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Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart defends Salvatore Gigante's promotion

Suffolk police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, center, at the

Suffolk police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, center, at the county Legislature's committee meeting in Riverhead. Photo Credit: Newsday/Rachelle Blidner

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart on Wednesday called Sgt. Salvatore Gigante the “best person” for a promotion to head a new unit of police detectives in the district attorney's office.

Hart also told a legislative committee that Gigante's uncle, Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante, had removed himself from the selection process.

But Det. Sgt. Jeffrey Walker, a 25-year police veteran who had complained anonymously as a whistleblower about the same job, testified that when he interviewed for the post, Det. Lt. Charles Lohmann, commander of the DA's police detective squad, told him, “I was told the way it is, Jeff. Politics. You’re not getting the job.”

Lohmann, in a statement released Wednesday night, said, “No candidates were told that they wouldn’t be considered or that the selection was preordained,” and a final decision was up to a “higher authority.” 

A second sergeant, Tulio Serrata, with two decades' experience including stints in homicide and anti-gang units, also testified Wednesday before the government operations and personnel committee.

“Why wasn’t I afforded the opportunity to interview for the position in the district attorney’s unit?” Serrata asked. Serrata was promoted to detective sergeant in March and is assigned to the Fourth Precinct.

The sometimes-emotional exchanges occurred during a more than 2-1/2-hour meeting of the legislative committee.

Later, the committee tabled several resolutions sponsored by Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), including one directing Hart to rescind Gigante’s appointment. 

Salvatore Gigante's promotion has stirred controversy because the county's nepotism law requires that relatives of high-level county officials get legislative approval to be hired or promoted to non-civil service jobs.

The legislature, under the county whistleblower law, allowed Gregory to hire outside counsel for a preliminary inquiry into Gigante's promotion.

The attorney, Joel Weiss, said in a report released last week that Gigante's promotion violated police department rules and county and state law, and that Gigante was the least qualified applicant for the job. When selected, Gigante had four months' experience as a sergeant. He has two years' experience as a detective, and 12 years with the department, according to Weiss' report.

The post generates significant overtime that can make the salary more than $300,000 a year. 

Hart and aides to County Executive Steve Bellone dispute the assertions. They said Weiss issued  a report that was intended to be sealed, without talking to relevant individuals. Gregory and Weiss said police officials refused to provide information.  

Gigante was transferred to the DA’s office Jan. 2, but has remained in his title of sergeant without a pay raise. The Superior Officer Association has filed a grievance, saying only a detective sergeant can supervise detectives.

The Bellone administration withdrew the nepotism resolution for Gigante March 19, after the U.S. Justice Department indicated it was reviewing the issue. Hart said a new nepotism resolution for Gigante was filed Wednesday.

Hart, in her testimony, said she was “stunned and appalled” by Gregory’s recent public criticism of the selection process. She called his remarks, “inaccurate, irresponsible and frankly offensive,” and said they have “cast a cloud over the police department,” damaging public confidence and public safety.

Hart said Chief of Department Stuart Cameron signed Salvatore Gigante's transfer order, not Gerard Gigante.

She said Salvatore Gigante was the only applicant with experience in the district attorney's office, but she did not interview him herself. She said she was “satisfied with the justification that was made” by Lohmann for his selection.

Hart said it was ““completely permissible” to move Gigante before legislative action on the nepotism resolution because he did not “reap a financial advantage” of a higher salary. “We cannot leave ... important positions unfilled while we wait for a resolution to make its way through the [legislative] calendar,” she said.

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) suggested it might have been “a cleaner process” if the promotion were delayed until the nepotism bill was approved. But he said, “I see your point. They need a supervisor there.”

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) criticized Hart for failing to respond to Weiss’ inquiry. “It’s almost an admission something is wrong and you don’t want to confront it,” he said. Trotta said the issue was “killing the morale in the police department.” 

Hart testified earlier it was difficult to respond Weiss' inquiry because there was no specific public complaint or allegations. “I don’t think anyone in the right mind would walk into an attorney’s office to be interrogated by a lawyer without knowing what the parameters are,” she said.

Bellone, in a statement, commended Hart “for providing the relevant facts … and standing up for the hardworking” police officers, in her testimony.

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