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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Suffolk special grand jury, county lawmakers prime for deep dive into Valva case

Suffolk County district attorney Tim Sini speaks at

Suffolk County district attorney Tim Sini speaks at First District Court in Central Islip on April 25, 2019. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk's district attorney and a bipartisan committee of the county legislature have announced they will dig, and dig deeper into the system that failed 8-year-old Thomas Valva.

Let the spelunking begin.

Timothy Sini, Suffolk's DA, will make use of a special grand jury, an independent panel that, armed with the DA's power of subpoena, will be muscular enough to scrutinize records and hear testimony from witnesses about events usually shielded under state privacy laws.

"When you are particularly dealing with a case of a child fatality or abuse, child protective services, Family Court, these are confidential files and there is only so much that these government organizations are going to share," Sini said in an interview last week.

"That is not only a matter of discretion, it is a matter of law," he said. " … You need a court order to have them produced and we are able to do that."

In the Suffolk County Legislature, Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), the presiding officer, along with legislators Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Minority Leader Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), have been tasked with scrutinizing every interaction the Valva family had with Suffolk agencies.

"Obviously, there are things that happened in Nassau that we will have limited access to," Calarco said in an interview last week. "But once the family moves to Suffolk, there are multiple points of contact with our social services and police department, and family courts."

"While Newsday has done some good reporting," Calarco went on, "there has been no comprehensive review or fact finding that lays out what happened, what were the contacts with the county and what was the response to those contacts."

That's not to say other government entities have ignored the case.

Steve Bellone, Suffolk's county executive, has proposed legislative reforms.

And the New York State Office of Family and Child Services, along with the New York State Court system are reviewing, presumably, their own roles in the case.

None of those efforts, however, can be expected to pull together a detailed, comprehensive examination of why Thomas ended up dying of hypothermia after sleeping on the cement floor in an unheated garage.

Even as a special grand jury begins its work, Sini's office will continue to build the prosecution's case against Thomas' father, Michael Valva, and his fiance, Angela Pollina, who have pleaded not guilty to allegations of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child.

While Sini's prosecution centers on the two suspects, the special grand jury will have a broader mandate — that is, to scrutinize a system and its component parts.

Suffolk's special legislative committee, although it also is seeking subpoena power, as Calarco pointed out, will have little success in seeking some records — records that special grand jurors are likely to see.

And while Calarco says he would like to see the legislative committee finish its work within "120 days, but preferably 60 to 90" — depending on access to documents — a special grand jury can take the time it needs.

It will hear testimony in secret.

And it has the option of issuing a grand jury report, which could include specifics of what happened, what went wrong and recommendations to change systems to mitigate the chance of it happening again.

"They do have the ability to issue a special grand jury report," Sini said, " … This situation kind of cries out for that."

Calarco's goal is to produce a report, with recommendations, as well.

In addition to seeking subpoena power, the committee also will hire an attorney to help with the proceedings — some of which, for privacy's sake, will be held in executive session, he said.

"I want to model this on what Bill Lindsey did years ago when the legislature put together a special committee to look into ethics," Calarco said of the late Democratic presiding officer from Holbrook.

That committee ran into a few bumps in its quest for information on former County Executive Steve Levy's financial disclosure forms.

That's unlikely to happen this time around, however.

Calarco said he sees no conflict with a special grand jury's work, or recommendations already made by Bellone or anyone else.

He said he would, in fact, have no problem offering the committee's final report and recommendations to Sini.

"I think it is a good thing that he is doing his look," Calarco said. "He is going to be able to get into places that we cannot."

For Calarco, an understanding of exactly what happened remains essential.

"How could we not see the writing on the wall?" Calarco asked.

"Or did we see the writing on the wall and we just couldn’t act?"

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