Nassau County Sheriff Michael Sposato’s administration didn’t initially pursue criminal charges after evidence emerged that a jail nurse was part of a scheme to smuggle razors and synthetic marijuana to inmates, and instead tried to handle the matter quietly in-house, sources said.
The February 2016 arrests of a former Armor Correctional Health Services nurse and two other women happened only after the Nassau district attorney’s office found out separately about the scheme, according to law enforcement sources.
They said prosecutors then demanded a briefing from Sposato and started their own criminal inquiry that included cooperation from the Sheriff’s Department.
But through a spokesman, Sposato denied that version of events Thursday following the sentencing of one of the case’s defendants.
“This information is completely incorrect,” Sheriff’s Department Capt. Michael Golio said in a statement.
At the time of the bust, Sposato said jail officials “launched an aggressive investigation into contraband smuggling” in late 2015, identifying as suspects a nurse, two visitors and inmates who were Bloods gang members. He also had thanked prosecutors “for their assistance” after the district attorney’s office made the arrests in a probe he said his department initiated.
But sources said under Sposato — who runs the jail as an appointee of Republican County Executive Edward Mangano — the Sheriff’s Department at first only had nurse Chantiel Cox fired, then “acted like it was over” and “was going to handle this only internally.”
The initial smuggling investigation began after jail officials got a tip and developed evidence of the scheme by listening to inmate phone calls, sources said.
In December 2015, jail officials stopped Cox and found her with her cellphone and a lighter — both banned in the facility — and prohibited her from returning to the jail after questioning her, sources said.
Sposato’s spokesman said Thursday the Sheriff’s Department “was in communication with the Office of the District Attorney immediately following the incident with Ms. Cox” and “subsequently . . . maintained communications” about the prosecutions.
But a source said while the Sheriff’s Department told the district attorney’s office an Armor nurse had been fired after bringing a phone and lighter into the jail, nothing was said about a contraband smuggling scheme.
“If somebody knowingly punted on an issue that directly placed my officers in great physical danger, that person needs to be immediately terminated, whether it’s the sheriff or one of his underlings,” Nassau correction union leader Brian Sullivan said.
Nassau County Legis. Kevan Abrahams, the legislature’s minority leader, called the information “very disturbing.” The Freeport Democrat added that Sposato’s “time at the jail is wearing thin on the caucus in terms of his ability to lead.”
“These are things that clearly should be prosecuted by the district attorney, and if she didn’t have knowledge of it, there needs to be an investigation as to who made that decision,” he added.
District Attorney Madeline Singas’ office confirmed charges remain pending against Cox, 26, of Amityville, but declined to comment further. Prosecutors had alleged two women — both since convicted — would buy contraband and give it to Cox before she smuggled it to inmates with their medication. Cox has denied the allegations.
The arrests happened at a time when Armor had come under intense criticism after a series of inmate deaths. The case prompted Singas, a Democrat, to question jail security, but Sposato said facility procedures “ultimately led to the discovery of this conspiracy and its participants.”
In October, a record emerged after a comptroller’s audit of Armor’s services that also seemed to recast the role jail officials played in the case. Sposato wrote in response to the audit that “there was never any direct evidence developed by the Sheriff’s Department to substantiate the allegation regarding the smuggling of razors to inmates.”
Golio addressed a question about that Thursday by saying the Sheriff’s Department had to limit its comments on the case due to Cox’s pending prosecution. But he added that jail officials developed evidence that was forwarded to the district attorney’s office, and officials there “then proceeded with their investigation and these prosecutions.”