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Suffolk Board of Elections to do background checks on hires

Michael Torres leaves his job at the Board

Michael Torres leaves his job at the Board of Elections in Yaphank, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk County Board of Elections will for the first time require prospective hires to complete a formal job application form that requests the applicant's criminal conviction history -- and then run a background check.

The new application form was agreed to by county chairmen for the two major parties -- the Democrats and Republicans -- and existing staff were asked to fill it out by the end of last week.

The move comes after Newsday revealed that Islip Town Conservative leader Michael Torres, who is paid about $105,800 as a senior elections clerk, failed to disclose his two misdemeanor convictions -- for gambling and driving while speeding without a license -- on an Islip Town application form.

The board, until now, had no formal application or background vetting process and had hired Torres months after the Suffolk sheriff's office refused to hire him because of the gambling conviction.

The Islip Town Board, which appointed Torres to his $8,000-a-year position on its tax assessment review board in January 2013, has taken no action over his failure to disclose the convictions on its application form.

Torres remains in the post despite Town Supervisor Tom Croci personally requesting his resignation after Newsday's Sept. 29 story.

Although Suffolk has taken the step toward more scrutiny for elections board hires, the jobs still won't be advertised to the public, officials said. Ultimately, hiring decisions will largely remain in the hands of party bosses, with an applicant filling out the form only after being recommended.

"That we will never change because that's the process and the law," Suffolk Republican Party chairman John Jay LaValle said. "The law provides that the chairman recommends the commissioner and the commissioner is the governmental appointing authority who usually acts at the recommendation of the county chair."

The applicant will then foot the bill for the $65 criminal background check conducted through the Office of Court Administration, LaValle and his Democratic Party counterpart, Richard Schaffer, said.

 

'Good first step'

Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, called it a "good first step." He added: "It's not going to mean much unless the positions are advertised widely, the county board uses standard criteria for hiring, and takes additional steps to further professionalize its staff. None of this is extraordinary, or at least none of it should be. The voters of Suffolk County deserve a professional staff running their elections."

Schaffer defended his picks. "The voters get a professional staff that's in accordance with state law. It's just like any other appointed position . . . they're not subject to the same hiring competition requirements because of how it's structured under New York State Election Law and the county process."

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a Manhattan-based nonprofit government watchdog group, said not making the jobs open to the public means positions will continue to be filled with "party loyalists" and "not those with the actual background and experience."

"It's a pretty low bar if we just want to be sure the person who is an elections administrator isn't a felon, but it's better than no standards," Lerner said. "It's a legitimate question to ask when the public is being asked to trust the credibility and trustworthiness to the individuals who are administering our elections . . . and an application says at least we're inquiring in terms of some basic standards."

In Nassau, where a job application form has existed for years but does not raise the issue of an applicant's criminal history, Democratic Commissioner Bill Biamonte said he would support moves to increase background checks for prospective hires to the board.

"I would welcome a process that would allow us authoritative information and therefore, more accountability," Biamonte said. John Ryan, counsel to Nassau Republican Board of Elections Commissioner Louis Savinetti, said: "I think it's very important for anyone to have a criminal-background check" and that he would be open to discussions with the Democratic commissioner on implementing such standards.

 

State doesn't use form

The state Board of Elections, based in Albany, does not use an application form for its appointed positions, spokesman Thomas Connolly said. Instead, those interested submit resumes.

Open positions "could be posted" on the state's job website, Connolly said, but not all are. Potential applicants also "could be made aware through referral."

He could not say how many jobs have been posted in the recent past or why some posts would be chosen for wider circulation than others.

Prospective employees would undergo a series of interviews and a hiring process through the state Center for Recruitment and Public Service, part of the Office of General Services, "which would conduct any necessary background checks on candidates," he added.

Michael Northrop, president of the New York State Election Commissioners Association and the Republican Board of Elections commissioner in upstate Ontario County, said the issue had not been raised at the state level. The widely differing number of registered voters and manpower at the various boards of elections make standardizing the election board job application processes across the 62 counties inappropriate, he said.

The only provision state law requires is that prospective hires be registered voters and residents of the county in which they apply. Beyond that, he said, each county board "is its own entity" under its county legislature.

Ontario has just four elections board employees, including the two commissioners, overseeing 66,000 registered voters, Northrup said. Once a candidate is selected, the board uses the county's human resources department to vet them.

Suffolk, with 900,043 registered voters, has 123 employees, including the commissioners -- 61 appointments each, and a nonappointed IT staffer. More than $8.6 million is earmarked in the budget for their salaries and overtime this year.

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