Newsday politics reporter Vera Chinese and NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland look at Suffolk County's strategy in shelling out large sums to settle lawsuits. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Suffolk County paid out $29.5 million in 2023 to settle lawsuits — including at least $13.1 million in cases involving police or prosecutorial actions — a nearly fourfold increase compared with 2022, records obtained by Newsday show.

Settlement payouts reached $29,494,636 last year, compared with $7.7 million in 2022, according to documents obtained by Newsday through a Freedom of Information Law request along with the annual budget report of the Suffolk County Legislature's Office of Budget Review.

The county paid out $10.7 million in settlements in 2019, $2.7 million in 2020 and $17.9 million in 2021, when $16 million went to Keith Bush, who spent 33 years in prison for a 1975 North Bellport murder he did not commit.

Suffolk officials offered no detailed explanation for the large increase in settlement payouts last year.

But Suffolk County Executive Edward P. Romaine, a Republican who took office in January, has blamed former Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, for not resolving lawsuits earlier in his 12-year tenure. Romaine said he has made clearing pending cases a priority in order to strengthen the county's credit rating.

“The previous administration was loath to settle lawsuits, and they had many,” Romaine said in his state of the county address on May 9. “Because they have not settled some of them, we're now in the wonderful position of trying to settle these lawsuits.”

Bellone, who left office in December after three terms, declined to comment. 

Romaine says to the extent possible he intends to use county reserves to pay settlements. Reserve funds covered all settlements in 2022 and 2023, when Bellone still was in office, county officials said. In prior years, Suffolk had relied primarily on borrowing to cover settlements.

In Bellone's final two years, the county was flush with cash due in part to about $500 million in federal pandemic aid and higher-than-expected sales tax revenue. The county has about $65 million in a reserve fund to cover legal claims and insurance.

“The county will continue to use the reserve funds in lieu of borrowing until the funds have been exhausted or there is a settlement that exceeds available appropriations,” Romaine spokesman Mike Martino said in a statement to Newsday.

Tallies for Nassau County settlements were not immediately available; Newsday has submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for the information.

The county provided yearly settlement payouts dating to 2007. Only in 2017, when settlements cost the county $20.8 million, and in 2018, when Suffolk paid out $17 million, did settlement payments approach the 2023 total.

The 2023 payouts by Suffolk included $3.85 million in September to Shawn Lawrence, whose 2012 conviction for second-degree murder was vacated in 2018 because of prosecutorial misconduct. State Supreme Court Justice William Condon had found Suffolk prosecutors withheld 45 items of evidence from Lawrence’s defense attorneys. Lawrence had served 6 years of a 75-year-to-life sentence when the charges were thrown out.

Lawrence was charged in April on unrelated felony weapons charges and has pleaded not guilty. Lawrence declined to comment through his attorney, Amy Marion, a partner with the law firm Abrams Fensterman LLP in Lake Success. 

Other large payouts in 2023 included:

$1,5 million to John Oliva, a former Suffolk County police detective whose conviction for leaking information to a Newsday reporter was overturned in 2021, $1 million to Thomas Moroughan, a Huntington Station cabdriver Suffolk police arrested wrongfully after an off-duty Nassau police officer had shot him during an alcohol-fueled road rage incident, Nassau County settled its share of the case for $2 million, $1,7 million to a Shoreham girl who was 4 when a Suffolk County bus hit and injured her and her mother in Middle Island in 2017, $1,75 million to the family of Scott Foster, 46, of Manorville, who was struck fatally in 2008 by a vehicle driven by a man fleeing Suffolk County police, $5 million to a Hicksville boy, who was 8 when he was hit by a Suffolk County police cruiser on a Deer Park sidewalk in 2014, Another vehicle had hit the cruiser, propelling it off the street,.

Records show only one $1 million payout in 2022: $1.5 million to the family of Craig Schiffer, of East Meadow, who died after a Suffolk police cruiser hit him as he crossed a street in Islip in 2014.

Total payouts are expected to rise to more than $35 million in 2024 due, in part, to two recent settlements of more than $10 million each.

The family of Kenny Lazo will get $20 million in an agreement reached under Romaine's administration. Lazo, of Bay Shore, died after he was beaten by county police in 2008. His settlement came seven months after a jury had awarded his family $35 million and the county sought to overturn the judgment. Half the payout will be covered by the county’s insurance carrier, county officials said.

Rodolfo Taylor, formerly of Central Islip, will get $12.8 million under an agreement reached at the end of Bellone's tenure. Taylor spent nearly 26 years in prison for a series of gas station robberies but later had his conviction overturned.

Some of the largest pending claims focus on Suffolk's use of sewer funds. Romaine said by year's end he hopes to resolve a 2015 lawsuit filed by ratepayers of the Southwest Sewer District alleging they were overcharged by at least $260 million.

Romaine also pointed to a suit filed on behalf of the nonprofit Long Island Pine Barrens Society that demands the county return $198 million diverted from a sewer fund to help finance county operations.

“We're going to settle these suits probably in the next year or so,” Romaine said. “If not, we'll litigate them out.”

Romaine said he has placed a priority on resolving settlements in order to boost county bond ratings. The cases are “important to settle that because that affects our ability to get bond upgradings,” Romaine told Newsday.

Earlier this year, two Wall Street credit rating agencies issued bond upgrades for Suffolk while a third held steady, citing the county's conservative budgeting practices and robust reserves. Still, the ratings from Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s Investor Services all are several rungs below the highest possible municipal credit rating.

The agencies, each with their own scoring system, provide independent analyses of the county's finances. The scores affect interest rates when the county, which has about $1.9 billion in debt, borrows for capital projects.

Stephen Louis, distinguished fellow at the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School and a former adviser to five New York City mayoral administrations, said aggressively settling cases is a valid strategy for improving municipal credit ratings.

“When you’re dealing with budgets, and therefore dealing with borrowing and credit ratings, the more certainty the better,” Louis told Newsday.

But Louis warned municipalities should be careful to distinguish between cases they are likely to lose.

“Some cases you may want to go to the mat on and never settle … and other cases, you might say, we know we're going to lose, just clear the books of it, pay it out,” Louis said. “It's kind of like ripping the Band-Aid off and being done with it.”

Suffolk County paid out $29.5 million in 2023 to settle lawsuits — including at least $13.1 million in cases involving police or prosecutorial actions — a nearly fourfold increase compared with 2022, records obtained by Newsday show.

Settlement payouts reached $29,494,636 last year, compared with $7.7 million in 2022, according to documents obtained by Newsday through a Freedom of Information Law request along with the annual budget report of the Suffolk County Legislature's Office of Budget Review.

The county paid out $10.7 million in settlements in 2019, $2.7 million in 2020 and $17.9 million in 2021, when $16 million went to Keith Bush, who spent 33 years in prison for a 1975 North Bellport murder he did not commit.

Suffolk officials offered no detailed explanation for the large increase in settlement payouts last year.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Suffolk County paid out $29.5 million in 2023 to settle lawsuits, including $13.1 million in cases involving police or prosecutorial actions.
  • That represented a nearly fourfold increase compared with 2022, when payouts totaled $7.7 million, according to documents obtained by Newsday.
  • Suffolk paid out $10.7 million in settlements in 2019, $2.7 million in 2020 and $17.9 million in 2021.

But Suffolk County Executive Edward P. Romaine, a Republican who took office in January, has blamed former Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, for not resolving lawsuits earlier in his 12-year tenure. Romaine said he has made clearing pending cases a priority in order to strengthen the county's credit rating.

“The previous administration was loath to settle lawsuits, and they had many,” Romaine said in his state of the county address on May 9. “Because they have not settled some of them, we're now in the wonderful position of trying to settle these lawsuits.”

Bellone, who left office in December after three terms, declined to comment. 

Romaine says to the extent possible he intends to use county reserves to pay settlements. Reserve funds covered all settlements in 2022 and 2023, when Bellone still was in office, county officials said. In prior years, Suffolk had relied primarily on borrowing to cover settlements.

In Bellone's final two years, the county was flush with cash due in part to about $500 million in federal pandemic aid and higher-than-expected sales tax revenue. The county has about $65 million in a reserve fund to cover legal claims and insurance.

“The county will continue to use the reserve funds in lieu of borrowing until the funds have been exhausted or there is a settlement that exceeds available appropriations,” Romaine spokesman Mike Martino said in a statement to Newsday.

Tallies for Nassau County settlements were not immediately available; Newsday has submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for the information.

Hefty increase in payouts

The county provided yearly settlement payouts dating to 2007. Only in 2017, when settlements cost the county $20.8 million, and in 2018, when Suffolk paid out $17 million, did settlement payments approach the 2023 total.

The 2023 payouts by Suffolk included $3.85 million in September to Shawn Lawrence, whose 2012 conviction for second-degree murder was vacated in 2018 because of prosecutorial misconduct. State Supreme Court Justice William Condon had found Suffolk prosecutors withheld 45 items of evidence from Lawrence’s defense attorneys. Lawrence had served 6 years of a 75-year-to-life sentence when the charges were thrown out.

Lawrence was charged in April on unrelated felony weapons charges and has pleaded not guilty. Lawrence declined to comment through his attorney, Amy Marion, a partner with the law firm Abrams Fensterman LLP in Lake Success. 

Other large payouts in 2023 included:

  • $1.5 million to John Oliva, a former Suffolk County police detective whose conviction for leaking information to a Newsday reporter was overturned in 2021.
  • $1 million to Thomas Moroughan, a Huntington Station cabdriver Suffolk police arrested wrongfully after an off-duty Nassau police officer had shot him during an alcohol-fueled road rage incident. Nassau County settled its share of the case for $2 million.
  • $1.7 million to a Shoreham girl who was 4 when a Suffolk County bus hit and injured her and her mother in Middle Island in 2017.
  • $1.75 million to the family of Scott Foster, 46, of Manorville, who was struck fatally in 2008 by a vehicle driven by a man fleeing Suffolk County police.
  • $5 million to a Hicksville boy, who was 8 when he was hit by a Suffolk County police cruiser on a Deer Park sidewalk in 2014. Another vehicle had hit the cruiser, propelling it off the street.

Records show only one $1 million payout in 2022: $1.5 million to the family of Craig Schiffer, of East Meadow, who died after a Suffolk police cruiser hit him as he crossed a street in Islip in 2014.

More in 2024

Total payouts are expected to rise to more than $35 million in 2024 due, in part, to two recent settlements of more than $10 million each.

The family of Kenny Lazo will get $20 million in an agreement reached under Romaine's administration. Lazo, of Bay Shore, died after he was beaten by county police in 2008. His settlement came seven months after a jury had awarded his family $35 million and the county sought to overturn the judgment. Half the payout will be covered by the county’s insurance carrier, county officials said.

Rodolfo Taylor, formerly of Central Islip, will get $12.8 million under an agreement reached at the end of Bellone's tenure. Taylor spent nearly 26 years in prison for a series of gas station robberies but later had his conviction overturned.

Some of the largest pending claims focus on Suffolk's use of sewer funds. Romaine said by year's end he hopes to resolve a 2015 lawsuit filed by ratepayers of the Southwest Sewer District alleging they were overcharged by at least $260 million.

Romaine also pointed to a suit filed on behalf of the nonprofit Long Island Pine Barrens Society that demands the county return $198 million diverted from a sewer fund to help finance county operations.

“We're going to settle these suits probably in the next year or so,” Romaine said. “If not, we'll litigate them out.”

Effect on bond ratings

Romaine said he has placed a priority on resolving settlements in order to boost county bond ratings. The cases are “important to settle that because that affects our ability to get bond upgradings,” Romaine told Newsday.

Earlier this year, two Wall Street credit rating agencies issued bond upgrades for Suffolk while a third held steady, citing the county's conservative budgeting practices and robust reserves. Still, the ratings from Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s Investor Services all are several rungs below the highest possible municipal credit rating.

The agencies, each with their own scoring system, provide independent analyses of the county's finances. The scores affect interest rates when the county, which has about $1.9 billion in debt, borrows for capital projects.

Stephen Louis, distinguished fellow at the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School and a former adviser to five New York City mayoral administrations, said aggressively settling cases is a valid strategy for improving municipal credit ratings.

“When you’re dealing with budgets, and therefore dealing with borrowing and credit ratings, the more certainty the better,” Louis told Newsday.

But Louis warned municipalities should be careful to distinguish between cases they are likely to lose.

“Some cases you may want to go to the mat on and never settle … and other cases, you might say, we know we're going to lose, just clear the books of it, pay it out,” Louis said. “It's kind of like ripping the Band-Aid off and being done with it.”

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