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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

A fight in Suffolk to keep public information private

The financial disclosure forms of public employees are supposed to be just that — public.

So why is it then that Suffolk County’s Ethics Board denied Newsday’s Freedom of Information Law request for those belonging to Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti?

The forms, under state law, are public information, according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government.

So why then did the board deny a FOIL request for the records from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone?

And why then did the board’s lawyer go on to further tangle what should have been a straight-out release of public information by saying, OK, the board will hand things over — but only if a supermajority vote of the legislature demands it.

Yes, the ethics board said it would release public information conditional on the vote of an independent branch of government — a demand, which, on its face, is ridiculous.

Still, Suffolk lawmakers — goodness knows why — decided to jump into the game, uniting across party lines to have Prudenti’s financial disclosure forms delivered to the legislature Friday.

But then things really jumped the shark, when Prudenti’s attorneys went to court — entangling yet another independent branch of government — seeking a temporary order to block the forms’ release.

After going to four judges, who recused themselves, and a fifth, who was not in, Prudenti’s attorneys got what they wanted from Justice Joseph Santorelli, who issued the TRO.

During a 40-minute closed-door hearing.

After denying a Newsday reporter access.

In issuing the TRO, Santorelli told the ethics board to give him a confidential proposed order; as well as the financial disclosure forms themselves — in a sealed envelope.

In short, the judge closed a hearing on financial disclosure forms that are supposed to be public information — and then asked that the documents be delivered to him, secreted away in a sealed envelope.

But before moving on, let’s consider another mind-numbing example of secrecy, this one courtesy of acting Suffolk County Court Judge David Morris, who, two weeks ago, denied reporters access to the bedside arraignment of an off-duty Suffolk police officer who fatally struck another motorist while driving the wrong way on Sunrise Highway.

Under state law, Freeman confirmed during an interview Friday, court proceedings are open to the public.

But Morris decided to close the arraignment, citing — of all things — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal statute designed to keep medical records confidential. Had the act applied — and it most certainly did not — Morris would have had to bar the prosecutor, defense attorney and himself, absent permission from the defendant.

Sigh.

The county’s fight for Prudenti’s financial disclosure forms will continue until Santorelli determines whether the ethics board can release the forms or not. Why the delay? In court papers, Prudenti’s attorney argued that release of the documents would be “illegal,” and that “the exposure of these forms poses a threat to Mr. Prudenti and his family and delivers a chilling message to other prosecutors that their privacy is not protected by the county executive.”

Freeman disagrees, citing, among other things, a recent court decision requiring Oyster Bay to release financial disclosure forms of former planning Commissioner Frederick Ippolito.

Since Bellone demanded release of the files, political charges have been flying back and forth. Is Bellone’s demand related to his ongoing feud with Prudenti’s boss, District Attorney Thomas Spota? Is Prudenti trying to delay release until he can retire and collect a pension?

Doesn’t matter, according to Freeman. “Who wants it, why they want it, what they want to use it for has no relevance, and doesn’t make public information any less public,” he said.

As for the reluctance of public officials to give the public access to public information, Freeman, frustration sounding in his voice, said, “Where does this stuff come from?

“It is not unique to Long Island,” he said, “but it sure seems to happen more on Long Island.”

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