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Suffolk facing huge price tag for alleged law enforcement wrongdoing

Keith Bush was a 17-year-old junior at Bellport

Keith Bush was a 17-year-old junior at Bellport High School when Suffolk authorities charged him with killing Sherese Watson, 14, after a late-night house party in North Bellport. For the past 44 years, Keith Bush has claimed he was an innocent man, ever since he was accused and convicted of the 1975 Suffolk County sex-related murder.  Credit: Staff

The price tag for alleged wrongdoing by Suffolk law-enforcement — including the conviction of Keith Bush for a murder he didn’t commit — could exceed an estimated $50 million and place even more burden on the county’s stressed finances, according to government officials and an analysis of court records.

But while Suffolk taxpayers continue to fund millions of dollars in damages for past wrongdoing — what County Executive Steve Bellone has called “the corruption tax” — critics say county officials are doing little to examine or remedy the systemic problems that caused the lawsuits in the first place.

According to records and officials, individuals or their families who have won settlements or filed litigation against Suffolk include:

  • Bush, who has started litigation that experts say could result in a $30 million payment for a wrongful murder conviction that sent him to prison for 33 years.
  • Martin Tankleff, who was awarded $13 million in federal and state payouts in April 2018. Tankleff spent 17 years in prison before his 1990 murder conviction was thrown out.
  • Shawn Lawrence, who in May filed state and federal lawsuits seeking more than $20 million against Suffolk after spending six years in prison for a murder conviction later vacated because of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Lawrence's is one of a handful of homicide and major felony cases since 2017 that fell apart after prosecutors were forced to resign because of improper actions.
  • A Lindenhurst man who died while in the custody of police who allegedly used excessive force. His family received a payout of $2.25 million in 2014.
  • Chirstopher Loeb, who received $1.5 million after he was beaten in 2012 while in custody by former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke.

Perhaps the biggest potential liability for Suffolk involves Bush.

A Newsday investigation, published shortly before Bush’s May 22 exoneration by a judge, revealed wrongdoing not only by police and prosecutors but also questionable handling of forensic evidence by Suffolk authorities, who destroyed the alleged murder weapon.

In the wake of the Bush findings, Suffolk’s Conviction Integrity Bureau, created by District Attorney Tim Sini, is examining more than 100 claims of innocence in previous convictions, including at least one murder conviction from the 1990s. Though the total bill for damages is far from certain, legal experts say payouts for such wrongful convictions generally tend to cost $1 million for every year improperly spent behind bars.

 “I think it’s a fact that when you have cases like Keith Bush’s, there is going to be litigation and people will sue the county,” Sini told Newsday.

The looming cost for law enforcement wrongdoing in Suffolk comes at a time when county officials say they can ill afford it.

Suffolk had an operating deficit of about $26.5 million in 2018 and a general fund balance deficit of $285 million, according to a report last month by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The county has amassed $883 million in debt over the past decade, the County Legislature's budget review office said in 2018, and has had its bond rating downgraded several times.

 “Are we able to keep on adding these continual judgments? Absolutely not,” said Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy.

Kennedy, a Republican, said Suffolk has to issue bonds for these payouts, each approved by the County Legislature.

“When these judgments roll along, we have to forgo the opportunity to invest in the brick and mortar of actual government” such as parks improvements and upkeep with aging county buildings, Kennedy said. “We, in essence, put them on the credit card.”

Suffolk has the highest “fiscal stress” level of any county in New York State, according to DiNapoli's review of 2018 municipal finances.

 "For municipalities in significant fiscal stress, including Suffolk County, they often don't have money to fall back on if something unexpected arises," said Elliott Auerbach, deputy state comptroller. Suffolk’s high-stress ranking shows “a limited ability to cover revenue shortfalls, cost overruns, unexpected legal costs or something unplanned," he said.

Bellone declined to be interviewed for this story. But last month, when reelected to a new term as county executive, Bellone acknowledged the mounting debt that the county faces from wrongful convictions such as the Bush case and from a “culture of corruption” that festered under former DA Tom Spota. In November 2017, Spota resigned amid federal charges that he covered up the beating by Burke of Loeb. Earlier this month, Spota and his former anti-corruption unit chief, Christopher McPartland, were both convicted of those charges and now await sentencing.

"There is a corruption tax that is associated with this kind of conduct," Bellone told Newsday last month. "It's unfortunate. It's terrible. And if you want to prevent it in the future it's important that the truth come out.”

Critics say taxpayers face this added burden because Suffolk doesn’t provide enough oversight and systemic review of the root causes behind official wrongdoing resulting in multimillion-dollar settlements. “It’s insane that the county isn’t looking at the procedures that caused the taxpayers to pay all this money — unfortunately that is never done,” said Julia Kuan, Lawrence’s attorney. In Kuan’s lawsuit, she cites evidence of Suffolk official misconduct, including allegations of “withheld or destroyed evidence, suborned perjury and false arguments to judges and juries in order to obtain unconstitutional convictions.”

Kuan said the lack of proper oversight by top Suffolk authorities is largely to blame for these problems. “Spota ran the Suffolk County DA’s Office more like a criminal enterprise than a district attorney’s office,” she asserts in her lawsuit for Lawrence.

County officials say legislative approval of payouts resulting from lawsuits from police and prosecutorial misdeeds are usually done in private as a personnel matter, rather than the focus of a public hearing. Suffolk Legis. Tom Donnelly, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said that his panel’s “oversight is limited” over police and that prosecutorial actions are reviewed by the DA’s office, which is separately elected.

Some steps at reform are being planned. After Bush’s exoneration in May, Sini — who has taken many measures to distance himself from Spota and other previous wrongdoing by Suffolk authorities — gained nearly $850,000 in federal grants to study wrongful conviction cases to pinpoint system problems in the way police and prosecutors handle serious felony crimes.

Though taxpayers may cringe at lottery-sized payouts, supporters of Suffolk’s CIB and other criminal justice review units elsewhere around the state say civil damage lawsuits are an appropriate way to recognize the human suffering caused those victimized by official wrongdoing.

“The fact that people are compensated for the time they were imprisoned should not be used as a weapon to try and diminish these Conviction Integrity units,” said former judge Barry Kamins, co-chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions. “To say we don’t have much money for wrongful convictions is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ argument.”

Bush and his attorney Adele Bernhard declined to comment about their pending lawsuit against Suffolk. But Tankleff said the total $13 million settlement to him — to be paid through a bond approved by the Suffolk Legislature — seems like little compensation for the prime years of his young adulthood that he lost unfairly imprisoned.

 “Everyone exonerated that I ever have met said, ‘I would have rather had my freedom than money’,” Tankleff explained. “Nobody would give up their freedom for money.”

With Rachelle Blidner

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