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Defense wants Sini's office removed from Evelyn Rodriguez case

Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini, seen with Evelyn

Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini, seen with Evelyn Rodriguez, fields questions during a news conference in Hauppauge on Feb. 7, 2018. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini and his office should not be allowed to prosecute the woman who ran over and killed anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez because Sini had "an extremely close personal and professional relationship" with the victim, according to a defense motion filed in the case.

The attorney for defendant AnnMarie Drago, 58, of Patchogue, wants the extent of Sini's relationship with Rodriguez fully disclosed and argued that a special prosecutor should replace Sini's office on the case. Drago is charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of Rodriguez and faces lesser charges related to the destruction of a memorial to Rodriguez' daughter, Kayla Cuevas. Rodriguez, 50, was run over Sept. 14 while arguing with Drago about the memorial on a Brentwood cul-de-sac.

The motion by defense attorney Stephen Kunken of Commack will be discussed Wednesday in state Supreme Court before Justice Fernando Camacho.

"There should be a public airing of the issue," Kunken said. Not only the defense, but the public has a right to know the extent of the relationship, he said.

A spokeswoman for Sini said the office will oppose Kunken's motion. She cited an earlier decision in the case by Camacho on an unrelated issue to establish “that this office has handled the case with the utmost integrity.”

In denying the release of grand jury minutes sought by Kunken earlier this year, Camacho said the prosecution "did a remarkable job to bend over backward to make sure the grand jury was not influenced by the media coverage in the case or sympathy for the victim, Evelyn Rodriguez." 

Kunken emphasized in this motion that there was nothing wrong with Sini — first as police commissioner and then as district attorney — reaching out to Rodriguez after her daughter was murdered, apparently in an MS-13 gang dispute. 

"His close personal and professional relationship with her, I believe, was the reason he was planning to attend the memorial vigil which was apparently going to be held later that day," Kunken wrote. "The fact that he felt that Ms. Rodriguez could provide an important liaison with a segment of the community, and that she could serve an important role on his transition team, seems reasonable and even desirable under the circumstances."

But that relationship makes it inappropriate for Sini and his office to prosecute the case, Kunken argued.

In addition to serving on Sini's transition committee, Kunken noted that Rodriguez also had input in Sini's gang-fighting efforts. She amounted, he said, to an unpaid member of his staff.

"It is clear from the enormous publicity, and the reaction of the community on and following Sept. 14, 2018, that this has become personal to Mr. Sini, affecting his standing in that community and its importance to his future political life," Kunken wrote. 

In a formal discovery demand, Kunken previously had asked for documents and transcripts illustrating the extent of the relationship between Sini and Rodriguez. Kunken also sent a letter to Sini earlier, explaining why he believed Sini should remove himself from the case. 

Kunken said he got no response.

In his letter, Kunken told Sini that Rodriguez' role on the transition committee may mean she had a say in hiring Brendan Ahern, the chief of the Vehicular Crimes Bureau, which is handling the case against Drago. He also reminded Sini that he spoke at Rodriguez's funeral and had her by his side at news conferences about gangs.

All of this presents a conflict of interest that can be solved only by the appointment of a special prosecutor, Kunken argued.

Prosecutors have said Drago was trying to sell her mother's home and was irritated by the memorial set up in front of the house in honor of Kayla. She felt the collection of cards, candles, photos, signs, balloons and an elaborate floral arrangement on a table where the victims had been found two years earlier would discourage home buyers, prosecutors said, so she stuffed as much of it as she could in a garbage can, popping balloons and smashing vases to make them fit.

Drago threw the rest, including the table, in the back of her Nissan Rogue, prosecutors have said. A neighbor alerted Rodriguez to what was happening and she and her partner, Freddy Cuevas, Kayla's dad, rushed to the scene, prosecutors said.

When they got there, Rodriguez and Cuevas saw Drago and her boyfriend preparing to leave for a weekend upstate, prosecutors said. Rodriguez and Cuevas demanded their property back. Cuevas warned Drago that if she moved her car she'd hit Rodriguez, prosecutors said.

But she accelerated, knocked Rodriguez down and ran over her, prosecutors said. Drago remained at the scene.

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