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Congressional campaign puts focus on Kathleen Rice's record on Moreland Commission

Moreland Commission member Kathleen Rice questions LIPA and

Moreland Commission member Kathleen Rice questions LIPA and National Grid officials at a hearing at the Touro Law Center in Central Islip on Dec. 20, 2012. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice uses her record prosecuting public corruption as a key credential in her congressional bid -- and is relying on it to rebut attacks by her Republican opponent, Bruce Blakeman.

Her campaign biography notes that Rice, a Democrat running to succeed Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) in New York's 4th Congressional District, has "taken down dozens of public officials" since taking office in 2006.

But Blakeman, a former county legislative leader, is trying to turn the larger corruption issue against her by criticizing Rice for not releasing emails from her time as co-chair of the state Moreland Commission on public corruption. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo disbanded the commission this spring.

"She owes it to the public to come forward and explain what her role on the commission was," Blakeman said after a July report that Cuomo's office interfered with the panel to protect entities close to the governor.

A Rice aide responded that the district attorney "spent her entire career prosecuting corrupt officials . . . Bruce Blakeman has spent his career as a political insider."

The back-and-forth has made Rice's prosecutions of Nassau public officials, and the roles they held, a campaign issue. Her office says the third-term district attorney has gotten at least 97 such convictions over nearly nine years.

But while several of the cases were high-profile -- including a pay-to-play scheme with a Democratic county lawmaker, a coercion attempt by a GOP town clerk and an effort by Nassau police officials to stop the arrest of the son of a prominent supporter -- the bulk involved civil servants and other lower-level workers, records show.

 

'Changing the culture'

Rice said the smaller number of elected leaders and top-level appointees doesn't mean her corruption fight has lacked impact.

"What really matters in these cases is changing the culture inside departments and levels of government. That often starts with employees," Rice said, noting elected officials "represent just a small tip of the iceberg."

Legal experts cautioned against judging a district attorney's record on numbers alone and said cases against rank-and-file employees shouldn't be wholly discounted.

"Just because the people who are charged criminally aren't well-known or high-ranking in position doesn't mean those prosecutions aren't significant," said Juliet Sorensen, a Northwestern University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

She cited an electrical inspector taking payoffs to issue permits for shoddy work: "The reason the electrical code exists is to prevent electrical fires, so that's a public safety issue."

At Newsday's request, Rice's office provided a list of 101 defendants it identified as public officials convicted of corruption crimes since 2006, noting that there were more cases that could not be provided because convictions were sealed.

Of the 101 defendants, four were convicted before Rice took office, but sentenced while she was district attorney, records show.

Others included on the list worked for agencies outside Nassau, such as a Southampton Village official and New York City sanitation worker caught in a sex sting.

The 97 defendants convicted since 2006 were spread over 65 cases. Nine prosecutions had multiple defendants, including 15 Long Island Rail Road employees who stole copper wire.

Three cases involved defendants who held elected office at the time of the crimes: Nassau County Legis. Roger Corbin (D-Westbury), who was convicted along with two others in a 2010 New Cassel redevelopment scandal; Long Beach City Councilman Michael Fagen, a Democrat who in 2011 was charged with collecting unemployment benefits while in his paid post; and Hempstead Town Clerk Mark Bonilla, a Republican who was arrested in 2012 for attempting to force a subordinate to provide compromising photos of a female town employee who had accused Bonilla of harassment.

Several others reached the top levels of municipal agencies.

In 2008, North Hempstead's building commissioner was convicted of issuing improper permits in exchange for perks such as a free gym membership.

And in 2012, three Nassau police supervisors were charged with trying to thwart burglary charges against the son of a prominent donor to the Nassau County Police Department Foundation, a nonprofit that supports numerous police causes. A jury found a former deputy police commissioner guilty of conspiracy and official misconduct, while a retired deputy chief and former detective sergeant each pleaded guilty to official misconduct counts.

Otherwise, Rice's public corruption cases predominantly involved lower-level municipal employees. They included social services caseworkers who committed fraud; police officers and teachers who falsified time cards; correction officers who smuggled contraband into jail and a PTA representative embezzling funds. The district attorney's list also included arrests of officers for DWI.

 

Looking beyond numbers

Rebecca Lonergan, who tried corruption cases as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said conviction numbers and job titles shouldn't be the only barometers of a district attorney's success in fighting official corruption.

"There aren't clear metrics for determining whether somebody is tough on public corruption," Lonergan said. "It's hard to assess based on how many cases someone actually brings because corruption cases are so difficult. Public officials are reasonably intelligent and fairly good at covering their tracks, and offenses are usually not clear cut."

Lonergan, a professor at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, said if a prosecutor is "not bringing any cases, it's fair to question, but if they're bringing at least some, and devoting resources, it's fair for that person to claim they're tough on corruption."

While Rice aides say the full scope of her corruption work supports her campaign statements, she has faced criticism on the topic in recent months.

Last winter, Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs questioned Rice's decision not to file criminal charges against then-police Commissioner Thomas Dale, a Republican appointee, following revelations that he ordered the arrest of a witness in a case involving disputed nominating petitions in the primary for Nassau County executive. Gary Melius, owner of Oheka Castle in Huntington and an influential Independence Party member who backed the campaign trying to discredit the witness, had asked Dale to make the arrest.

"She's got an outstanding record in DWI issues and I think she's done some very good things in office," Jacobs said recently. However, "I personally cannot recollect any effort related to Republican Party or Independence Party public corruption."

Rice said her decision not to charge Dale was driven by facts, not politics. A portion of the case -- a civil subpoena served on the witness by a police sergeant -- is still being probed.

"Both Democratic and Republican party officials have a vested political interest in what I do," she said in response to Jacobs. "To nobody's surprise, neither is particularly interested in an impartial review of the facts."

 

Facing criticism on panel

Since winning the 4th District Democratic primary in June, Rice has faced criticism from Blakeman about the Moreland Commission. The New York Times reported in July that Cuomo's office "deeply compromised" the panel by interfering to protect groups with political ties to the governor. Cuomo has said his office was only providing the panel with advice.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is probing Cuomo's shutdown of the commission. Blakeman, a lawyer and former presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, has called on Rice to detail what she knew about any potential interference by releasing emails from her six months on the panel.

Rice has declined, saying that she is assisting Bharara's investigation and is seeking to preserve the probe's "integrity."

And while rejecting Blakeman's calls to "come clean" about Moreland, Rice's campaign has responded by citing her corruption prosecutions.

After Blakeman held his first Moreland-related news conference in July, Rice spokesman Eric Phillips accused him of "distorting the record of a prosecutor who's spent her entire career locking up corrupt officials."

Bruce Barket, a Garden City attorney who has represented defendants accused of corruption charges under Rice, said he believes people associate Rice with aggressive DWI and prostitution prosecutions, not corruption.

"I'm not saying she should have prosecuted more people. Maybe there wasn't any more corruption to prosecute," said Barket, who worked for Rice's predecessor, Republican Denis Dillon, and is active in the Nassau GOP. "She prosecuted the people she prosecuted and the public will be able to judge that."

"If they view thefts from the PTA as public corruption in the sense that she's using it," he added, "they'll give her credit for it. If they don't, they won't."

But Rice said "there are far more public employees than there are elected officials," and reiterated that she won't let politics dictate cases she pursues.

"My job is to follow the facts and the law . . . and not take my orders from political party bosses," she said.

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