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Steve Bellone, Tim Sini oppose Suffolk asset forfeiture bill, lawmakers say

Opponents of the bill say legislative approval for spending of asset forfeiture money is unnecessary.

Suffolk legislator Rob Calarco, speaks at the Suffolk

Suffolk legislator Rob Calarco, speaks at the Suffolk County legislature in Smithtown, Nov. 21, 2017. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Incoming Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini, County Executive Steve Bellone and law enforcement unions are lobbying to kill a bill that would require legislative oversight of money seized by county law enforcement agencies, county lawmakers said.

The proposal, sponsored by Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), deputy presiding officer, was introduced Nov. 8 after the disclosure that $3.25 million in bonuses had been paid to county prosecutors since 2012 using asset forfeiture funds.

Legislators said Bellone, Sini and members of law enforcement unions have argued over the past week that legislative approval for spending is unnecessary with former District Attorney Thomas Spota out of office.

Opponents of the bill also have expressed concern that requiring legislative approval would slow spending on training and equipment, also funded with asset forfeiture money.

Spota left office in October after his indictment on federal charges of obstructing an investigation into former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke’s assault of a suspect in 2012. Spota has pleaded not guilty

Bellone was a leading critic of the bonuses, which Spota authorized, because they were not approved by the county legislature.

Sini criticized the practice during his campaign for district attorney and said that, if elected, he would not use forfeiture funds for bonuses.

Spota’s office said at the time that state law does not require legislative approval.

In a statement Wednesday, Bellone spokesman Jason Elan said, “More time is needed to work out the details of the legislation.” Bellone was not available for comment.

Sini did not respond to requests for comment.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), confirmed the lobbying by Sini, but said he nonetheless supports Calarco’s legislation.

“You can’t be against this bill if you were against some of the spending that had transpired. It’s the outcry [over the bonuses] that led to the bill that’s before us,” Gregory said.

Calarco, who confirmed a conversation with Bellone, said Wednesday he planned to move forward with the proposal, although he said he’s still open to suggestions for revisions.

“We need to have a role in this process,” said Calarco. “It’s a substantial amount of money that is off budget.”

Both Sini and Bellone are Democrats.

The proposal would require that expenditures of more than $1,000 be approved by the legislature’s Public Safety Committee and would ban the use of asset forfeiture funds for bonuses.

The bill is scheduled for a vote Thursday in the Public Safety Committee. It would have to be approved by the full legislature on Tuesday, the last meeting of the year, or else it dies.

The legislature passed a law earlier this year requiring the county comptroller to audit asset forfeiture funds every two years and requiring an annual report on expenditures.

Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said, after speaking to Sini and police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron, she’s concerned about whether spending can be approved fast enough.

“Now, on the other side, I do want to know how much we’re getting in asset forfeiture and where it’s going. That information is not being made available,” she said.

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), minority leader, said he opposed Calarco’s bill.

“I don’t want to tie the hands of law enforcement,” he said.

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