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Nassau to revamp how it hires private attorneys

Spurred in part by its recent $15-million loss in a lawsuit, Nassau County is moving to revamp how it hires private attorneys to defend cases, and promises better disclosure on its hiring of those lawyers, County Attorney John Ciampoli said Monday.

The change comes as the Nassau County Legislature's Rules Committee last night unanimously approved the lawsuit settlement and payout to a man injured by Nassau police. The full legislature will vote on the settlement at its July 19 meeting.

Ciampoli said County Executive Edward Mangano would no longer be bound by an agreement under prior administrations to get legislative approval before retaining lawyers whose fees were expected to exceed $25,000.

"That agreement is not in the County Charter, and we're doing what the framers of the charter told us to do," Ciampoli said in an interview.

He revealed the changes Monday hours before the Rules Committee met.

A federal jury awarded former Long Beach construction worker Thomas Hartmann $19.6 million in February on his claim that a Nassau detective used excessive force when he hit him with his unmarked car while arresting him in 2004.

Ciampoli said the county attorney handling the case in the prior county administration had botched the trial preparation. He retained Brookhaven attorney Garret Swenson in January to defend the county at trial, only to suffer one of the biggest monetary judgments against the county in recent memory.

Ciampoli, who became county attorney after Republican Mangano took office in January, said he is in the process of creating a list of prequalified private attorneys to represent the county in future cases.

He said he will begin notifying the legislature and posting on the county website whenever he hires special counsel. He said the current rules only require the legislature be notified when the cost is expected to be more than $25,000.

Hartmann, 41, who now lives in Mount Vernon, won a $19.6-million verdict, but the county agreed on March 16 to drop any appeal and settle for $15 million.

The jury concluded that Nassau County Police Det. Karl Snelders used excessive force in 2004 when he drove his unmarked car into Hartmann, ostensibly because he feared Hartmann was about to pull a gun. No gun was found.

Hartmann testified that he underwent more than a dozen surgeries before agreeing to have his right leg amputated above the knee.

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