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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Suffolk ethics panel finds rentals by officials to be a violation

Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti

Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti on Oct. 26, 2016. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Without fanfare, an advisory ethics opinion was released last week in which no names are mentioned and even the name of the Suffolk legislator who requested the ruling was blacked out. The advisory opinion also emphasizes it is based on “hypothetical facts.”

But the Suffolk County Board of Ethics, after a four-month review, has determined that it is a violation of the current ethics law for an assistant district attorney to rent out a boat or other property to defense attorneys who have or have had criminal cases with the prosecutor.

Such a rental, the opinion states, “is inherently problematic and is prohibited.” It adds that such a dealing “interferes with the proper execution of justice” and “creates a palpable appearance of impropriety even if intended not to influence.” Such a transaction, “even without a proof of an ill motive, calls into question the public perception of the fundamental integrity of the criminal justice system.”

While hypothetical, the details of the opinion track those in the long-swirling controversy involving John Scott Prudenti, a district attorney bureau chief who in the past made thousands of dollars renting his 47-foot boat, Christina Marie, to defense lawyers with whom he dealt on cases.

However, the opinion is based on the current county ethics law that took effect in 2012, and Prudenti’s boat rentals stopped before 2010.

The opinion is just the latest chapter in a saga sparked by a Newsday story about Prudenti’s rentals last April. County Executive Steve Bellone in May criticized District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office over Prudenti’s past practices and called for an ethics board investigation. A Spota spokesman declined to comment.

County lawmakers since summer have sought to make public Prudenti’s financial disclosure statements — required by county law — to determine if the prosecutor reported the income he made from the boat rentals. So far, Prudenti has been successful in the appellate division in keeping those records private in an ongoing lawsuit.

Legis. Bill Lindsay (D-Oakdale), who sought the advisory opinion, said the ethics board opinion “gives everyone a clear understanding” of what is permitted. “Based on their advisory opinion, I would think they should pursue any employee who is in violation,” he said.

Under the county’s ethics law, the impact could be substantial. The ethics board could impose fines of up to $10,000 for violations and recommend that the county hiring authority suspend or remove an employee. A person who knowingly violates the law could also be found guilty of a misdemeanor and face up to a year in prison and up to a $1,000 fine.

However David Besso, Prudenti’s attorney, said the advisory opinion has “nothing to do” with Prudenti since it is based on hypothetical facts under the current ethics law and not the earlier legislation that was in place when Prudenti was renting out the boat. “There have been no rentals to anyone under the current law, and the board did not differentiate between the two sets of laws,” he said.

Besso added that Prudenti, a 30-year veteran of the district attorney’s office, “is aware of his ethical obligation and always holds himself to the highest standards.”

Bellone dismissed Besso’s claims as “legal semantics,” and said Prudenti’s violations cannot be ignored. “The ethics board has now made it clear that Prudenti violated the law, he should be suspended immediately and drop his lawsuit against the legislature and release his financial disclosure forms.”

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