A new lawsuit seeks to force Suffolk County district attorney employees to pay back $3.25 million in bonuses that were funded with asset forfeiture money.
The suit, filed by attorney John Ray in state Supreme Court in Riverhead late last month, seeks to compel Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and County Comptroller John Kennedy to use their powers to get the money back, and for the district attorney employees to return the bonuses.
Ray, of Miller Place, also has filed a notice of claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — seeking unspecified punitive damages and lawyer’s fees from the county and employees who received the bonuses.
Suffolk district attorney employees have received $3.25 million in bonuses since 2012, records show. The money came from assets seized during criminal investigations, according to the district attorney’s office.
The payments were not budgeted or approved by the Suffolk County Legislature, although the district attorney’s office said that is unnecessary.
District attorney spokesman Robert Clifford did not respond to requests for comment. Previously, the office has defended the payments as stipends paid to attorneys who don’t get overtime.
Ray said in an interview that a portion of asset forfeiture funds is intended to compensate victims of crimes, such as some of his clients.
He said he was appalled when he read in Newsday that the district attorney’s office justified the bonuses because of low morale.
District Attorney Division Chief Edward Heilig has said the bonuses were initiated to keep up with rapidly escalating county police salaries and were based on factors including merit and working more than 35 hours a week.
“When they’re making $150,000 to $170,000 a year and complaining they work more than 35 hours a week, that’s an atrocity,” Ray said.
Bellone spokesman Jason Elan said, “The county executive agrees that the bonuses should not have been paid.”
Elan would not say whether Bellone thinks the money should be returned. However, Elan noted that Bellone has asked state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to provide an opinion about the legality of the bonuses.
Kennedy did not respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit says the bonuses boost pensions of the employees, adding to costs for state and county taxpayers.
The lawsuit also says the use of seized assets to fund bonuses creates an incentive for prosecutors to go after “potential defendants who have attractive assets” rather than “impoverished potential and actual defendants.”
The county has until Dec. 21 to respond to the lawsuit.
The legislature’s Public Safety Committee is scheduled to consider a bill Thursday that would require legislative oversight of asset forfeiture spending over $1,000.