The Suffolk Board of Ethics did not investigate County Executive Steve Bellone’s letter raising a conflict of interest complaint against a district attorney bureau chief because the allegations occurred before the ethics board was created in 2012, the board’s counsel said Friday.
Bellone’s charges centered on Assistant District Attorney John Scott Prudenti renting his partyboat to defense attorneys with whom he negotiated plea deals. His lawyers said those incidents occurred 20 years ago.
“There’s no provision in the statute to apply retrospective jurisdiction,” said John Gross, the board’s counsel. He added there were other reasons for the board’s inaction, but he declined to provide details because of a court order temporarily barring the release of Prudenti’s financial-disclosure forms.
While Gross said the board took Bellone’s letter “very seriously,” ethics officials said it was not considered a “formal complaint,” because the county executive did not fill out the board’s complaint form. That form requires those making charges to attest to the truth of their statements. After an initial review of Bellone’s letter, Gross added the board decided “no further action be taken.”
Gross and three other board officials testified before county lawmakers for four hours in a sometimes heated session to explain their reasons for denying Newsday’s request for Prudenti’s financial disclosure forms.
The board officials said they had intended to comply with a legislative directive to turn over Prudenti’s financial disclosure forms to the ways and means committee. But state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Santorelli issued a temporary order Thursday. The judge instead ordered the ethics board to deliver the documents Friday to his chamber in a sealed envelope. A final ruling in the case is expected by the end of next week.
Linda Spahr, ethics board chair, also disclosed the county only possesses Prudenti’s forms for seven of the 15 years that were requested. She said the county does not have documents before 2006 because county law only requires documents be kept for seven years. She also said that the board does not have Prudenti’s financial forms for 2015 and 2016 because the district attorney’s office removed bureau chiefs from the list of policy makers required to disclose their finances under the county law.
Later Bellone, in a prepared statement, expressed frustration. “Today’s hearing raised more questions than it answered about why there has been no investigation into the obvious ethics violations by this prosecutor,” he said.
Gross also said the ethics board is in a difficult position as an agency that keeps the financial disclosure records open for public inspection, while the board and its staff are barred by the county ethics law from disclosing confidential information. Gross said violations are a misdemeanors punishable by up to $1,500 in fines.
Because of those provisions, Gross said, “We have an extraordinarily conservative approach to disclosure review.” He added it may be more appropriate for another county agency to keep the disclosure forms and provide public access.
Several lawmakers complained the board is misinterpreting a law they intended to make financial disclosure records open to all. “It makes it appear that you are looking to protect secrecy. . . . It’s just horrible,” said Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).
“There’s a lot of obfuscation going on here,” agreed Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue). “You are carrying out the law in a way that was not the intention of this body.”