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Nassau lawmakers fail to OK $45M in borrowing to pay judgment

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola, which serves as the seat of Nassau County government, is seen here on June 26, 2012. Photo Credit: Amy Onorato

Nassau lawmakers on Monday failed to authorize borrowing $45 million to satisfy a federal court judgment in a wrongful conviction case of two men for a 1984 rape and murder.

The action — a result of minority Democrats blocking the supermajority needed for bonding — could imperil a stay the county got on having to put up the money pending its appeal, officials said.

“That could result in freezing of county accounts and other enforcement measures,” said Robert Cimino, an attorney representing the county.

County legislators voted 11-7, with all Republicans present in support and all Democrats against, to approve the $45 million bonding ordinance. Because 13 votes were necessary for passage, it failed and the GOP majority then re-called it to table for a future meeting.

The authorization was submitted for legislative approval as part of a stipulation entered last year in federal court in Central Islip. It required the county to indemnify the estate of Joseph Volpe, the late Nassau police detective found in 2014 to have violated the rights of two men, John Restivo and Dennis Halstead, who served 18 years in prison for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco of Lynbrook.

Restivo and Halstead were released and exonerated in 2003. A federal jury awarded them $18 million each in damages in 2014, after a prior ruling in favor of the county was overturned. The county also must pay $9 million in related costs.

While appealing the judgment to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Nassau was granted a stay on immediately putting up a $45 million bond as proof they could cover the judgment, as is typical.

Instead, the stipulation required the county present the ordinance to the legislature that authorizes the bonding.

The bonds would not be issued and the money would not be borrowed until the appeal is ruled on, officials said.

But because legislators failed to pass the authorization Monday, Cimino said Restivo and Halstead could ask U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert to lift the stay and require Nassau to immediately deposit $45 million with the court.

“There’s potential danger,” he said, noting that a decision on the county’s appeal could still be months away.

Legislative Democrats, who have resisted most borrowing as they demand an independent office to investigate county contracts, argued that the county could simply put up $45 million from a new operating fund earmarked for settlements and judgments.

“We cannot see a reason why we could not use that fund,” said Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport).

Top aides to County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, countered that the fund is designed to pay smaller, more frequent settlements, and that depleting it would burden county operations.

“The Democrats actions are not in the best interests of taxpayers and they should reconsider their action at the earliest opportunity,” said County Attorney Carnell Foskey.

Nick Brustin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “Nothing that Nassau County does surprises us,” adding that “we’re going to take every step to ensure the judgment is enforced.”

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