TODAY'S PAPER
77° Good Afternoon
77° Good Afternoon
Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: Legislator runs afoul of the ethics law

Suffolk County Legis. Rudolph Sunderman (R-Shirley).

Suffolk County Legis. Rudolph Sunderman (R-Shirley).  Photo Credit: James Carbone

In 2017, a Suffolk County entomologist who was considering opening his own pest control business sought an opinion from the ethics board on whether that would be OK.

And, in an advisory opinion, the board gave the employee a go-ahead — as long as the work was for private customers, and on the employee's own time.

That same year, the board also was asked to consider whether a county employee working for the social services department could accept a rent check from her brother, who was receiving assistance from a department program; and whether the county could purchase an automated external defibrillator from a firm owned by the parents of a Suffolk County employee.

In the three cases above, the board said yes, given certain conditions.

But there were plentiful other instances in 2017 when the board said no.

One was in answer to a request from Rudolph Sunderman, a county legislator-elect, who'd asked whether it would be permissible for him to keep two paid fire district positions, along with his legislative post.

Just to be clear, the board was not asked to consider Sunderman's decades of community service as a decorated volunteer firefighter, which is no small matter given that, on Long Island, the task of protecting property and responding to medical emergencies rests primarily with legions of volunteers.

Instead, the board was asked to determine whether county law would allow Sunderman to serve as an elected legislator, where he would earn $102,000 a year — while also continuing to work as a paid manager for the Centereach Fire District, at $140,000 a year, and as secretary for the Center Moriches Fire District, at $22,500 a year, according to the opinion.

In short, the question centered on a matter of cold, hard cash.

Under a 2011 Suffolk law, elected officials are barred from holding another paid position with the county, or any department, office, commission, board, agency or public benefit corporation, at the village, town, state or federal level. The only exceptions are public school teachers and public college or university professors.

When the decision came down in December 2017, Sunderman's response to Newsday was, "I plan on being county legislator in the new year, and I'm excited to be there."

Last week, however, Sunderman was indicted on charges stemming from what prosecutors allege was a scheme to keep income from a fire-district-related job flowing via a workaround — a shell company set up under his wife's name.

According to prosecutors, Sunderman worked for the company, Now That's Fire Management Inc., which was awarded a contract with the Centereach fire district — on the same day Sunderman took his oath of office.

He worked for the company — which received a monthly fee of $10,000 — about six months. And proceeds from the contract were used to pay Sunderman's mortgage and other bills, including a daughter's dance lessons.

Sunderman's defense attorney, Ray Perini, said last week that Sunderman had run the arrangement by a lawyer who had worked to create the board of ethics.

Sunderman did not, however, run the workaround by Suffolk's ethics board.

And so, after receiving a complaint, the ethics board launched an investigation — which begat a referral to the office of District Attorney Timothy Sini, which begat an indictment handed down by a grand jury.

Sunderman is charged with three misdemeanors: violating the county ban on "dual office holding," violating state law on conflicts of interest and — because he did not include the job with his wife's corporation on his financial disclosure form — offering a false instrument for filing.

He also, during a court appearance last week, pleaded not guilty to four felony counts of perjury, for what prosecutors allege was making false statements to ethics board investigators.

"This was not a money grab," Perini said, when asked about the workaround last week.

"He didn't do this for some vicious or nefarious reason," Perini said. "He was working on multiple projects with fire districts and he didn't want to leave them high and dry."

Perini, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for DA against Sini in 2017, called the indictment an overreach and said he would press for a speedy trial.

"If he made a mistake," Perini said, "well, I'm not conceding a mistake."

After a court appearance, Sunderman, 49, of Mastic, was off to a meeting of the county legislature.

He arrived late.

And to the applause of some lawmakers, and aides, who stood as Sunderman walked in.

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Latest Long Island News