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Long-lasting cost of police contracts

Richard Hartman with PBA leaders in Mineola in

Richard Hartman with PBA leaders in Mineola in 1976. Credit: Newsday / Stan Wolfson

On its face, nothing seems drier than the minutiae of a labor contract, particularly one involving police work. Yet it was over obscure issues like accrued time off, night differential and shift rotation that epic confrontations took place years ago, leading to staggering boosts in police pay and benefits that saddle Long Island taxpayers to this day.

The changes were largely the work of a math genius with an unquenchable gambling obsession, the lawyer Richard Hartman, who was aided by a canny and ambitious town supervisor named Alfonse D’Amato.

In 1969, Hartman landed the Nassau Police Benevolent Association as a client and threw himself into contract negotiations, according to the labor lawyer Thomas Lamberti. Hartman proposed not just pay increases, but also significant cuts in the length of the workweek.

Then-Nassau County Executive Ralph Caso, a Republican, went along when times were flush. Hartman gave Caso a lot to go along with, like an additional night differential for the 3,500-member force, more overtime and the right to add unused time to pension calculations.

As pay and benefits piled up for the county police force, officials of Nassau villages with their own police departments worried — correctly — that their officers would demand parity. Lamberti, who represented those Nassau villages, challenged the county police contract in 1973 in a way that turned it into a national issue.

He filed a complaint with the federal Cost of Living Council, an agency created by President Richard Nixon in 1971 to slow inflation. Lamberti argued that when the cost of benefits was added to the 7.5 percent wage hikes agreed to by Nassau, the contract really amounted to a 15 percent raise.

The council agreed, ordering the county in January 1974 to cut the raise to 5.5 percent. The following spring, Hartman asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the order, but it refused.

The two sides settled. Nassau agreed to pay a $220,000 fine for violating wage controls, and the federal government agreed to the 7.5 percent pay raise, Lamberti said.

The following year, the battle lines shifted. The county was in a deep recession. Police costs had increased 250 percent since 1970, forcing a near-record property tax hike. Caso broke with the PBA.

Negotiations broke down after hundreds of cops called in sick with “blue flu.” An arbitration panel awarded the union a 12.3 percent increase in pay and benefits in 1975, making Nassau police the highest-paid in the country.

Caso began a two-year court battle but was outmatched. Hartman held police rallies, while D’Amato led a palace revolt. In September 1976, the board of supervisors took control of the negotiations away from Caso and approved a 9.5 percent retroactive raise.

In 1978, Hartman won yet another pay increase — 24.5 percent over three years — from an arbitration panel. The size and circumstances of the raise prompted Gov. Hugh Carey to call for an investigation.

Joseph French, who cast the swing vote on the arbitration panel, was Hartman’s longtime friend and client. During the contract arbitration, French and Hartman had discussed a real estate dispute French was involved in.

Despite their close relationship, then-Nassau County Attorney Edward McCabe, backed by D’Amato, concluded the county should not challenge the contract awarded by the arbitration panel.

That paved the way for later police contracts, which today contain six-figure salaries and generous benefits. Lamberti estimates that it costs about $300,000 a year to put a police officer in a car.

Before long, Hartman represented nearly 100 law enforcement unions, including the biggest of them all, the New York City PBA, where he brought Gary Melius along as an aide.

“Richard was somebody everybody idolized,” Richard Lerner, Hartman’s former partner, said in an interview. “When he was on top of the hill, he was the most powerful lawyer in the state of New York.”

Over time, Melius began to distance himself from his longtime mentor. The ill will between them grew, and Hartman maneuvered to push Melius away from the city PBA, flagging his criminal past to union leadership. Melius felt betrayed. “I was trying to hang out with what I thought were good guys, lawyers, law enforcement,” he told the Village Voice. “I would have done better with the bad guys.”

Hartman’s gambling addiction eventually overtook him. He was forced to surrender his law license after being charged with misappropriating union money. Then, federal prosecutors indicted Hartman for racketeering, tax evasion, fraud and other charges.

He was convicted in 1998 of being part of an elaborate kickback scheme in which he and his associates received lucrative professional contracts in return for payoffs to leaders of the city’s Transit Authority PBA.

Hartman spent nearly 5 years at a low-security federal prison in Pennsylvania. After his release, he taught math at Christ the King High School in Queens.

Melius, in an interview with Newsday reporters in 2014, said he hadn’t spoken to Hartman for “20-something years” but had eventually reconciled with him. He described the man who had helped resolve his early criminal cases as “a broken-down suitcase.”

Hartman died of lymphoma in 2015.

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