Nassau committee approves borrowing $45M to pay exonerated pair
A Nassau legislative committee reluctantly voted Monday to borrow $45 million to pay a court judgment won by two men exonerated in the 1984 rape and murder of a Lynbrook teenager.
The Rules Committee voted unanimously to move the bonding authorization to the full legislature but argued the county should instead use cash set aside by the previous administration to cover the settlement amount.
Members of both the GOP majority and Democratic minority said support for the measure to pay the judgment was far from guaranteed.
Nassau has until Feb. 7 to comply with a court order requiring it to pay $36 million in damages, as well as legal fees and interest, to John Restivo and Dennis Halstead. The deadline comes after the U.S. Supreme Court this month declined to hear Nassau’s appeal of the 2014 award.
The men spent 18 years in prison for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco but were released in 2003 after the discovery of DNA evidence exonerating them.
Nassau is not disputing its obligation to pay the men but disagrees on the funding source.
In 2016, former County Executive Edward Mangano set aside $45 million in a restricted account to cover the judgment. A federal court had required the county to either reserve cash in a bank account or put up a bond as proof it could pay.
“We put cash aside and it’s been sitting there for 18 months waiting for this moment,” said Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park).
Legis. Steven Rhoads (R-Bellmore) argued that since the county has set aside the money the payment “will have no practical impact on operations of Nassau County whatsoever.”
Deputy County Attorney Conal Denion said County Executive Laura Curran wants to spread the settlement costs over 15 years. Using cash to pay the judgment, Denion said, will create an immediate $45 million deficit, as the money was not accounted for in either the 2017 or 2018 budgets.
“You can take these costs and spread it over years because it’s truly extraordinary,” he said. “No one has seen this much money for one judgment.”
Republicans noted that Curran, a former Baldwin county legislator, voted with fellow Democrats in July 2016 against a GOP measure to borrow to fund the settlement. At the time, Curran said Nassau had enough money in reserves, and in a litigation fund, to finance the award. Borrowing requires 13 votes and Republicans had only 11.
Curran said the circumstances have changed.
“At that time funds were needed to secure the right to appeal the court’s decision, not to pay a final judgment,” Curran said. “If it had been a final judgment last summer I would have supported bonding.”
She added that Nassau needs the $45 million set aside in the fund to ensure that employees and county vendors are paid.
Even if a 13-member supermajority of the legislature approves the bonding at its Jan. 29 meeting, the payment still must clear the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state monitoring board in control of the county’s finances. NIFA, which declined to weigh in on the borrowing request Monday, has rejected past requests by the county to bond for legal settlements.
Nassau Comptroller Jack Schnirman said the county has $46 million in unassigned available fund reserves and that paying the settlement in cash will drain those funds to $1 million.
Mangano had boasted that the county had $200 million in reserves but Schnirman said the bulk of those funds are reserved for specific costs such as tax refunds and debt service.
Also Monday, the Rules Committee, without debate, approved Curran’s appointments of Jared Kasschau as county attorney; Ken Arnold as the commissioner of public works; Eileen Krieb as the head the Parks Department; Robert Troiano as executive director of Traffic and Parking Violations Agency.
The committee also approved Gabriella Castillo to run the Coordinated Agency for Spanish Americans and Richie Kessel to serve on the Industrial Development Agency board. All the appointments must still clear the full legislature.