Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine said his administration will institute...

Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine said his administration will institute opioid settlement reforms as a county committee begins to make decisions about new disbursements. Credit: Tom Lambui

Suffolk County will reform its process for disbursing tens of millions of dollars in opioid settlement money to increase transparency, potentially fund Suffolk County programs that have been excluded and back legislation that would limit officials from taking jobs at agencies they fund, County Executive Ed Romaine said.

The planned reforms come on the heels of Newsday reports that found the county committee that made decisions on disbursing opioid settlement funds during the Bellone administration did not keep minutes of meetings or records of members’ votes, and the meetings were not public.

Suffolk has awarded more than $57 million in opioid settlement funds, and the county is expected to receive more than $200 million over the next two decades from settlements reached with various pharmaceutical companies, distributors and retailers.

Romaine in an interview Wednesday told Newsday his administration will institute the opioid settlement reforms as the county committee begins to make decisions about new disbursements. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine said the county will reform its process for disbursing tens of millions of dollars in opioid settlement money to increase transparency.
  • He also said the county would look at potentially funding county programs that have been excluded and support legislation that would limit officials from taking jobs at agencies they fund.
  • The planned reforms come on the heels of Newsday reports that found the county committee that made decisions on disbursing opioid settlement funds during the Bellone administration did not keep minutes of meetings or records of members’ votes, and the meetings were not public.

“We are going to have a different system,” he said. “If anything, the past has been instructive because it tells us what we should do and maybe what we should not do.”

Newsday previously reported that former County Executive Steve Bellone took a position at Northwell Health, which was awarded more than $3.4 million from the fund, while his chief of staff, Ryan Attard, was named chief operating officer at the Family & Children’s Association, which was awarded more than $1.8 million.

Both took the positions after leaving county employment, and said funds were awarded long before they took their new jobs. Both have said protocols are in place to recuse them from county funding matters.

Romaine said he has asked Suffolk Legis. Chad Lennon to “look at ethics legislation to see if we can clean it up because you really should not be able to give out money and then go to work for the agency you gave money to for at least a year.”

He added, “There should be some type of restriction so that there’s some confidence that the money is being given for legitimate purposes and not to have a landing spot for someone.”

Separately Wednesday, Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy said he has filed complaints with the Suffolk County Ethics Board against four former county officials who obtained jobs with entities receiving county funding. Kennedy previously announced he'd launched a formal audit of the program. 

Those officials include Bellone, Attard, former Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter, and former Information Technology Commissioner Scott Mastellon. Baird-Streeter was named chief executive of the Health & Welfare Council, while Mastellon took a managing director post at SVAM, formerly a tech contractor to the county. None has been accused of any wrongdoing. 

Kim Como, a spokeswoman for the Family & Children's Association, said, “We have not seen the County Executive's proposed reforms, nor the Comptroller's Ethics Board complaints and therefore have nothing to add at this time.” She previously told Newsday that Attard “will be recusing herself from any subsequent funding that we apply for from Suffolk County.”

Baird-Streeter and Mastellon didn't respond to requests for comment. Mastellon previously filed a recusal letter that would restrict his dealings on SVAM matters while employed by the county. 

Bellone has said his taking a position at Northwell “did not require submission of a recusal form because I was not personally or directly dealing with Northwell Health or personally involved in any of their business dealings as a county official at the time.”

Baird-Streeter said previously that her hiring by the Health & Welfare Council in January and the county awarding that agency $75,000 last year were unrelated events.

But Kennedy said he has “strong concerns” about the manner in which the former officials got jobs after leaving the administration.

“It undermines the public confidence in the independence of government,” he said.

In response, Bellone said Wednesday, “Our administration ended nearly four months ago, but John Kennedy just can’t let go of the baseless, partisan attacks and actually focus on serving the interests of Suffolk County taxpayers.”

Suffolk County's ethics law bars county employees from soliciting or negotiating employment with an entity doing business with the employee’s department. It also prohibits employees from getting paid after leaving the county in connection with a matter in which they “participated personally and substantially as a public servant.”

Romaine said the county is considering a matrix-based point system for awarding funds for future rounds of payments, and that there would be at least two public hearings on the committees’ funding decisions.

He said the Suffolk will consider using the opioid settlement money to fund county programs that some say are vastly underfunded for helping both citizens and county employees with addiction issues.

“We’re not going to ignore the county,” he said. “There’s a health department that runs methadone clinics and other things. There’s an employee medical plan for some of our employees who have this problem and need assistance. I don’t want to exclude the county.”

Romaine said recorded minutes of opioid committee meetings “will be made public and there will be two public hearings at a minimum,” one in Riverhead, the other in Hauppauge, to keep the process “transparent.”

Jon Kaiman, former deputy county executive, said in an email that the Bellone administration was “one of the first municipalities in the country to put together a plan and process for getting urgently needed money out the door to agencies and organizations on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.” 

Kaiman added, “I am happy to see that the new county executive is putting forward a plan that builds upon that effort in a manner that meets the goals of his administration and the critical needs of those impacted by opioids.”

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