Southold officials have hired outside counsel to independently investigate allegations from some town residents that police dismissed phone complaints that people at a crowded May retirement party for a longtime police sergeant were ignoring state coronavirus guidelines.
The Southold Town Board voted 4-2 at its June 30 regular meeting to retain Justin Block, of Central Islip-based Sinnreich, Kosakoff & Messina LLP, as special counsel to the town. He will begin an investigation into the Southold Police Department’s response to the May 29 retirement party in Cutchogue for former Sgt. Steven Zuhoski.
Residents complained that police ignored their phone calls reporting that party guests were not following social distancing protocols and that fireworks were being shot off.
Police Chief Martin Flatley gave a preliminary investigation report to the board last month, but board members said they were not satisfied with it, prompting the board to hire independent counsel.
The town will await the results of Block’s findings before deciding on any further action.
Councilwoman Sarah Nappa voted against Block’s hiring, citing a conflict of interest because his law firm represented the town years ago in a lawsuit involving a resident who sued the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals in a dispute regarding Southold’s short-term rental law.
“It would have been best practice to hire a firm that had no association with the town at all,” Nappa said. “Even the appearance of a conflict is an issue.”
Councilman James Dinizio cast the other dissenting vote. He said Friday that he preferred to pick a law firm with no connections to local politics to eliminate any appearance that an investigation may not be impartial.
“In my opinion, it’s eliminating one more thing that someone can say about the result,” Dinizio said. “In this day and age, everybody is looking for that.”
Supervisor Scott Russell said he voted ‘yes’ because Block, who is president of the Suffolk County Bar Association, had previous experience as a member of the Suffolk County District Attorney Office’s Conviction Integrity Bureau. The bureau investigates claims of innocence and works with the district attorney’s office to prevent wrongful convictions.
That experience, Russell said, gave Block knowledge of how to investigate the conduct of police departments.
“I personally find it appalling that a board member would question the integrity of an investigator we never met and raise suspicions over an investigation that isn't even done,” Russell said.