A confidential informant linked to an undercover drug buy that prompted Nassau County prosecutors to investigate a veteran narcotics detective is the relative of a prominent Long Islander with close political and law enforcement ties, Newsday has learned.
Law enforcement sources disclosed to reporters the identity of the informant on the condition that the sources would remain anonymous. Former Garden City Police Commissioner Ernest Cipullo -- who is the father of Michael Cipullo, the detective under investigation -- confirmed the informant's identity in a recent interview.
Police provide confidentiality to informants in part because of the potential dangers posed by cooperating in undercover investigations. For that reason, Newsday is not naming the informant or identifying the informant's family.
Nassau prosecutors say Cipullo wrote in a report that the informant bought 20 Xanax pills from a defendant in Oceanside in November. Cipullo filled out a receipt stating that the informant was paid $50, but later changed his account, saying that the informant was not involved in the transaction and that he'd made the buy himself, though the informant got the money.
Shams Tarek, a spokesman for the Nassau district attorney's office, would not say if it is looking at whether Cipullo and other police officials gave favorable treatment to the informant because of the individual's family influence.
Nassau police Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki -- whose agency is investigating the case in conjunction with prosecutors -- said the investigation is into both Cipullo and his supervisors. He declined to say whether Cipullo had paid the informant for services never performed due to the individual having an influential relative.
"That's getting a little bit too close to the core of the investigation for me to comment," Skrynecki said.
Cipullo's attorney, Joseph Conway of Mineola, declined to comment.
Michael Levine, a veteran lawman, expert witness and police instructor who has written extensively on undercover operations and the handling of informants, said the details of the case made public thus far are "indicative of corruption."
Levine said an investigation of Cipullo, his bosses and whether the informant's family tie played any role in the case is warranted.
"What I am hearing suggests a complete breakdown of supervision and oversight," Levine said.
Doubts about cases
Street-level confidential informants are often in the drug trade and agree to cooperate with police in return for leniency after being arrested or drawing scrutiny from law enforcement. It's unknown whether Cipullo's informant was credited with buys other than the one under scrutiny.
The Cipullo investigation has raised doubts about cases the detective handled and led prosecutors -- who must disclose exculpatory evidence to defendants -- to offer accused drug dealers favorable deals. Newsday has previously reported that two dealers with violent criminal histories were each sentenced to less than 5 years in prison because of concerns that Cipullo's involvement had tainted the cases.
In a third drug case, Francis Dima, 43, had been charged with five felonies for possessing and selling heroin in 2011 and 2014 in East Meadow. If convicted, he faced a maximum of 25 years in prison because he was a prior felony offender, said his attorney, Eliot Bloom of Williston Park.
But earlier this year, Bloom said the district attorney's office sent him a letter informing him of Cipullo's involvement in the case. On Feb. 10, prosecutors asked the court to reduce the charges against Dima to a misdemeanor. Although Dima has not yet been sentenced, Bloom said he would not serve any jail time.
Brian Griffin, a defense attorney who also received a letter from Nassau prosecutors alerting him to Cipullo's involvement in a case against one of his clients, said informants can avoid criminal charges by making drug buys for police.
"You don't get credit for signing up and trying to do cases," he said. "You get credit for making cases."
'A serious question'
Bruce Barket, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said it made no sense for Cipullo to credit an informant for a buy that he'd actually done himself. A drug case is stronger when an officer makes the undercover buy rather than an informant, whose credibility can be suspect, he said.
"It raises a serious question about whether or not the officer was giving credit to the informant for doing work that the officer did in order to curry favor" with the informant's prominent relative, Barket said.
If it turns out that Cipullo was giving the informant a deal few could land -- money and credit for services undelivered -- it would not be the first time that Nassau police showed favoritism to the relative of a prominent individual. In 2012, then District Attorney Kathleen Rice prosecuted three top police officials after they quashed burglary charges against Zachary Parker, the son of a Nassau County Police Department Foundation booster. Parker ultimately pleaded guilty to the 2009 burglary of more than $10,000 in electronics.
Deputy Chief of Patrol John Hunter and Det. Sgt. Alan Sharpe pleaded guilty to official misconduct for their roles in the case. A third police official, Second Deputy Commissioner William Flanagan, was convicted in 2013 on misdemeanor charges of official misconduct and conspiracy. He is appealing his conviction.
Law enforcement relies on informants to make cases, but the secretive nature of the system can lead to abuses. In scores of cases nationwide, informants seeking cash payments or leniency in their own cases have entrapped or framed the innocent. In other instances, law enforcement handlers have overlooked violent criminal conduct by useful informants or themselves colluded with informants in crimes.
"This is a public policy that risks wrongful conviction, new crimes, and unaccountable or even sometimes corrupt government practices," said Alexandra Natapoff, an associate dean and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. who has studied and written about the role of informants in the justice system.
Although a lack of transparency and oversight increases the hazards associated with informant use, Natapoff said there remains a "culture of secrecy" around the practice.
"Law enforcement guards that culture very jealously, from defendants, from the media, from the public and even from courts," Natapoff said.
At issue: written guidelines
Long Island's law enforcement officials have resisted Newsday's attempts to learn even basic information about the use of confidential informants. Starting in 2012, Newsday made several requests for information from local law enforcement agencies on the management and compensation of informants. Because informants can be at risk of retaliation for cooperating, the newspaper only sought information that did not personally identify individuals.
For instance, Newsday requested agencies' written guidelines for handling informants. The Suffolk district attorney's office and the Suffolk Police Department denied those requests, claiming that the rules governing how law enforcement dealt with informants had no effect on the public.
The Nassau district attorney's office and the Nassau Police Department said they could provide no written guidelines because they had none.
Levine said written policies are designed to prevent bad outcomes from informant use, such as false convictions or the deaths of officers. He said given that Nassau prosecutors have no internal policies on informant use, the district attorney's office should hand its investigation of Cipullo over to federal authorities.
"To have no written guidelines is a reckless disregard for public and officer safety," Levine said.
Nassau district attorney spokesman Tarek said in an email that "extensive legal and ethical requirements" govern the use of confidential informants and that no "in-house manual" is required by law.
"Mr. Levine's claim that this case should be referred to federal authorities over a manual is meritless and without legal basis," Tarek said.
Although Nassau police may not have written guidelines collected in one place, they do have procedures -- both written and verbal -- for handling informants, Skrynecki said. He acknowledged that having a comprehensive written policy is more desirable and that Nassau police are looking at best practices nationwide.
He said he expects more formalized rules in the "very near future."
Newsday had also requested records showing how much money local law enforcement agencies had paid informants. After the agencies failed to disclose the information, the newspaper filed a lawsuit against the Nassau Police Department that cited a pattern of noncompliance with the Freedom of Information Law, which grants the media and public a broad right of access to government records.
A judge sided with Newsday, finding that the arguments the department used to withhold information on informant payments had no merit. Those records showed that Nassau officers had made roughly 3,000 payments to informants from 2008 to 2012, most for $50. Total payments exceeded $130,000.
With the judge's order in hand, Newsday again requested information on payments to informants from Suffolk law enforcement agencies. Despite the judge's ruling, Suffolk police again denied Newsday's request, saying it was not possible to retrieve the information without creating a new record, a step that government agencies are not required to take under the Freedom of Information Law.
The Suffolk district attorney's office said it would examine its records and retrieve the requested information, but wanted to charge Newsday more than $10,000 to do so. The office came up with the figure by estimating that it would take an employee a total of 35 eight-hour days to collect the information.
Newsday challenged the Suffolk DA's response as improper under FOIL, but the office rejected that challenge.