The Suffolk legislature formally directed the county ethics board Thursday to deliver 15 years of financial disclosure forms of a district attorney bureau chief who is under fire for renting his party boat to defense attorneys.
The legislative resolution seeking records of John Scott Prudenti, approved on a 14-4 vote late Wednesday night, went to the board Thursday.
Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyack), Ways and Means Committee chairwoman, also sent a letter calling on ethics officials to testify at a special Oct. 14 committee meeting in Riverhead about their reasons for refusing to make the documents public.
John Gross, board attorney, acknowledged receiving the resolution and the letter and said the “matter is under review.”
County Executive Steve Bellone, who on Wednesday had asked the legislature for immediate action to compel release of the disclosures, praised lawmakers for their vote.
“A supermajority of the . . . legislature sent a very powerful message that a lack of transparency will not be tolerated,” Bellone said.
Bellone has said he wants the documents produced to determine if Prudenti failed to disclose boat rentals to defense attorneys with whom he negotiated plea deals. Bellone said that failure would violate Suffolk’s financial disclosure law, with which District Attorney Thomas Spota has prosecuted others.
Administration aides also expressed concern that Prudenti, 55, could retire with 30 years service as soon as Oct. 20, giving him an annual pension of more than $100,000.
Fleming said her committee’s immediate duty is to “examine the basis for their decision to deny” the request for the documents. “I do not believe our charge is for any sort of investigation of the facts of any of the allegations.”
The latest shot in the war between Bellone and Spota began Monday when Bellone held a news conference criticizing the ethics board’s refusal to make documents available to Newsday to determine if Prudenti disclosed party boat rentals to defense attorneys he dealt with in court. Gross suggested that Bellone could force the release of the forms with a two-thirds majority vote by the legislature. Bellone last spring called for Spota’s resignation, saying he had failed to investigate alleged criminal wrongdoing uncovered in wiretaps.
The district attorney’s office did not return calls for comment by Spota or Prudenti. Earlier this week, Spota called Bellone’s action “a political ploy.”
The legislature voted on the resolution after a 90-minute debate during which lawmakers wrangled over the potential legal repercussions from releasing the documents. “We have an obligation to step in and look at what’s going on,” said Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) a frequent Bellone critic who sponsored the resolution. “It’s time for us to take charge.”
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) opposed the release without first talking to ethics officials about their reasons for the denial. He also warned the documents might only provide general information about income obtained from boat rentals without disclosing to whom Prudenti rented.
Fleming broke the impasse by asking Trotta to change his resolution so that ethics officials would deliver Prudenti’s documents when they appear next week before the committee.
Still unclear is whether the disclosure forms will be released publicly. Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) noted that the ethics provision giving the legislature the power to compel production of documents is in a section of law labeled “confidentiality.” That section was included after the former ethics commission, which was abolished and replaced by the current board, refused to give lawmakers documents during an inquiry into its activities.
The board denied access to Prudenti’s disclosures, citing a federal law enforcement exemption, privacy and an ongoing review that makes the documents confidential.
Legislative counsel George Nolan said he disagreed with the denial. He said the disclosures are public documents, there is no law enforcement exemption and that the ethics board only has the power to redact specific items and only at the request of filers for privacy reasons. Nolan also said he believes the confidentiality provision of the ethics law applies only to the board and ethics staff, not lawmakers.
Several lawmakers said ethics officials’ appearance before the Ways and Means Committee could occur largely in executive session. Nolan and County Attorney Dennis Brown could not say under what circumstances the forms could be made public or kept private.
Newsday has filed a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the documents.
“We are in unchartered waters,” Nolan said.