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LI civil rights team will focus on 'rooting out discrimination in all its forms'

Mark J. Lesko, acting U.S. Attorney for the

Mark J. Lesko, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, poses at his office in Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn, in 2019. Credit: Linda Rosier

Long Island's top federal prosecutor announced Friday that he has created a new civil rights team aimed at protecting the region's most vulnerable residents by focusing on "rooting out discrimination in all of its forms," including when it comes to policing, housing discrimination and school segregation.

The new initiative is in response to a directive from President Joe Biden, an executive order that said advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice and equal opportunity "is the responsibility of the whole of our Government," federal officials said.

Acting Eastern District of New York U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko said the team will enhance federal officials' ability to investigate and civilly prosecute civil rights violations on Long Island and in New York City, including his staff's "ability to handle investigations of systemic discrimination."

The announcement came on Juneteenth, the new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery.

The team is under the umbrella of the Eastern District's Civil Division and comprised of five assistant U.S. attorneys and an investigator and will partner with the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and state and local agencies that enforce civil rights laws.

"The establishment of the Team demonstrates the commitment of this Office to vigorously enforce our federal civil rights laws to help foster a community where individuals can live safely, free from unlawful discrimination, and ensure equal rights for all, regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability," said Lesko in a statement.

Federal officials said Friday that the team, while in its early stages of operations, already is looking at two issues Newsday investigations brought to the forefront: the lack of diversity in police hiring on Long Island and the widespread unequal treatment of minority homebuyers.

Last week, the State Legislature approved a package of bills aimed at curbing housing discrimination sparked by Newsday's 2019 series "Long Island Divided."

Suffolk and Nassau police officials didn't return telephone calls for comment on Friday.

NAACP Long Island Regional Director Tracey Edwards said in an interview Friday she believes it's important for the new federal team to coordinate its efforts with New York State Attorney General Letitia James' office and local officials who are working on the same equality-driven goals.

"On Long Island, we need all the tools in the toolbox to rout out systemic racism. The new civil rights team is a welcome addition," she added.

Federal officials created a new webpage that provides links to complaint forms for those with concerns about inequality and information on other resources related to civil rights.

The page is located at https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/civil-rights.

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