investigation.
"It is the duty of a law enforcement officer to report any crime in progress if it is observed by that officer regardless if they are on duty or not," Browning's letter states.
Walsh's presence at the illegal card game led to an investigation by the Suffolk Police Department and District Attorney Spota, according to a source informed of the investigations.
On May 5, Newsday filed requests with the police department and Spota's office for records related to the investigation into Walsh.
The police department acknowledged the request on May 9, within the five-day deadline required by law, but has yet to produce any records. Spota's office has not responded to the records request at all, a violation of the state's public records law.
Suffolk DA spokesman Clifford wrote in an email Wednesday that his office had responded and that there was "clearly a failure on the part of Newsday to properly sort and deliver mail." Clifford refused Newsday's request Wednesday to provide the communication he said his office had sent.
DeMarco said the Suffolk County Police Department informed his office that Walsh had been present at the card game and that his office requested all pertinent records. No records were provided, DeMarco said.
"We were told by them that he was there and we said, 'OK, can you send us a copy of the report, incident report or a field report?' " DeMarco said. "And we never got one, and we still don't have a report."
Walsh said he did nothing wrong that night in Medford.
"If I'm guilty of anything, I'm guilty of playing cards," Walsh said. "I play cards. I own up to that. Politics is the biggest card game I play."
Walsh took over the leadership of Islip's Conservative Party after Michael Mahoney died in 2002.
Walsh's father, a longtime Conservative Party activist and committeeman, served four years in the 1970s as chairman of the Islip Town Conservative Party. Michael Mahoney later assumed the same position shortly after his brother hired the junior Walsh to work for him at the sheriff's office.
Walsh became the Conservatives' Suffolk County leader in 2006 with a promise to end the party's infighting and a vision to assert the party's power in political races beyond the judiciary.
O'Donohoe said at the time he had high hopes for Walsh.
"He's looking to re-establish the party's credibility and show we're not just for sale," O'Donohoe said, according to a September 2006 Newsday story.
With more than 21,000 registered Conservatives in Suffolk County, Walsh chairs the party's largest constituency in the state.
As party chairman, Walsh can allow candidates not registered with his party to run on the Conservative line. That can be worth 8 percent to 15 percent of the vote, said Suffolk Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer, who has made endorsement deals with Walsh.
"In many elections they have the ability to determine who gets elected," Schaffer said. "The Conservative Party's influence is much larger than the raw number of registrants in the county."
Republicans believe they can't win without the Conservative line, and a Democrat who also holds the Conservative line is viewed as unbeatable, said Nassau County Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs.
Republicans "are desperate for it," said Jacobs, who has negotiated with Walsh on judgeships. "If they don't have the Conservative line, they're not going to win."
'His word has been good'
Both allies and critics describe Walsh as a brash negotiator who uses his influence to secure for his supporters well-paid patronage positions and elected slots during cross-endorsement deals with other political party leaders.
For example, he negotiated a top position at the Suffolk County Board of Elections for Michael Torres, the Islip Conservative chairman, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations. And Walsh pushed Republican County leadership to have Islip Town Councilman Anthony Senft, a Conservative, be the Republican nominee for the competitive open State Senate seat in the 3rd District, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.
Walsh is also surrounded in the Suffolk County sheriff's office by those linked to the Conservative Party. The top eight paid employees in the sheriff's office -- and 17 of the top 30 -- are all either Conservative town committeemen or have contributed to Conservative candidates or committees since 2009. Their contributions total more than $52,000 since 2009, including a $25,000 contribution Walsh made to his own committee, the Suffolk County Conservative Chairman's Club, according to campaign finance records.
But much of Walsh's focus has been on the judiciary, where he has bargained with party leaders in Nassau and Suffolk to pick judges and law clerks.
Newsday found that at least nine of the 27 Suffolk Supreme Court justices have Conservative law clerks or senior staff members, positions that are often a stepping-stone to judicial jobs.
Newsday has previously reported that Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello punched a locker and broke a finger during a telephone argument with Walsh over 2012 judicial cross-endorsements.
Mondello declined to comment for this story. Suffolk GOP leader John Jay LaValle did not respond to requests for comment.
Jacobs said Walsh has "always been straight up" in negotiations with him.
"I only have good things to say about him," Jacobs said. "Whenever he has dealt with me, his word has been good."
O'Donohoe, the Conservative committeeman, spoke of Walsh in less favorable terms.
He said he supported Walsh's rise to chairman in 2006 but was unaware of the sex offense charge, and that could have changed his mind.
If Walsh wants his support again in September, he needs to answer questions about his past, O'Donohoe said.
O'Donohoe said there's a growing frustration among the party members who believe in conservative principles, and he's concerned they will abandon the county party if it's known for bloated salaries and political connections.
"We're supposed to be the party of less government," O'Donohoe said.