Suffolk Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr.'s hiring of his wife has become an issue in the race for Suffolk County comptroller -- with Democratic candidate James Gaughran accusing him of nepotism, and Kennedy, the GOP comptroller candidate, accusing Gaughran of personal attacks on his family.
In mailings and automated telephone calls to voters, Gaughran, chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, has attacked Kennedy over pay increases he gave his wife, Leslie Kennedy, that raised her salary by a total of $50,000, and for personally signing his wife's time sheets.
Gaughran also said Kennedy violated the county's nepotism law by failing to file a sworn statement disclosing that he had hired a relative after he first took her on as legislative aide in 2007.
Kennedy concedes that he didn't file the disclosure form, but called the law unnecessary, since the legislature already had approved his wife's hire in an open meeting. He said he signs the time sheets of all three employees in his office.
"I don't apologize for a single day she's worked," Kennedy said. "She's a simple legislative aide who works hard. She has helped countless people . . . Just because she's my wife doesn't mean she's not skilled, competent and adept at what she does."
Gaughran called it a legitimate issue in a race for comptroller, a position that oversees how county money is spent and enforces parts of the nepotism law.
"What's on the public record is fair game," Gaughran said. "It is a legitimate matter to bring before the voters." The charges and countercharges come in an increasingly heated race for the comptroller's seat, which Republican Comptroller Joseph Sawicki will leave at the end of the year because of term limits.
The fight also is occurring at a time when the future of the comptroller's office is on the line. A county ballot proposition on Election Day asks voters whether the offices of county comptroller and treasurer should be merged in January 2018.
Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone wants to combine the offices as a cost-saving measure, and the winner of the comptroller's race on Nov. 4 would oversee the merger.
From part time to full time
County records show Leslie Kennedy was hired as a part-time legislative aide in her husband's office in December 2007, and that in her first full year in 2008 she earned $32,678. Her hours were increased in 2009 and she was made full time in 2011. In 2013, the most recent year for which county payroll records were available, Leslie Kennedy was paid $79,864.
Gaughran said going from part time to full time constituted a promotion, which would have required legislative resolutions under the nepotism statute. Kennedy said it was not a promotion because she retained the same title, legislative aide II.
Leslie Kennedy said she works for the county more than 70 hours a week on constituent services, writing grants and attending events, often on nights and weekends. She's paid for 35 hours of work.
"I worked more than full time when it was part time," said Leslie Kennedy, who says she also works 19 hours a week at a drug and alcohol treatment center.
She said she was a registered nurse for 30 years and also worked for the late GOP Legis. Donald Blydenburgh for a year in the 1980s or 1990s.
"We're extremely high-energy," she said of herself and her husband of 39 years.
Both are 58 and live in Nesconset.
Suffolk's nepotism statute requires special legislative approval when a family member of an elected official or top appointee is hired or promoted.
The county legislature passed a resolution in which Kennedy sought authorization to hire his wife in November 2007, according to county records.
The nepotism law also required a disclosure statement, naming the relatives who work for the county, to be filed with the legislative clerk and the county ethics board by Jan. 31, 2008.
Kennedy said he relied on the advice of the legislature's counsel for how to follow the county's nepotism law. Failure to file the disclosure is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
"This was brought to my attention recently, having never known about it before," Kennedy said. "Does it make me noncompliant with technical provision in the code? I will tell you yes. I can't redo 2008."
Kennedy referred questions to legislative counsel George Nolan. While Nolan said Kennedy was required to file the disclosure form, he said that he, too, was unaware of the requirement until it was brought to his attention recently. He said he was not aware of other lawmakers who had family members on the county payroll who had filed the form.