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Zeldin, King, others seek federal probe of NY Justice Center

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, left, and U.S. Rep.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, left, and U.S. Rep. Peter King, right. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

Four U.S. House representatives, including two from Long Island, on Monday asked the Department of Justice to investigate a state agency that was established in 2013 to protect the developmentally disabled, incarcerated youth and other vulnerable, institutionalized populations in New York State.

The four charge in their letter to the chief of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division that the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs has failed to properly address reports of abuse, sexual assault and death at the institutions and private facilities it oversees, which house roughly 1 million state residents.

Specifically, the four cite concerns about crimes of abuse not prosecuted, deaths not investigated and Medicaid dollars wasted. Long Island Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) signed the letter, as did Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) and Tom Reed (R-Corning).

The letter mentions critical press coverage of the Justice Center, including a story that Newsday published in November.

That story detailed how the center's former special prosecutor, Patricia Gunning, met resistance from others in state government after beginning an initiative to examine nonfatal strangulation assaults taking place at institutions and facilities the agency is meant to oversee. Gunning told Newsday she was forced to resign in 2017 after the center's director informed her that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wanted to “go in a different direction” in regard to her position.

Cuomo, a Democrat, was personally involved in establishing the center.

“This clear lack of appropriate oversight,” the representatives wrote in their letter, “must be fully investigated for the appropriate parties to be held accountable and to ensure that these practices cease immediately.” 

Christine Buttigieg, director of public information for the Justice Center, said the agency is fulfilling its watchdog mission.

"The letter to the Justice Department shamefully politicizes issues relating to some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers and relies on numerous false claims and inaccuracies regarding the Justice Center’s operations," she said. "After a thorough investigation and review, the Justice Center pursues criminal charges in those cases where the evidence supports further action. In addition, district attorneys across the state are notified of every single abuse and neglect case that is reported to the Justice Center and are free to pursue charges as they see fit. The agency is committed to transparency and welcomes any inquiry."

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