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Conservative leader Mike Torres, entangled in Islip dumping scandal, holds six-figure Suffolk job despite convictions

Michael Torres leaves his job at the Board

Michael Torres leaves his job at the Board of Elections in Yaphank, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Islip's Conservative Party leader, entangled in the town's dumping scandal, has a gambling conviction that prevented him from being hired at the county sheriff's department, but not from getting a six-figure position at the Suffolk Board of Elections.

And in January 2013, Michael Torres concealed this conviction when he applied for and got an Islip Town post that nets him another $8,000 a year, records show.

Torres' elections job -- now worth $105,800 -- is the highest-ranking position to be held by a minority party member in Suffolk Board of Elections history, longtime party operatives say. He is currently the only person not a Republican or a Democrat working at the board.

Seven years after his appointment, Torres finds himself linked to a criminal investigation into dumping in the Town of Islip. He was consulted by appointed senior officials in the town's parks department, also Conservative Party members, after community complaints in January led to a partial cleanup at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood, sources with knowledge of the conversations said.

A closer look into Torres' public record shows he began with a minor, low-paying job in Islip Town in 2003 before eventually getting the job at the Board of Elections. By 2010, he had risen to the top of the town's Conservative Party, a post handed off by his political mentor, Edward M. Walsh Jr., the county's party leader.

Torres also serves as county secretary to Walsh, who is under federal investigation for allegedly falsifying time sheets while serving as a county corrections lieutenant, his attorney has said.

Before he went into public service, Torres had two misdemeanor convictions -- one for promoting gambling and one for not having a valid driver's license.

At the time of his gambling arrest, Torres, who estimated he personally lost between $30,000 and $40,000, wrote in a sworn statement: "I realized that what I was doing was breaking the law but I didn't think I would get caught."

Torres initially was charged with a felony for "receiving and accepting more than five (5) bets totaling more than five thousand dollars" for himself and six others. In 1997, he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge.

Torres failed to declare either of these convictions when he filled out a form for the town's assessment review board last year. He checked the "no" box when asked if he had ever been convicted of "any crime" -- either a felony or misdemeanor. The board position lasts until Sept. 30, 2017, and pays an annual salary of $7,875.

Town attorney Robert Cicale said, "The town is unaware of any criminal history of Mr. Torres," adding all town employees are fingerprinted and subject to background checks.

 

Conviction blocks jail job

Interviews with present and former county employees and political figures indicate Torres' name began circulating for a new public job around the start of 2007, when Walsh pushed to have him hired for a position at the Suffolk County jail. That bid failed when a criminal-background check revealed Torres' gambling conviction, according to Alan Otto, the sheriff's department chief of staff at the time.

Walsh had approached Otto seeking to have his Conservative ally appointed a cook at the jail, said Otto, chief of staff for three consecutive sheriffs. Otto said he told Walsh that Torres would still need to qualify with civil service requirements.

Soon after, Walsh asked that Torres be hired instead as a criminal identification technician, according to Otto. Walsh acknowledged Torres had no such experience, but urged Otto to submit the application as if Torres had a disability, using a provision of the county's civil service rules, which would grant such applicants preferential hiring, Otto said. Otto had been publicly honored for hiring disabled people a short time before that.

"Those people, both of them, were absolutely disabled," Otto said of the people he helped get county jobs. "That was not going to be the case in this scenario."

Neither Torres nor Walsh responded to requests for comment.

When Torres showed up in the office to fill out biographical information for the job application, Otto inquired about any criminal history. "He mentioned there was a problem a while ago, nothing serious," Otto said. "He was vague."

Otto sent the application to the personnel investigation bureau within the sheriff's department for its standard criminal background check. "When they came back, I was shocked because the one charge, he was arrested for promoting gambling, it was a felony," Otto said. "He pleaded to a lesser charge but he was initially charged with the felony."

Despite the diminished charge, Otto was unwilling to hire him. Sheriff Vincent DeMarco concurred, Otto said. Otto called Torres to tell him he was not going to be able to hire him because of his criminal background, he said.

"I felt kind of bad for him [Torres] at the time, but working inside the jail, you can't have someone with a record," Otto said. "Plus the fact it was a civil service position, he had to be qualified and there was no way in heck he was. . . . And he wasn't disabled and yet Walsh wanted to pass him off as if he was."

It was then Walsh looked to the Board of Elections.

Harry Withers, then-county GOP leader, acknowledged Torres got a GOP-designated job at the board after Walsh made the request. "All I know is that Torres was absolutely recommended by Walsh. That's the only way he got there," Withers said of Torres' May 2007 appointment.

Application and criminal background checks are not required for jobs at the elections board, officials said. The jobs are not available to the public, but split equally between the two major parties. Asked why he gave up a GOP job at the board to a minor party, Withers said: "The job of any Republican leader is to keep the Conservative Party happy because that's one of the things you need to win elections."

Cathy Richter-Geier, the GOP commissioner at the Board of Elections when Torres was hired, declined to be interviewed when reached by phone last month.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic Party leader both then and now, said: "Walsh has said repeatedly he provides the Conservative line, 95 percent of the time to the Republicans, and that line produces 8 to 14 percent of the vote. Prior to Torres' hiring, he felt it was important to have someone at the Board of Elections."

The current GOP commissioner, Wayne Rogers, said he could not comment on hiring practices at the time or if someone with a known gambling conviction would be precluded from Torres' position today. He confirmed board positions are made by appointment and said he was unaware of Torres' convictions. "That is the first time I'm hearing anything about Mike Torres and any kind of criminal activity," Rogers said in an interview.

 

No formal application

Every county department requires formal applications, with the exception of the Board of Elections, said Alan Schneider, county civil service personnel director. More than $8.6 million is earmarked to be spent this year in salaries and overtime on 123 budgeted permanent positions at the board, according to county figures. This year, Torres' base pay ranks as the fourth-highest-paid title.

Before his job at the Board of Elections, records show Torres was appointed as an automotive parts manager in the Islip Town Department of Public Works. He was hired in April 2003 at $26,463. He was making $47,911 at the town when he resigned on May 7, 2007, to head to his elections post, where he started at $98,475.

Experts say Torres' appointment to the elections board is permissible under state election law, though several watchdog groups acknowledge such appointments bring problems.

"The problem with the Board of Elections is that it is a completely partisan entity dominated by the political parties, answerable only to the political bosses, not to the voters," said Susan Lerner, head of government watchdog group Common Cause New York. Lerner said a minority party member in a high-ranking position at a board of elections is "unusual."

"It indicates the power of the Conservative Party and its fusion status [with Republicans] in certain counties, certainly in Suffolk," Lerner said. "They're in a position to cut deals and to ask for accommodations, either patronage or power accommodations. . . . This is what's really bad about allowing political parties to control our election administration."

In January 2002, Torres, then 28, was pulled over for speeding in Virginia. He was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to have a valid license and also fined for driving 74 mph in a 55-mph zone.

Seven months after starting at the board, Torres was arrested and charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and other traffic violations, according to the criminal complaint.

On Dec. 23, 2007, at 3:45 a.m., Torres was driving home from Lily Flanagan's bar when he was pulled over on Montauk Highway in East Islip, driving 50 mph in a 35-mph zone and crossing a solid white line into the shoulder, according to a police report.

Torres consented to a breath test and registered a 0.13 percent blood-alcohol level, above the 0.08 percent legal limit, the complaint shows. He stated he drank "around 3" Bud Lite beers from midnight until 12:30 a.m. and ingested the painkiller Vicodin at 5 p.m. that day. He pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle with ability impaired by alcohol, an infraction. His license was suspended for 90 days and, as part of his one-year conditional discharge, he completed 70 hours of community service, paid a $500 fine and was ordered to a drinking driver program, court records show.

Sources say the SUV Torres was driving -- a 2001 Lincoln Navigator with Connecticut registration -- was owned by Walsh's brother, Patrick J. Walsh. Torres took over lease payments for the vehicle around the time he began working at the board, the sources said. The vehicle, without plates, was towed from in front of Torres' East Islip home address on Aug. 8, and impounded by the Town of Islip.

Reached on his cellphone, Patrick Walsh, Edward Walsh's younger brother and an East Islip High School friend of Torres who now lives in Colchester, Connecticut, declined to comment.

 

In on dumping talks

Earlier this month, the Suffolk County district attorney's office convened a special grand jury into dumping in Islip and elsewhere on Long Island. Part of the district attorney's criminal probe launched in April involves the government corruption unit, which is investigating why Torres was involved in discussions about the debris' partial cleanup at the park early this year, sources have said.

A dozen town employees from the parks department, who had not been questioned before, were interviewed by detectives in recent weeks.

Officials in Islip's parks department with close ties to Torres and Walsh were quickly ousted after the dumping scandal became public.

The parks department leadership had taken shape after Conservatives -- under Torres' leadership -- delivered 12 percent of the vote for Supervisor Tom Croci's narrow election win in 2011. Torres soon after took a seat on Croci's transition team that led to the appointment for town parks commissioner Joseph Montuori, a Conservative and longtime Walsh ally.

In May, Montuori was forced to resign and his secretary, Brett A. Robinson, also a Conservative, was fired. In addition, Anthony S. Senft, the lone Conservative Party board member and the board's liaison to the parks department when the dumping occurred, was forced to abandon his run for state Senate.

Today, county chairmen for the two major parties -- traditionally the ones who make recommendations for board appointments -- say it might be time to establish a review process for party jobs at the Board of Elections. Both said they were unaware of Torres' criminal past when contacted for this story.

"I'd be open to more a formalized employment screening process at the board that would include consideration of a person's criminal record and education to weigh them for the job," Schaffer said.

Suffolk GOP leader John Jay LaValle said: "There's no question we should have an employment application that enables background checks at the board so that depending on the nature of the conviction, commissioners like other county department heads can make a decision as to whether someone's an appropriate hire."

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