Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney says he hasn't determined whether...

Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney says he hasn't determined whether taking campaign contributions from police unions and their political action committees is legal or ethical. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said he's returning thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from some of the county's politically powerful police unions while he determines whether it's legal and ethical to accept money from them.

Tierney said he returned $1,000 from the Suffolk County Superior Officer’s Association last month and plans to send back $1,500 he received from the Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff's PBA political action committee in April 2022. 

“There's the issue of whether or not I can do it. And I don't think that issue has been, at least in my mind, satisfactorily decided,” said Tierney, who is not affiliated with a political party but was supported by Republicans in 2021. “And then there's the second issue — even if I can [accept the money], will I?”

The Suffolk County Board of Ethics has offered conflicting guidance. The board in February 2022 said such donations were "inherently problematic" because the district attorney's office is responsible for prosecuting cases of police misconduct. The decision came after Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) asked the board if it's a conflict of interest for an elected official to take money from the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association or its PAC. 

Last month, the board rescinded that decision to settle the PBA's lawsuit alleging the ruling violated the union’s First Amendment rights. The PBA sued after Tierney rejected their $5,000 donation in July 2022.

In its reversal, the ethics board said it would be "premature" to say accepting such donations was improper unless the state Board of Elections had ruled it was illegal.

State Board of Elections spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson said the state's election law does not specifically address the question.

The political arms of Suffolk’s police unions have spent millions of dollars on local campaigns in recent years, Newsday has reported. Suffolk PBA’s political action committee, the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation, spent $329,600 on the 2017 campaign of Tierney’s predecessor, Tim Sini, Newsday previously reported. Tierney unseated Sini in the 2021 election.

Tierney said the $1,000 donation from the Superior Officer’s Association was made during an Aug. 15 campaign fundraiser at The Refuge in Melville.

He was not aware of the donation from the Deputy Sheriff's PBA political action committee until it was brought to his attention by Newsday, according to Chief Assistant District Attorney Allen Bode.

Tierney also received $5,000 from the Suffolk County Corrections Officer's Association PAC and $1,000 from the county's Detectives Association PAC in 2022, according to state campaign finance reports. His office said he did not have to return those contributions because they were made before the Board of Ethics' initial ruling. 

Tierney had more than $320,000 in his campaign account as of July, according to the most recent filings with the state Board of Elections. He received no donations from police unions during his 2021 campaign, according to campaign finance reports. He will be up for reelection in 2025 and said he plans to review the Board of Ethics' most recent ruling before deciding whether to accept future police union contributions.

“We're going to take it one step at a time,” he said. “I have to look at the entire situation … the equities, appearances and otherwise."

Suffolk County Superior Officers Association President James Gruenfelder said he believes the union made its donation properly.

“We support the DA and the job he is doing here in Suffolk County,” Gruenfelder said. “That’s his decision. I understand his rationale.”

Prosecutors across the country have grappled with the ethics of accepting police union money after demands for police reform following the death in 2020 of George Floyd while he was in the custody of Minneapolis police. Four district attorneys in California that year urged their state and national bar associations, without success, to explicitly state that district attorneys accepting police union money is unethical.

Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly accepted more than $20,000 in police union donations during her 2021 election campaign, according to campaign finance records.

"District Attorney Donnelly follows all policies and advisories as promulgated by the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York and the County Board of Ethics," her spokesman Brendan Brosh said in a statement.

Kate Levine, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, noted in a 2020 academic paper titled “Prosecutors Should Not Take Money From Police Unions" that prosecutors should maintain professional distance from police to gain the public’s trust.

"I would certainly vote for the DA who's not being funded by the police union if I wanted someone who I thought was going to be fair and impartial when it came to the police,” she told Newsday. 

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said he's returning thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from some of the county's politically powerful police unions while he determines whether it's legal and ethical to accept money from them.

Tierney said he returned $1,000 from the Suffolk County Superior Officer’s Association last month and plans to send back $1,500 he received from the Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff's PBA political action committee in April 2022. 

“There's the issue of whether or not I can do it. And I don't think that issue has been, at least in my mind, satisfactorily decided,” said Tierney, who is not affiliated with a political party but was supported by Republicans in 2021. “And then there's the second issue — even if I can [accept the money], will I?”

The Suffolk County Board of Ethics has offered conflicting guidance. The board in February 2022 said such donations were "inherently problematic" because the district attorney's office is responsible for prosecuting cases of police misconduct. The decision came after Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) asked the board if it's a conflict of interest for an elected official to take money from the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association or its PAC. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said he's returning thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from some of the county's police unions.
  • The Suffolk County Board of Ethics said in February 2022 that the donations were problematic because the district attorney's office is responsible for prosecuting cases of police misconduct. The board rescinded that decision last month.
  • The State Board of Elections said state law does not specifically address the issue. Legal analysts say prosecutors should maintain professional distance from the police to gain the public’s trust.

Last month, the board rescinded that decision to settle the PBA's lawsuit alleging the ruling violated the union’s First Amendment rights. The PBA sued after Tierney rejected their $5,000 donation in July 2022.

In its reversal, the ethics board said it would be "premature" to say accepting such donations was improper unless the state Board of Elections had ruled it was illegal.

State Board of Elections spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson said the state's election law does not specifically address the question.

The political arms of Suffolk’s police unions have spent millions of dollars on local campaigns in recent years, Newsday has reported. Suffolk PBA’s political action committee, the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation, spent $329,600 on the 2017 campaign of Tierney’s predecessor, Tim Sini, Newsday previously reported. Tierney unseated Sini in the 2021 election.

Tierney said the $1,000 donation from the Superior Officer’s Association was made during an Aug. 15 campaign fundraiser at The Refuge in Melville.

He was not aware of the donation from the Deputy Sheriff's PBA political action committee until it was brought to his attention by Newsday, according to Chief Assistant District Attorney Allen Bode.

Tierney also received $5,000 from the Suffolk County Corrections Officer's Association PAC and $1,000 from the county's Detectives Association PAC in 2022, according to state campaign finance reports. His office said he did not have to return those contributions because they were made before the Board of Ethics' initial ruling. 

Tierney had more than $320,000 in his campaign account as of July, according to the most recent filings with the state Board of Elections. He received no donations from police unions during his 2021 campaign, according to campaign finance reports. He will be up for reelection in 2025 and said he plans to review the Board of Ethics' most recent ruling before deciding whether to accept future police union contributions.

“We're going to take it one step at a time,” he said. “I have to look at the entire situation … the equities, appearances and otherwise."

Suffolk County Superior Officers Association President James Gruenfelder said he believes the union made its donation properly.

“We support the DA and the job he is doing here in Suffolk County,” Gruenfelder said. “That’s his decision. I understand his rationale.”

Prosecutors across the country have grappled with the ethics of accepting police union money after demands for police reform following the death in 2020 of George Floyd while he was in the custody of Minneapolis police. Four district attorneys in California that year urged their state and national bar associations, without success, to explicitly state that district attorneys accepting police union money is unethical.

Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly accepted more than $20,000 in police union donations during her 2021 election campaign, according to campaign finance records.

"District Attorney Donnelly follows all policies and advisories as promulgated by the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York and the County Board of Ethics," her spokesman Brendan Brosh said in a statement.

Kate Levine, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, noted in a 2020 academic paper titled “Prosecutors Should Not Take Money From Police Unions" that prosecutors should maintain professional distance from police to gain the public’s trust.

"I would certainly vote for the DA who's not being funded by the police union if I wanted someone who I thought was going to be fair and impartial when it came to the police,” she told Newsday. 

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