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Editorial: Abuse of police power in Nassau County

The new Nassau Police commissioner Thomas Dale Friday

The new Nassau Police commissioner Thomas Dale Friday with County Executive Edward Mangano in Mineola. (Dec. 2, 2011) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The ouster of Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale is a deeply disturbing story of how the integrity of a law enforcement agency was compromised when its leadership bowed to the demands of a personal patron seeking to advance his self-interest.

County Executive Edward Mangano on Thursday announced Dale's resignation and the retirement of Chief of Detectives John Capece. They had to go. Dale and Capece had targeted Randy White, a 29-year-old Roosevelt man, on behalf of a political benefactor who sought to influence White's testimony in an election fraud case.

Mangano's hand was forced by District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who investigated White's complaint of improper policing. Rice sent Mangano the findings of her investigation into an "allegation of politically motivated policing." Her report described how businessman Gary Melius drew the police department into last month's heated county executive race. But she found no prosecutable crimes.

The failure to prosecute is already spurring controversy. Nassau County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs denounced the lack of criminal charges, calling the police department's action "blatant witness intimidation" and demanded further investigation by state or federal officials. If there are grounds for a new investigation, a probe should go forward. At the very least, Rice's findings pulled back the curtain on the cozy relationships that influence policing in Nassau County.

We invest police with enormous power to detain and arrest individuals to keep us secure and our democracy stable. It's a power that must be exercised within the strictest limits of our Constitution and laws. To betray such a trust by harassing and intimidating perceived political opponents to influence an election is nothing short of thuggery.

There is no evidence Mangano ordered or had prior knowledge of the scheme. Yet, in many ways, it was his detached management style that empowered supporter Melius.

Melius wields significant influence in local politics because of his campaign donations, control over the Independence Party line and his ability to wine and dine those he favors at Oheka Castle, his catering operation.

That Melius' call to Dale could set in motion the plot is outrageous. For years, Mangano, his aides and police officials visited with Melius at Huntington's Oheka Castle. There are cigar nights on the terrace and poker games in the "dungeon," where former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato holds court and Independence Party chairman Frank McKay brokers his influence by awarding his party's line on the ballot. It was Melius who recommended Dale, a close friend and former high-ranking official in the New York City Police Department, for the commissioner's job.

Also troubling was the choice of target. Randy White wasn't the son of a Republican committeeman in Oyster Bay, the seat of Mangano's power. He was the son of a Democratic committeeman in Freeport, an unskilled and underemployed man with learning disabilities who had a record of minor crimes, mostly for selling bootleg DVDs. Earlier this year, Rice convicted William Flanagan and two other high-ranking members of the police department for acting to prevent the prosecution of a connected benefactor's son. White was someone perceived as powerless to fight back against the enormous weight of police action.

According to Rice, the police may have had a responsibility to locate and arrest White once they learned of an open warrant, to prevent him from committing another crime. We disagree that all of a sudden the police had a bulletproof justification to track down White.

After Melius' call, Dale reached out to Capece, who dramatically stopped a public bus to arrest White on an outstanding warrant for failure to pay a surcharge assessed on those convicted of any offense.

But as a Newsday editorial on Oct. 24 argued, the arrest had more nefarious underpinnings. The editorial included crucial context: There were 83,000 outstanding warrants in Nassau County at the time.

The top priority for police is felony warrants -- 2,778 of them were outstanding in Nassau -- because they include those accused of violent crimes who may have jumped bail. The total also included 21,236 outstanding warrants in misdemeanor cases and 59,804 for violations.

The only plausible explanation for targeting White was to discredit the sworn testimony he had given three days earlier in the election fraud case.

This is how it all started. White was a witness in a civil case to determine whether state election law was violated in the attempt to get Andrew Hardwick, a former Freeport mayor and Melius associate, on the ballot as a county executive candidate on the We Count line in the Nov. 5 election.

The GOP strategy was to siphon black votes from Thomas Suozzi, the Democratic candidate for county executive. Pushing Hardwick's candidacy was Melius, his sole contributor with $24,000 in donations. The We Count effort was the second attempt by Melius to find a third-party candidate who could take votes from Suozzi.

Melius first tried to find a candidate to run on the Green Party line with the expectation that it would lure environmentalist votes from Democrats. But when Suozzi's allies challenged the candidacy of Phillipp Negron, 25, in court, he admitted that a week before he filed his petitions as the Green Party candidate, he had met with a top aide to Mangano to discuss his candidacy and had been hired by the Nassau County department of public works.

In the Hardwick case, White had testified that he was paid $1.25 for each signature on the former mayor's petition. That's illegal under state law. Hours before White was pulled from the bus, he was visited at his father's home by Hardwick operatives whom White said sought to change his testimony.

Instead of being held overnight at the precinct until his arraignment, as is customary, according to Robert McDonald, his attorney, White was taken to Mineola headquarters instead. There, White was given a subpoena to testify again in Hardwick's case. White told Newsday's editorial board that he believed he was arrested because very powerful people wanted a different outcome in the election case.

Mangano now has to find a new police commissioner, but his task is more important than that. The credibility and integrity of the department's leadership must be restored.

They can start by strengthening NCPD rules to make it clear that acceptance of any gifts or entertainment from outsiders be reported.

Most important, Mangano and his new chief must take the politics out of policing.