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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Dust-up at the copy machine at Suffolk Legislature

A dispute over whether a Democratic aide stole paperwork from GOP Legis. Rob Trotta is reminiscent of when the legislature was known as ‘Dodge City.’

Robert Trotta Suffolk County legislator, 13th District, speaks

Robert Trotta Suffolk County legislator, 13th District, speaks to supporters in Patchogue, Nov. 7 2017. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

You’ve heard of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but at the Suffolk County Legislature last month it was the clash at the copying machine.

GOP Legis. Rob Trotta got into a confrontation with Bob Fonti, a Democratic aide, during the Hauppauge legislative meeting just before Thanksgiving. It’s led to a police report filed by Trotta, a probe by the office of labor relations and a demand by Trotta that Fonti be fired from his $86,104-a-year job.

The dust-up recalls years past when the county legislature — relatively calm in recent years — was dubbed the “Dodge City of politics” because of its rambunctious ways.

Democratic Legis. Sondra Bachety in 1988 pummeled much larger lawmaker Steve Englebright with her purse during a party caucus.

Family-planning advocate Bill Baird in 1984 filed charges that Conservative Legis. Rose Caracappa had tried to punch him, although she denied the allegation.

In 2000, then-Suffolk Republican chairman Tony Apollaro filed a police complaint that GOP Legis. Fred Towle tried to intimidate him by putting his Glock pistol on the leader’s desk. Towle was not charged.

The latest dispute arose when Trotta printed 20 copies of salary expenses for a housing nonprofit from his legislative desk.

When Trotta went to the copier, Fonti was at the machine picking up papers, too. Trotta said he asked Fonti twice if he picked up one of his blue-bordered sheets. Fonti denied taking anything, although the lawmaker said he saw him folding a blue-edged sheet.

When Trotta returned to his desk, he found he had only 19 copies. He said he went to Fonti’s office demanding a return of the paper, which the aide again said he did not have. Trotta said he saw a blue-trimmed sheet on Fonti’s desk, but the aide folded it in with other papers and put it in his jacket pocket.

Fonti, who has filed a complaint with the labor relations office about the incident, called the mix-up an “honest mistake which could have been handled without resorting to violence and threats.”

Fonti said when Trotta came to his office, “he grabbed me and tried to toss me aside. When I tried to loosen his grip on my jacket, he grabbed my wrist and I loudly said, ‘You’re hurting me.’ His response was, ‘If I wanted to hurt you, you’d be on your ass.’”

Trotta said Fonti was actively trying to hide the paper.

“If it was an honest mistake, why didn’t he just show it to me?” said Trotta, a former police detective. “Clearly, he’s lying and there’s many witnesses to verify it.”

Trotta acknowledged that at one point he grabbed Fonti’s hand, but said he “only touched him lightly so I could see what was on the desk.” Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) was called in, and when Fonti emptied his pockets, Trotta’s paper was there.

Trotta said he filed a police report to make a record of the incident but did not seek police action. He also wrote Gregory urging Fonti’s firing for the incident.

Critics say Trotta frequently creates over-the-top scenes to make political hay.

In August, he assailed Suffolk’s Industrial Development Agency for granting larger tax breaks to businesses that make political donations to County Executive Steve Bellone. It angered IDA board members, who are legislative appointees. IDA member Kevin Harvey called it “a disgraceful charge to make.”

A Bellone spokesman last year said Trotta threatened to break the arm of Bellone’s chief deputy, Dennis Cohen, after he criticized the lawmaker’s treatment of a Bellone aide as “inappropriate.”

Trotta said Cohen cornered him leaving a meeting “to orchestrate the confrontation . . . to intimidate me.” Trotta said, “Cohen was looking for a fight and I responded, accordingly.”

In an email Saturday night, Bellone spokesman Jason Elan said: “While we do not confirm or deny any complaints made to County Labor Relations as they remain confidential, workplace violence is unacceptable and all incidents should be appropriately investigated.”

Gregory declined to comment on Trotta’s request for Fonti’s firing, until the labor relations review is done.

“I try to make everyone feel comfortable,” said Gregory. “I’d hope we will be able to maintain that, so people can carry on freely without any concern for physical threats or discomfort.”

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