Islip dumping probe alienates longtime Republican donor
The criminal investigation into dumping in the Town of Islip -- including tons of hazardous materials deposited in a town park -- has driven a wedge between town officials and a prominent local business family that has raised tens of thousands of dollars for some of these officials and their political parties.
Evidence of a bitter divorce between the Datre family and the Islip officials they helped get elected came when the town announced last month it had canceled a tree-trimming contract that Daytree at Cortland Square won in early October 2012, a few weeks before superstorm Sandy hit Long Island.
That contract last year brought in almost $360,000 to the family firm, said Clara Datre, 66, the company's president and majority shareholder, who in 2007 was the Republican Party's candidate for town supervisor.
Further evidence came last week when the Islip Town board voted to remove Clara Datre's husband, Thomas Datre Sr., 67, from his post on the town's plumbing board, which came with an $8,000-a-year stipend.
And last month the Islip Town attorney put Daytree at Cortland Square on notice that the town considered the firm "a responsible party" for the dumping of what Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota now says is 50,000 tons of asbestos-tainted and hazardous waste-laden debris in Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood.
In early April, Spota's office launched a criminal probe into tons of debris dumped in the park. A month later, criminal investigators searched the Ronkonkoma corporate offices of Daytree at Cortland Square and other Datre firms. Altogether, six sites are being investigated for evidence of illegal dumping. As of last week, Islip decided to bond up to $6 million for potential cleanup costs.
The dumping scandal comes within 18 months of the Datre firm's selection as one of 24 contractors hired by the town to remove debris after superstorm Sandy struck. Daytree at Cortland Square later billed the town almost $680,000 for that work, an invoice shows. The emergency work was not subject to competitive bidding procedures, the town has said.
Looking back at the funds Islip paid Daytree at Cortland Square in the harsh light of the dumping, town officials say they won't second-guess the decision to use a firm owned by a politically prominent family for storm cleanup work.
"To look back now would be unfair, as you cannot predict actions of your selected bidder into the future," said town spokeswoman Inez Birbiglia, referring to Daytree's pre-Sandy tree contract. "As for Sandy [cleanup] selections, these were made based on availability of equipment and ability to perform."
Datres blame town
In the wake of the town attorney holding Daytree responsible for the dumping, Clara and Thomas Datre Sr. say they have become disillusioned and bitter with the actions of people for whom they once raised money to get elected. They say they are victims of a political witch hunt in a town seeking someone to blame for what Spota has called an "environmental nightmare."
"I blame the town," Datre Sr. said of the dumping in Roberto Clemente Park. "There was nobody overseeing it, and that's what there should have been."
The couple now say they are done with politics.
"Politicians? I don't care if it's a congressman, a senator, they all can shove it," said Datre Sr., a builder and longtime head of the Long Island Builders Institute political action committee, whose more than 400 members he has solicited for contributions to Islip Town candidates. "Politicians can come knocking on the door, but they'll never see another penny from me."
Personally and through the Long Island Builders Institute PAC, the Datres' fundraising has packed a punch in both local and statewide races over the years, according to interviews with the family and local political figures, and campaign records.
State records show that the builders institute PAC gave more than $30,000 to Islip candidates and committees since 2000 -- more than a third of which went to the Town of Islip Republican Committee.
Datre Sr. also organized a golf outing for the Islip Republican Party in 2012 that netted more than $80,000 -- an amount he reprised at a second golf outing last year.
Beyond their work with the PAC, the Datres and their companies have contributed $63,782.50 to candidates locally and throughout New York State since 2000, according to state Board of Elections records. The records show they concentrated their campaign donations in their hometown of Islip -- about a third of their political contributions, $21,445, were made to Islip candidates and political committees in the past 14 years.
The biggest recipient of Datre donations -- from the family and its companies -- has been the Long Island Builders Institute PAC -- $10,675, most of it since 2002. The second-largest amount of Datre money went to the Town of Islip Republican Committee, while Friends of Tom Croci, the Islip supervisor, received $4,500 and Friends of Phil Nolan, the former supervisor, received $4,300 in contributions during the same period.
Since the dumping scandal made headlines in April, some elected Islip officials have distanced themselves from the family and returned the Datre contributions, or donated them to a charity or to Iglesia de Jesucristo Palabra Miel, the Brentwood church near Roberto Clemente Park that asked the town last spring to improve soccer fields in the park with clean fill.
Donations given to charity
Nancy Marks, the campaign treasurer for Croci, a Navy reservist on active duty in Afghanistan since last July, said last week she was donating to charity the $4,500 in three campaign contributions from Datre family members or corporations since October 2011. Of that total, $3,500 was from Daytree at Cortland Square.
"I knew he would be a little uncomfortable with what has transpired," Marks said of Croci. "As his treasurer, I know that the supervisor does not ever take any monies that might be of controversy." Half of the money being donated to charity went to Iglesia de Jesucristo Palabra Miel, she said.
Councilwoman Trish Bergin Weichbrodt said she returned $1,250 to "Tom and Clara Datre from my campaign account" in mid-May. She called the move a "personal decision" and declined to elaborate.
Councilman Steven J. Flotteron said he had returned three donations totaling $900 -- two from Datre companies and a 2009 donation of $500 from Thomas Datre Sr.
Michael Johnson, campaign manager for Councilman Anthony S. Senft Jr., a candidate for State Senate in Suffolk County's 3rd District, said the campaign had received a single contribution of $275 from Daytree at Cortland Square. That donation made in June 2012 has been given to the Brentwood church, Johnson said.
"We felt that it would be better suited to give it to the church based in the community who was working on the park and having it revitalized, as opposed to returning it to the company," Johnson said.
Councilman John C. Cochrane Jr. said he had not received any campaign donations from the Datres.
For his part, Islip Republican Party chairman Frank Tantone said in an interview he was not returning any Datre money. The Town of Islip Republican Committee received $6,465 from the Datre family and companies since 2000.
"As of right now, he's not been convicted of anything, he's not guilty of anything," Tantone said of Datre Sr., adding the party policy was to return any check received from someone with "criminal problems in the past."
Tantone acknowledged the Datre money over the years had been "helpful" and its absence would be felt by the party. He said he hasn't spoken to Datre Sr. since "probably early March," largely because of the criminal investigation, which had made things "awkward."
"We don't want to get in the way of any kind of investigation that's going on," Tantone said.
The Datres see the situation differently.
"Boom -- they're all gone," Datre Sr., said of his former political friends in Islip. "They've just vanished."
Tantone and Datre together served more than a decade on Islip Town committees and held leadership positions -- Tantone headed the planning board until 2011 and Datre served on the plumbers examining board beginning in 1981, chairing it from 2012 until his removal last week. Those positions entitled them to family public health benefits and pension credits until Nolan stripped the health benefit provision after he took office in 2006.
For more than a decade the Datre corporate office was a tenant in the building owned by Tantone's law firm, Tantone & Gulotta, on Ocean Avenue in Ronkonkoma. The company moved out of the office last year although the Datre sign remained outside the law office until it was whited out in early May, Tantone said.
Datre's political influence within Tantone's organization was on display in a Nov. 30, 2011, letter he wrote after two Republicans and a Conservative knocked Democrats from the Islip Town Board in the election that month. Datre Sr. wrote to Long Island Builders Institute members urging them to buy "at least 2 tickets" to a December "victory celebration."
"If that is not feasible please show your support in some way so we can present our donations to the Republican chairman on December 6th and make a statement," he wrote.
Datre, together with builders institute PAC co-chairman Alec Ornstein, also wrote institute members repeatedly in January 2012 seeking donations or attendance at fundraisers for Croci and state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R/C/I-Shirley), now a candidate for Congress.
Datre Sr.'s fundraising prowess led Tantone to single him out for recognition at party fundraisers in February and March of last year, according to people who attended.
Datre Sr., who said he had lived in Brentwood for 30 years and built more than 100 homes in Brentwood and Central Islip, including affordable housing for military veterans, doesn't shy from his ability to raise money for political campaigns.
"I've raised money for the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Conservative Party . . . " he said. "And I'm good at it. Period."
Today, Datre Sr., says he's got bigger things to worry about than whether his political connections have frayed.
"I'm not going to worry about Frank Tantone," he said. "I'm not bosom buddies with any of these guys."
Datre Sr. and his wife are suspended from their leadership roles with the Long Island Builders Institute following the dumping controversy. Datre Sr. said he doesn't intend to return to the political action committee.
"I'm done. I don't want to be the PAC chairman, nothing," Datre Sr. said. "When this is all over . . . I will never ever give another penny or be involved in politics again."
On more than one occasion during a mid-May interview with Newsday, both Datre Sr. and Clara Datre wept when talking about the dumping scandal and its impact on their family and businesses.
"I'm a grown man and I'm a pretty hard guy, but I broke down in front of my board," Datre Sr. said, referring to the town plumbing board. "Isn't that embarrassing? It bothers me, from the heart. My mother and father, especially my mother, raised me to be a good person and that's what I am . . . This is tearing me apart. Don't sleep at night. It's unfair."
'A little more accountable'
The fracture between the Datres and the town seems a long way from late October 2012, when their company was chosen to handle emergency Sandy work.
One Islip official said he kept close watch on the firm's work then because of the family's fundraising ties in Islip.
"Knowing the political relationship the Datre family have in the Town of Islip, long before I got there, I realized it's important to protect me, and them, that I held them a little more accountable," Tom Owens, Islip's Department of Public Works commissioner, said in an interview last year.
As for how the firm was picked for Sandy work, Islip officials said last year that Daytree at Cortland Square was among a group of "existing vendors" with a proven track record of doing work for the town. Officials also said that the firm won the tree trimming contract before the storm struck following competitive bidding.
Critics of Datre at the time claimed the firm didn't have enough tree removal experience to win, something the family disputed.
Looking back at the winning of that contract, Clara Datre said her company's and family's troubles seemed to begin then because of what she characterized as the jealousy of rivals.
"Sometimes at night I say to myself maybe we should have given up that contract a long time ago," she said. "It's like the kiss of death, having a Town of Islip contract."