A rare report from the grand jury

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy speaks about Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy speaks about his administration's budget practices at a news conference in Holbrook. (March 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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According to New York State law, a grand jury made up of 23 citizens can issue indictments, dismiss a case altogether or, at times, write an official report based on sworn testimony it hears.

Written reports sometimes examine the actions of a public official in order to recommend he or she be removed from office or to indicate that the official did nothing wrong. Alternatively, the reports can provide recommendations for legal or administrative actions that are "in the public interest," according to the law.

The 56-page report issued Thursday by the special grand jury convened to hear the Suffolk County ethics case falls under that scenario.

"These reports are issued sparingly and only when a public issue of grave importance warrants this type of grand jury action," said Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman. "I think it's a powerful tool, especially when the prosecutor feels there isn't a basis to bring an indictment."

In both Nassau and Suffolk, there are examples of grand juries writing far-reaching and highly publicized reports.

In 2009, a Nassau County grand jury report focused on some special taxing districts where private professionals were collecting public pensions. That report depicted 11 case studies without identifying people by name.

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A grand jury report in Suffolk County, issued in 2006, cited corruption and mismanagement in public schools. That report's central recommendation focused on establishing a state inspector general for education and encouraged new state laws to improve schools' financial management.

And in 2003, a Suffolk County grand jury report detailed sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, assigning letters to individual priests instead of naming them. The grand jury could not issue indictments because the statute of limitations had elapsed on the individual cases. The report described specific abuses against children and examples of diocese mismanagement in the handling of the cases.

New York State law requires that officials and employees mentioned in such grand jury reports not be "identifiable." The Suffolk Ethics Commission grand jury report also uses letters for each person cited.

Christopher McPartland, the division chief of investigations for the Suffolk County district attorney, said that such classification is only true for the "four corners of the document" -- meaning that it doesn't matter if someone reading the report with additional knowledge or information would be able to identify any individuals.

Thursday's grand jury report was the byproduct of testimony from 25 witnesses and an analysis of more than 5,000 pages of exhibits. It details specific events, conversations and emails that painted the picture of the misconduct it found.

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McPartland noted that the "real power" of a grand jury is its ability to compel people to testify.

"You can make people who would not ordinarily talk to us tell a story," he said. "And when it comes to government corruption or government problems, that's where a story that would otherwise not be told or heard comes out."

Grand jury recommendations are not enforceable, so it's up to local government officials to take action, Gershman said. But the report itself, he said, is an important step.

"That's a function of the grand jury -- to expose misconduct by government officials and seek remedies," he said.

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As a result, such reports can't be "cast aside," said Manhattan criminal defense attorney Marvin Schechter. "Historically, grand jury reports have led to reforms," he said.

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McPartland said he expected county officials to move forward on the grand jury's suggestions.

"I would like to think it is very likely that they will very seriously examine our recommendations and take some actions," he said.

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