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Suffolk dumping probe: DA convenes special grand jury

The gate at the west entrance to Roberto

The gate at the west entrance to Roberto Clemente Park is chained shut on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The Suffolk County district attorney's office has convened a special investigative grand jury into dumping on Long Island in the wake of revelations of contaminated debris found in an Islip Town park and at three related sites.

District Attorney Thomas Spota declined to confirm that the jury had been impaneled, but an administrative order obtained from the Office of Court Administration dated Aug. 26 shows authorization was granted to impanel "an additional Grand Jury commencing September 10, 2014."

In line with most decisions to create special grand juries, the order -- in place for six months but able to be extended -- does not say specifically what the grand jury is authorized to investigate. The underlying application by Spota's office is not public, court spokesman David Bookstaver said.

But sources said the grand jury would likely hear testimony ranging from state officials on regulation of hazardous waste, to Islip Town officials on their knowledge of how an estimated 50,000 tons of contaminant-laced fill wound up in Brentwood's Roberto Clemente Park.

A special grand jury is a powerful tool, legal experts say. It gives prosecutors wide latitude to probe not just what has occurred in Islip, but to investigate the issue of illegal dumping of toxic material throughout the county, with the power to subpoena witnesses even beyond Suffolk.

The move comes as the investigation in Islip continues apace -- in the past two weeks detectives interviewed a dozen town employees, largely from the parks department, who had not been questioned before, sources said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the day the grand jury was impaneled, a Town of Islip park ranger vehicle could be seen parked outside the county office building in Hauppauge before it left shortly after 4 p.m.

On Thursday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Long Island attorney and senior staff visited the district attorney's office to help with what sources said were preparations for testimony expected to go before the grand jury in coming weeks. Approached as they departed, regional attorney Craig Elgut said staff weren't authorized to speak, but that the DEC continued to provide support to the district attorney's office.

 

Criminal investigation

On April 8, four days after being contacted by state DEC officials, Spota's office launched a criminal probe into dumping in the park.

The site has been linked by investigators to three others:

A nearby vacant lot in Central Islip where for more than a year, mountains of debris were dumped, ground up and reloaded for transport to other locations, witnesses have said.

A DEC-protected wetland that backs onto a property in Deer Park from which more material was dumped. This site is a watershed to the Great South Bay.

A six-home community built for veterans and their families in Islandia.

Spota has said sampling of the material at all four sites shows it has similar characteristics -- containing contaminants potentially harmful to human health -- and that investigators believe the same "unscrupulous contractor or contractors" may be involved.

Unlike traditional grand juries, which hear testimony on multiple cases, usually over a 30-day period, a special grand jury focuses on a single investigation. Special grand juries have issued reports that make recommendations to change legislation, they can indict suspects, and sometimes do both.

 

Can subpoena records

James DiPietro, a former Nassau prosecutor and now criminal-defense attorney in New York City, said special grand juries are "a tool of the prosecutor to try to get to the truth of the matter."

"A grand jury has the ability to subpoena witnesses and compel testimony by offering witnesses immunity which would negate the witness' right to remain silent," DiPietro said. He added it is routinely used in organized crime cases to compel underlings to provide evidence about those up the ladder. A grand jury can also subpoena records.

Anthony M. La Pinta, a criminal-defense attorney based in Hauppauge, said a problem inherent in this type of environmental investigation is proving knowledge and intent of a suspect because the toxic substances aren't readily identifiable for a lay person. Scientific analysis of the material was needed to confirm the presence of toxins, he said.

In the Islip dumping investigation, Spota has engaged investigators from the economic crimes unit, environmental crimes unit and government corruption.

Part of the probe has centered on the role of Islip's Conservative Party-run parks department, sources have said. The parks department was headed by Joseph Montuori, who like Islip's Conservative Party leader Michael Torres, is a close ally of the party's county leader, Edward Walsh.

"Given the political aspect of this investigation involving the Conservative Party, the decision to impanel a special grand jury may be to assure impartiality and to remove any suspicion of political motivations of the investigation," La Pinta said. "A determination of whether the suspects committed any crime is solely in the hands of the grand jury."

 

 

Special grand juries

 

 

Focus on a single issue and can sit for a longer period of time than a regular grand jury.

May issue a report and can also issue criminal indictments.

Written reports sometimes examine the actions of a public official in order to recommend he or she be removed from office or to indicate that the official did nothing wrong.

Alternatively, the reports can provide recommendations for legal or administrative actions that are "in the public interest," according to New York State law. Grand jury recommendations are not enforceable, so it's up to local government officials to take action.

 

Previous examples

A two-year grand jury investigation of the Suffolk County ethics commission found former County Executive Steve Levy manipulated the commission to wage attacks on political opponents and help firms owned by his wife gain contracts with entities that received county funds. Its report released in April 2012 made 21 recommendations, among them imposing felony penalties for violating the county ethics code, training for ethics commissioners and compelling executive branch officials to refrain from interfering with the commission.

In 2009, a Nassau County grand jury report focused on some special taxing districts where private professionals were collecting public pensions.

A grand jury report issued in 2006 cited corruption and mismanagement in Suffolk public schools. It recommended establishing a state inspector general for education and urged new state laws to improve schools' financial management.

In 2003, a Suffolk County grand jury report detailed sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The grand jury could not issue indictments because the statute of limitations had elapsed on the individual cases. The report described abuses against children and examples of diocese mismanagement in the handling of the cases.

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