This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.
In 1969, when Suffolk officials were desperately trying to convince citizens to approve installing sewers in the southwest corner of the county, one officer of the county's sewer agency stood up at a public meeting and declared: "I know you have a lack of faith in government, but this agency is apolitical. We are honorable."
It was the last time those terms were used to describe Suffolk's Southwest Sewer District.
Over the years, Long Island has had plenty of big political scandals, but the sewer district mess was the longest-running and the most expensive. It had all the standard ingredients: greedy contractors, corrupt politicians, massive cost overruns and even the predawn murder of a key official who was eager to tell prosecutors everything he knew. "It was a disaster," summed up Howard Scarrow, a political science professor at the State University at Stony Brook.
When the long-overdue Bergen Point treatment plant in West Babylon was finally finished, at first it stank, made loud noises and didn't work. The district's finances have never been on a steady footing and residents have been continually fearful of dramatic rate increases. The project began in the mid-1960s, when Suffolk's population was exploding and it became clear that the southern portions of Babylon and Islip Towns lay too low to depend on cesspools without polluting the Island's underground water supply. In the need to install hundreds of miles of underground sewer pipes and a massive waste treatment system, contractors and politicians saw their opportunity and they took it.
The first ambitious plan for sewers was turned down by voters in the proposed district in a referendum in 1967, but two years later, a second, trimmed-down version was narrowly approved, 53 percent to 47 percent, after alarmists warned voters that their children would get their drinking water out of toilets if they didn't OK sewers. County officials promised their constituents that the whole project would cost $291 million, including interest on borrowing.
Officials were supposed to be scouring the nation for the best engineering firm for the job, reviewing the qualifications of 70 companies. But the winner was a small, comparatively inexperienced firm in Melville run by Charles Walsh of Huntington. The company was picked by Arthur Cromarty, who doubled at the time as county Republican leader and chairman of the Suffolk Board of Supervisors.
Walsh's company, Bowe Walsh and Associates, secured an open-ended contract under which the firm's fee was based on the total cost of the project; it was paid $54 million for the job and an audit years later showed that $31 million of the fee was based on fraudulent claims. Walsh, who was later captured on videotape describing himself as "a natural-born master criminal," was eventually convicted of charges connected with channeling money from sewer contractors to key politicians. The final cost of the project was more than $1 billion.
At one time more than a dozen official investigations, in addition to one by the newly activist Suffolk Legislature, tried to detect the scams behind the project. A bipartisan "Gang of Three" - Legis. Anthony Noto (R-Babylon), Michael Grant (R-Brentwood) and Martin Feldman (D-Dix Hills) - regularly and dramatically revealed various sins of the project: watered-down concrete in sewer pipes, a rigged bid for lab equipment, an audit sanitized to remove any suggestion of kickbacks. It was then that the first suggestion was made to abolish the county legislature and return Suffolk to the tranquility of a county board of supervisors.
The legislature's inquiries helped establish Suffolk's tradition of two-party government and led to passage of several local reforms, including laws protecting government whistle-blowers, requiring legislative permission to employ relatives of top county officials and mandating that top officials disclose their sources of outside income.
The scandal also had a huge impact on many political careers. For years, the most significant division in Suffolk politics was not party affiliation, but whether lawmakers came from inside or outside the sewer district.
"We're having a civil war here in Suffolk County," Assemb. John Flanagan (R-Huntington) said during a 1984 debate on state legislation to bail out the district. "This is brother against brother. Party lines have disappeared." The issue created such deep animosity that there is no bronze plaque on the treatment plant listing the officials responsible for the facility because no one wanted his name listed.
The bitterest fight was waged when Islip Supervisor Peter F. Cohalan challenged incumbent County Executive John V.N. Klein of Smithtown, a popular official whose promising career was tarnished by his steadfast championing of the project. At the county Republican convention in June, 1979, Cohalan's supporters tried to wrest from Klein the party's designation for county executive.
The convention atmosphere at GOP headquarters in Blue Point grew so tense that two committeemen almost slugged each other and the band belted out "God Bless America" until the two sat down. Cohalan went on to beat Klein in the Republican primary, an almost inconceivable development in local politics, and then beat Feldman in the general election.
But the most dramatic moment in the long saga came in June, 1979, when a Suffolk grand jury indicted John Flynn, the county official directly in charge of the project, for lying about the project to a Suffolk grand jury. Within hours of being charged, Flynn told an assistant district attorney he would tell all, adding, "I'm fed up with covering up for everyone else." But before he revealed the project's secrets, he was stabbed to death in the back with a fishing knife by Sue Thurber Quinn, his lover and former employee. Quinn eventually told authorities she killed Flynn because he had cheated on her, not because of the sewer district scandal. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison.
These days, the treatment process works smoothly and residents no longer have to worry that their cesspools will overflow. Many businesses outside the original boundaries in Babylon and Islip have eagerly petitioned their way into the district, a move supporters see as a tribute to the value of sewering. At present, the district has 63,000 connections.
"The plant has become a good neighbor . . . and we're proud of it," said Suffolk Public Works Commissioner Charles Bartha, who joined county government 26 years ago as a Southwest Sewer District worker.
But the financial problems continue. For almost 20 years, numerous refinancing schemes and bailouts have been used to keep the project solvent. And another crisis is brewing: County budget director Kenneth Weiss said the district faces a $12-million to $14-million deficit next year unless the county devises yet another financial solution.