Southold Town officials may announce disciplinary charges after reviewing an investigative report prompted by a May 2020 retirement party for a police officer that violated state regulations in place near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Southold Town Board has reviewed the summary of the investigator’s report and we find some of the conclusions very troubling,” read a statement released Tuesday from Town Hall. “As a result, we have directed our labor counsel to implement the next steps on the town’s behalf. Labor counsel will advise us if disciplinary charges are warranted.”
The town has not released any specifics about the report or the report itself.
On May 29, 2020, Cutchogue residents complained that Southold Police ignored several calls to the department reporting that dozens of people were at a party at a Cutchogue tree farm owned by former police Sgt. Steven Zuhoski and were not following social-distancing protocols, as well as reportedly setting off fireworks. Zuhoski, who had worked in the department for nearly 24 years, had retired that day. Protocols in place at the time from the office of then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo banned large gatherings and required social distancing.
Residents said the police were “dismissive” of their complaints and flouted the law. No mention of the incident appeared in the weekly Southold Town police blotter, and Police Chief Martin Flatley said at the time that “I don’t have any direct knowledge of what occurred at other celebrations after ours,” referring to a traditional walkout ceremony that day at police headquarters for Zuhoski and two other officers leaving the force.
In July 2020, the town retained Justin Block, of Central Islip-based Sinnreich, Kosakoff & Messina LLP, as special counsel to the town to investigate the police department’s response to the party. As of March 2021, he had been paid $7,553, according to the town’s website.
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office also launched an investigation, but its probe was put on hold while Block conducted his investigation.
The DA’s office did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment about the Southold report or to the status of its separate investigation.
At a scheduled board meeting Tuesday night, Supervisor Scott Russell said the board met earlier in the day with Block and instructed its labor counsel, who was not named, to “take any and all necessary steps to put a process in place so that we can evaluate whether disciplinary action is needed or not.”
Russell added he was “disappointed” that the investigation took so long. When a resident asked what disciplinary actions might be taken, Russell said he could not answer that “because they are matters of personnel.”
Councilwoman Jill Doherty responded that the board acted immediately after receiving the report but must still go through “due process” before taking action.
“We have to go through the process and certain things take time by statute, and we hope to have something in the next few weeks,” Doherty said. “But we don’t know how long that’s going to take, and there’s really no definitive answer we can give you except that we have taken this very seriously and we have taken the next steps immediately today as soon as we got the report.”
Russell did not respond to Newsday requests for comment about whether the report would be released to the public.
Flatley told Newsday in a statement Wednesday that he had only recently seen the news of the town’s statement on the matter and “unfortunately the Town Board did not share any of the report with me.”
“I stand by the investigation I conducted and the preliminary report I submitted to the Town Attorney’s Office on June 5, 2020,” he said in a statement.