Hempstead Village Police Officer Randy Stith pleaded guilty Thursday to a pair of misdemeanor charges in a deal with prosecutors that requires him to resign from the police department.
In a Nassau County courtroom filled with supporters, Stith, who is also a member of the Hempstead school board, admitted submitting a forged letter of recommendation in his application to become a police officer and stealing money from the village fire department as a volunteer firefighter.
He pleaded guilty to third-degree possession of a forged instrument and petit larceny. He will face three years of probation, pay restitution of $4,223 to the fire department and complete 100 hours of community service, in addition to resigning from the police department March 22.
The plea deal will allow Stith, 28, to avoid the full 13-count indictment prosecutors brought in April 2018, including felony charges that could have come with a prison sentence.
Stith declined to comment after the court conference. His attorney, Joseph Conway, said Stith would not resign from the school board. In pleading guilty to misdemeanors, Stith is not required under education law to relinquish his seat on the board.
"I think Randy today acknowledged that he's made some mistakes," Conway said. "He's looking to move on."
Stith was in attendance Thursday night at a special school board meeting called to discuss the district’s 2019-20 budget. The board did not address the matter of Stith’s plea.
In response to a request for comment about the plea, board president LaMont Johnson didn't mention Stith.
“We came into this with the understanding we are always putting students first and that is what I intend to do,” Johnson said.
Hempstead Village Mayor Don Ryan and Police Chief Paul Johnson both declined to comment.
Prosecutors said Stith forged a letter of recommendation in 2015 in his application to become a police officer. He was sworn in as police officer in a 2017 ceremony where Ryan described Stith as his "godson."
Prosecutors also accused Stith of making more than $6,500 in unauthorized cash withdrawals from the bank account of the fire department's Southside Hose 2 from 2015 to 2018 when he was treasurer.
"He betrayed the public's trust," Senior Assistant District Attorney Lisa Berk said at the court conference Thursday.
The original charges against Stith included first-degree falsifying business records, first-degree offering a false instrument for filing and second-degree possession of a forged instrument. Stith had pleaded not guilty.
If convicted of the top felony charge, he could have faced up to seven years in prison.
Stith should have resigned once the allegations came out, said Lucas Sánchez, the Long Island director for New York Communities for Change, which has followed the Hempstead board's efforts to remedy numerous problems in the district.
"The children of Hempstead deserve a school board of unquestioned integrity," Sánchez said in a statement. "It is an abomination that Mr. Stith has remained on the board while possibly facing jail time."
A school board member convicted of a felony or who pleads guilty to one would be automatically removed from office because he or she loses rights as a citizen, including the right to vote, which is required of board members, said Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association.
“If in fact it is a misdemeanor, you could still be a qualified voter,” Worona said.
Stith’s three-year term expires on June 30, 2020. He was elected in May 2017.
For a board member to be deemed unqualified, the board or the state education commissioner would have to determine that the member in question engaged in inappropriate conduct, Worona said. In such a case, the board member is entitled to a due process hearing.
In similar situations elsewhere in New York, board members have chosen to resign so as not to distract from the board’s work, Worona said.