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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Secrecy pervades LI government

Long Island’s culture of secrecy extends to the judiciary, Newsday stories have found. But, really, should we be surprised?

Towns, police departments, counties and a lot of other public entities on Long Island often make it harder than it needs to be to get information that should be public.

Newsday, for example, successfully sued Nassau’s police department and the Town of Oyster Bay for hanging on to public information.

And in an unusual twist, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Monday found himself begging for information he believes should be public too.

Bellone went so far as to call a news conference to demand release of financial disclosure and other information about Assistant Suffolk District Attorney John Scott Prudenti after news reports that Prudenti supplemented his income by renting his boat to criminal defense attorneys. District Attorney Thomas Spota called Bellone’s move “a political ploy.”

Now, thanks to Newsday’s Will Van Sant, we’ve learned that some judges in Nassau and Suffolk have a penchant for holding back on information too — by sealing court cases, often without detailing why such secrecy was justified.

Take the investor who was alleged to be a fraud and a deadbeat. A judge in Suffolk sealed the lawsuit in that case in an order that hid documents about the case from those who later would entrust their life savings to the investor, only to see them lost.

What about the doctor who was alleged to have serially molested a mentally disabled patient? A judge could have protected that patient by redacting the patient’s name from public documents. But no — the whole kit and kaboodle went under seal.

Would the public have benefitted from knowing what happened in cases involving hospitals?

Government agencies?

What about nursing homes that evicted patients because they could not pay? Or a child’s death at an unlicensed day care center? And what about an elections board case involving candidates seeking public office?

In every instance, there was a potential benefit to the public, but a judge determined that portions of some cases should be redacted.

In Nassau and Suffolk, Newsday found 311 cases sealed by judicial order. In 31 instances, judges in Suffolk went even further — by sealing their orders to seal cases. The move made it impossible to to determine whether the cases were properly sealed.

Is anybody watching to ensure that the cases that should be public remain public?

That’s almost impossible to determine, too.

For one, neither Nassau nor Suffolk Supreme Court formally track sealed cases.

For another, state court officials have yet to respond to a request Newsday made a month ago to open cases that judges ordered sealed without citing specific justifications — or to provide copies of the sealing orders that themselves were sealed.

Welcome to Long Island.

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