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Long IslandInvestigations

Twist in Croci’s path to war zone

July 2, 2014: Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci

July 2, 2014: Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci is greeted by supporters at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma as he arrives home from a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Then-Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci, a decorated Navy reservist who’d done two tours in Afghanistan, solidified his image as a dutiful serviceman in 2013 by announcing that he was answering his country’s call once more, taking leave and returning to the war-torn nation to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom.

The goodwill that followed aided a political rise that in 2014 brought Croci to Albany, whereas a state senator he chaired the Ethics Committee and now leads the Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee.

After his announcement, some in Islip politics privately questioned whether Croci’s call-up was compulsory, as he’d said, or if he’d sought the orders, as reservists do for reasons that range from patriotism to a desire for escape from the difficulties of civilian life. A weekly newspaper article at the time explained that reservists can request mobilization orders, but Croci emphasized that his were mandatory. “When you get the call,” he told a reporter, “you answer.”

Navy documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, however, show that Croci was in communication with the Navy about voluntarily deploying 10 months into his term as supervisor in November 2012, that he actively campaigned for an assignment he favored, rejected one he didn’t and chose to accept mobilization in January 2013, four months before telling the public he was headed to Afghanistan. Only after freely committing to his assignment did he receive orders that memorialized them as binding.

“I volunteer to mobilize,” reads a waiver Croci signed that January in which he agreed to report for duty in August and gave up an important legal protection. Reservists are shielded from involuntary call-up for an extended period after active duty. “I understand that I cannot revoke this voluntary waiver.”

Croci (R-Sayville) did not dispute the records provided to Newsday, which included email correspondence, but said he had additional telephone communication with Navy officials who had encouraged him to deploy.

Asked why he chose to leave for a war zone rather than remain in Islip as town supervisor, Croci offered a number of responses. “If you’re called, you go,” he said at one point. At another, he pointed to the phone conversations he said contributed to his decision. “There are only so many times you want to say no to people you have served with previously,” Croci said.

Croci declined to reveal whom he spoke to by telephone and said that the Navy’s Office of Information alone could make such disclosures. Questioned by a reporter, an office spokesman said, “We don’t have any access or knowledge of phone records that may exist between naval officials and any reservist.”

When asked whether it was wrong to have delayed telling the public about his mobilization and to have withheld its voluntary nature, Croci said he had done nothing improper and that a family illness had caused him, for a time, to reconsider his decision to accept deployment.

“I have always been completely forthright with my community,” Croci said, “and it’s a community that values military service.”

Islip Town Board member John Cochrane Jr., whose Navy career included 20 years in the reserves, declined to address Croci’s actions but spoke generally about the call-up process. Cochrane, a Republican, said it’s common for the military to approach reservists and vice versa to discuss mobilization. Generally, Cochrane said, reservists prefer involuntary orders like Croci sought and received, to voluntary orders. Involuntary orders offer greater financial benefits, he said, and can also make it easier to take leave of civilian life and its complexities.

For some reservists, he said, “it’s kind of like your ‘get out of jail free’ card in Monopoly.”

What Cochrane described — reservists using involuntary mobilization orders as an escape hatch from civilian troubles — has a name in military circles: top cover.

At the time Croci decided to deploy, the town board was trying to strip him of powers, and Islip was in full-blown, Long Island-style political turmoil. A private family struggle was also culminating. Croci’s handling of a wealthy aunt’s finances was under scrutiny in a sealed court proceeding. As Newsday reported last year, a court evaluator would find that Croci had “taken advantage” of his aunt for his own financial benefit, which he has denied. Croci said that neither Islip politics nor the sealed case played any role in his decision to leave for Afghanistan.

During the seven-month period from when he accepted mobilization to his August report for duty date, Croci was silent on the role he’d played in bringing about his call-up. With the public and other Islip leaders unaware of all the facts, it was impossible to question Croci on why he chose one kind of service, military duty in Afghanistan, over another, running a town of 340,000 residents where voters had elected him their supervisor just over a year before.

By characterizing his call-up as a unilateral move by the Navy, Croci was able to exit with fanfare, serve for a year in Afghanistan, and on his return resume being supervisor — though not for long. In July 2014, two weeks after he got back, Croci announced his candidacy for State Senate.

‘Involuntary MOB orders correct?’

In the emails the Navy provided, the names of those with whom Croci was in contact are redacted, though in some instances not their titles. It appears that Croci dealt largely with officials from the Navy’s Information Dominance Corps in Washington, D.C. The Navy created the corps, now known as the Information Warfare Community, in 2009 to better manage efforts in information-intensive fields such as counterintelligence, network analysis and oceanography.

The email exchange begins in early November 2012, 10 months after Croci was sworn in as supervisor, with an information corps manpower analyst in Fort Worth, Texas, writing to corps leaders in Washington. The email’s subject line was “MOB Opportunity-LCDR Thomas D. Croci.” MOB is military shorthand for mobilization; LCDR for lieutenant commander.

Croci declined the mobilization offer, saying he was “working on orders” from the Navy Special Warfare Command and wanted to wait to see if they materialized. The special warfare command oversees Navy SEAL operations and Croci had previously served as an intelligence officer for a SEAL team in Afghanistan. “Please do keep me in mind for future mobs,” Croci wrote. The next day, an information corps commander wrote an email to other corps officials saying that Croci was taking a “pass” and once he had clarity on whether the Special Warfare Command orders were coming through would be “able to commit to a mob immediately.”

On Jan. 9, 2013, at 3:14 p.m., a manpower analyst again sent an email to leaders of the information corps in Washington. “MOB Opportunity -- LCDR Thomas D. Croci,” the subject line read. Twenty minutes later, a lieutenant commander relayed the message to Croci, stating “please indicate your intentions for accepting/declining the mob soonest.”

This time the mobilization offer involved service as an intelligence officer with JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, the email indicates. The command oversees all elite military special force units, including the SEALs. Croci replied just before 8 p.m. “Will accept,” Croci wrote. “Involuntary MOB orders correct?”

Croci at the time had three years left in his term as supervisor.

Two days later, on Jan. 11, Croci signed a two-part waiver, “volunteering to mobilize with less than sixty days notification,” and waiving what’s known as “dwell time” protection. Dwell time is a mandated period between mobilizations during which the military is barred from issuing involuntary call-up orders to a service member. Croci was still in dwell time from a previous mobilization and surrendered the protection in order to obtain orders. “I understand that I will be issued . . . involuntary mobilization orders,” reads the waiver, which included a requirement that Croci report for duty on Aug. 9.

‘I was not running away’

As Croci was committing to his mobilization, his town board was in open revolt. In late January, the board moved unanimously to explore limiting Croci’s powers. In retaliation, Croci fired a board member and fellow Republican who was serving as deputy supervisor and appointed a replacement. Behind the dispute, it was believed, was a battle between Croci and Frank Tantone, Islip’s GOP boss.

Croci denied that the local political climate played any role in his actions, saying “I was not running away from danger.”

A bitter family dispute between Croci and his aunt Adele Smithers that was intensifying at the time similarly did not affect his decision to deploy, he said.

Smithers, a wealthy Mill Neck heiress and philanthropist renowned for supporting the cause of addiction treatment, died last month. She and Croci had been close, but the relationship broke down after she named him a financial trustee in 2011.

A month after Croci volunteered to be mobilized in January 2013, Smithers filed a lawsuit in Manhattan that stated she’d become “increasingly concerned” in 2012 that Croci and another trustee were managing her assets “in a manner that was inconsistent with her wishes” and had not complied with her requests for funds.

A week after Smithers filed her lawsuit, Croci filed an action in Nassau seeking to have his aunt declared mentally incapacitated and to be named her property guardian, which would have given him additional power over her finances. A Nassau judge sealed the action improperly and Newsday last year obtained case records while examining the sealing practices of state court justices.

As Newsday reported in September, Croci alleged his aunt’s mind was failing and that she was being victimized by an adult son who had turned Smithers against him. A court evaluator, however, found that Smithers’ faculties were intact and that it was Croci, not the son, who’d “taken advantage” of her for financial gain.

A week after the evaluator finished her report, Croci reached a settlement with Smithers. He agreed to resign as her trustee and return property, including a $450,000 Alexandria, Virginia, town house that Smithers had purchased for him in 2005. In turn, Smithers agreed to write the Nassau County district attorney’s office a letter withdrawing “any and all complaints” she’d made against Croci.

Croci in September denied any impropriety and declined to answer questions about the case, saying he was barred from doing so by the sealing order, a position some legal authorities disputed. His staff told a reporter that Croci had filed a motion to unseal the case so that he could speak publicly. That was untrue at the time, and as of Friday, no such motion to unseal has been filed.

Croci’s then-secret settlement with his aunt is dated April 23, 2013. That day, he wrote an email to a corps manpower analyst, checking on the status of his mobilization with the Joint Special Operations Command as an IA, or individual augmentee, military lingo for temporary worker. “Ma’am,” the email reads, “Checking in to see if there was any additional information on my IA Mob with JSOC (AUG).” The analyst wrote back the next day and told Croci she did not have information on individual mobilizations. “No problem,” Croci replied. “Have a copy of orders in hand now and will press. Many thanks.”

Three weeks later, Croci announced his mobilization to the public.

The four-month delay between Croci accepting mobilization in early January and his announcement of the call-up in May was due in part, he said, to his father’s health situation. Croci said that after he decided to accept deployment, his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the two discussed whether to seek a hardship designation that would allow Croci to remain nearby. Asked when the diagnosis happened, Croci said he believed it was late February or early March, at least a month and a half after he had accepted the mobilization.

“We decided that I should go,” said Croci, whose father died when he was in Afghanistan. “It was a hard decision, it was not something that was easy. But that’s who my dad was and that’s who I am.”

When Croci announced his deployment, tributes came from all quarters. Rep. Peter King’s statement was typical: “I know firsthand the kind of threat our nation faces and dedicated Americans like Tom, who selflessly answer the call to defend and protect this nation and never run from a fight, should make us all feel proud and secure.”

Croci arrived in Afghanistan in early September 2013. Available military records offer little detail on his duties while abroad. Croci’s military resume is lengthy and, according to his Senate website biography, includes having served as senior duty officer in the White House Situation Room of President George W. Bush in addition to a number of intelligence-related naval assignments.

‘Into the fire’

In July 2014, Croci returned from Afghanistan and resumed his duties as Islip supervisor, which he characterized as “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” In his absence, Suffolk County prosecutors had launched an investigation of illegal dumping at an Islip public park and Croci faced a tight budget, a struggling municipal airport and strained relations with other town leaders.

Faith in town government was low and Croci told Newsday that “The most important thing is for residents to have trust and confidence in their government and the integrity of public officials. It has to be paramount.” Having lived in a failed state like Afghanistan, Croci said he understood that elected leaders “can’t ever give the appearance of impropriety, or any special favors.”

Croci was days from announcing his Senate run. When he faced voters that fall, they knew nothing of the court evaluator’s finding that he’d taken advantage of his wealthy aunt Adele Smithers for his “own pecuniary gain,” due to a judge’s defective sealing order that hid details of the case from the public.

And, due to Croci himself, voters lacked a full account of the circumstances surrounding his voluntary decision to mobilize in 2013 while holding office.

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