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Nassau lawmakers rip commish on lab problems

Legis. Peter J. Schmitt of Massapequa, the Republican

Legis. Peter J. Schmitt of Massapequa, the Republican presiding officer of the legislature, is "somewhat unhappy," according to an aide, about county officials' refusal to testify at a Budget Review Committee hearing on Nassau County's budget. (Dec. 15, 2010) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau legislators strongly criticized Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey Wednesday at a special meeting of the Public Safety Committee, telling him he let them down when he was caught unaware last week about long-standing problems in the department's crime laboratory.

"This I see as a crisis of confidence in you, Commissioner," presiding officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) said. "It is a failure."

At a hearing lasting more than three hours, Mulvey and Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice's chief assistant, Albert Teichman, both said they had no knowledge of problems at the crime lab before they were told Dec. 6 that the lab had been placed on probation - its second time on probation since 2006.

"I had no clue that we were on probation and off probation before my taking office," said Mulvey, who was appointed in July 2007 by then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi.

The hearing came more than a week after a national lab accrediting agency informed the Nassau County Police Department that the crime lab is on probation, the only one of nearly 400 labs in the country to have that status. The move was triggered by a November inspection that found 25 failures of "essential" or "important" protocols.

Lapses at the lab could call into question evidence used to prosecute people in past and current criminal cases, and could lead to a flurry of legal motions seeking to dismiss cases or overturn convictions. At least one such motion already has been filed in Nassau County Court.

Mulvey and County Executive Edward Mangano have announced several proposed fixes for the lab. They reassigned the lab's director, Det. Lt. James Granelle, and formed a committee of department heads and prosecutors to address the problems. They also put county medical examiner Pasquale Buffolino in charge of the lab's operations and hired an independent consultant, Peter Pizzola, to oversee its overhaul.

Mulvey said major turnover in top police department positions in recent years meant that he doesn't know who was aware of the lab's first probation in 2006 and what was done about it. He said communications and reports from the accrediting agencies that oversee the lab went straight to Granelle. He and Rice were not copied, he said.

Legis. Dennis Dunne (R-Levittown), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, asked Granelle to appear Wednesday to answer questions. But Gary Learned, president of the Superior Officers Association, said the union's lawyer had told Granelle not to appear, and the committee will have to subpoena Granelle if they want him to answer questions.

The committee had not decided whether to subpoena Granelle.

Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) said lapses at the lab could cause far-reaching problems for the district attorney.

"If we don't ensure that those procedures are followed, we risk all the prosecutions we have," he said.

Teichman said the district attorney's office is "extremely upset" that it was kept in the dark about problems at the lab that are depended upon in testing evidence in criminal cases.

"This is a crisis of no small proportion," he said. He said the office doesn't know yet how much evidence will need to be retested or how many old cases will be appealed based on problems at the lab. But he said the number could be considerable.

Teichman expressed dismay at Tuesday's announcement that the county is hiring Pizzola. He said the announcement came before the committee that was formed to address the lab's problems was done vetting candidates.

Committee members had just interviewed Pizzola on Tuesday - the same day his hiring was announced at a news conference - and had not yet checked his references, he said.

Schmitt said he doesn't even want to think about what the county's liability may be if it turns out that mistakes at the lab led to false convictions or imprisonments.

"I'm not even going down that road," he said.

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