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Suffolk DA probes Sandy work in Brookhaven, Islip, Babylon

Debris picked up in front of a home

Debris picked up in front of a home on Wellwood Avenue in Lindenhurst. (Nov. 7, 2012) Credit: James Carbone

The Suffolk County district attorney's office has issued subpoenas to three towns as Sandy-related investigations into how tens of millions of taxpayers' dollars for cleanup was spent on Long Island widen beyond Nassau County.

Officials at the three towns -- Brookhaven, Islip and Babylon -- confirmed receipt of the grand jury subpoenas. The sources said the district attorney's investigation will widen into at least two more Suffolk towns -- Huntington and Smithtown.

Under the subpoenas, municipal officials must produce records kept to comply with state labor law on "prevailing wage" provisions and whether workers were paid legal wages, the sources said. The sources also said the investigation is focusing on the political process used in selecting debris-removal contractors.

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota confirmed Monday that his office began investigating local governments in early February. The district attorney's office is using auditors from county Comptroller Joseph Sawicki's office as part of its probe, he said.

Monday, criminal investigators served subpoenas in the Town of Brookhaven and Town of Babylon. A subpoena was served in the Town of Islip on March 12, according to a source. The towns must produce documents by April 19, a source said.

Federal records show that as of last week across Long Island, towns, villages and the counties had undertaken projects totaling $247.5 million, for which $178.1 million has been disbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice also is investigating how county officials entered into emergency contracts with companies doing storm cleanup.

Three weeks ago, Rice's office issued subpoenas to Nassau County and Looks Great Services Inc. of Huntington seeking documents related to $70 million in cleanup work that company did after the October storm, Newsday has reported. Nassau investigators expanded that probe by issuing subpoenas to A-H Construction and Renu Restoration and Contracting. A Looks Great official has said the firm is being fully cooperative with authorities, while a Renu official said that company has never done work for Nassau. Officials with A-H Construction have not responded to calls for comment.

The sources said Monday that Looks Great has done storm cleanup work in at least one Suffolk town.

New York State was declared a federal disaster area a day after the Oct. 29 storm hit. In Sandy's wake, millions of dollars in federal relief began flowing into 13 counties, including Nassau and Suffolk.


Spota eyes ethics, wages

In Suffolk, prosecutors want to know how that money was spent, the political process that picked contractors, and whether procedures laid out in New York State General Municipal law as it relates to how government picks contractors were followed, the sources said.

The state Department of Labor requires that contractors and subcontractors pay the prevailing rate of wage and fringe benefits to all workers under a public works contract. Employers are required to pay the prevailing wage rate set for the locality where the work is being performed, according to the Labor Department's website.

The pay rates are set by law and vary from county to county. The law also requires that all contracts between a government entity and a contractor must contain wage schedules. Willful falsification of the payroll certification can lead to criminal prosecution, according to the sources.

Conviction for falsifying certified payroll records carries a maximum penalty of from 1 to 3 years in prison; failure to pay the proper wage -- depending on the amount at stake -- can be a felony carrying a 5- to 15-year prison term.

State law also requires that contractors file certified payrolls for the work done and each municipality must have a person who receives and reviews the payrolls to ensure the correct pay rate is cited and that employees' names, days and hours worked are listed and signed by the contractor. The contractor must also pay health benefits or the equivalent in wages.

The City of Long Beach, which was ravaged by Sandy, has received $24.3 million from FEMA for its $32.4 million debris removal. In Babylon, debris removal so far has cost around $5.4 million, for which FEMA has said it will pay about $4 million. In Islip, the town has conducted $12.7 million in debris-removal operations, federal records show, for which FEMA has agreed to pay $9.5 million. Brookhaven has so far conducted $8.28 million in debris removal, with FEMA committing $6.2 million. Under existing FEMA regulations, the agency pays 75 percent of an approved project's cost. The municipality pays the rest.


3 Suffolk towns' responses

Brookhaven, Babylon and Islip said they would cooperate with Spota's probe.

"We are happy to cooperate with District Attorney Spota's request for information regarding contracted work following Hurricane Sandy," said Babylon Supervisor Richard Schaffer. "District Attorney Spota has been a leader in ensuring a fair workplace environment and protecting Suffolk County taxpayers."

Mike Walsh, deputy town attorney for Islip, said the town provided Suffolk prosecutors with about four boxes for documents after receiving the subpoena last month. "I don't know exactly what they are looking for," he said. "It seems like they're making sure the contractor was paying prevailing wage, but that would be speculation on my part."

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine said: "The town is cooperating and we welcome the oversight of the DA's office."

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