A Southold Town employee has been suspended without pay and four others are also facing disciplinary charges stemming from the police department’s response to a colleague's May 2020 retirement party in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supervisor Scott Russell said during Tuesday’s town board meeting that the charges follow an investigative report prompted by the party, which appeared to violate the state’s early pandemic protocols.
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 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.
The board voted 6-0 to appoint a hearing officer in the matter and institute the suspension, which is in effect until the determination of the hearing. The resolutions do not state what charges the individuals face and identify them only by their employee numbers.
“I cannot disclose the identity of the employees. That's why we use the employee numbers,” Russell said during the meeting. “They are all entitled to due process.”
Three of the numbers correspond to police officers John Hinton, Daniel Mackey and Sgt. Steven Witzke, according to a town document detailing who pays Southold Town police union dues. The other two numbers do not appear on the list, indicating they are not police union members.
The supervisor said more information could be publicly disclosed “over the next few months” as the hearings progress.
Russell did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment. Regina Blasko, secretary to Chief Martin Flatley, said the chief declined to comment.
The day of the party, 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 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. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office also launched an investigation.
During Tuesday’s meeting, East Marion resident Jordan Silbert pressed the town for an update on the findings and criticized the board for not taking action sooner.
Russell admitted the investigation took longer than officials had anticipated, but declined to disclose the specifics of what the report found. Last month the town released a statement saying the conclusions were “very troubling.”
“It took longer than any of us wanted, it is a disappointment,” Russell said Tuesday. “However, this evening the town took assertive steps to address the matter by appointing hearing officers to hear the case in the specific five different employees, one of whom has been suspended effective immediately.”