Suffolk ethics board ruling a big win for clean politics
The Suffolk County Board of Ethics ruled last month that district attorney candidates can’t accept campaign contributions from police unions without violating the county Code of Ethics, a welcome first step.
The decision stated, "Because the Suffolk County Code of Ethics is designed to foster public trust in government, the appearance of impropriety in organizational interaction and oversight of police conduct leads this board to determine that receipt of campaign contributions from an organization representing police or law enforcement agencies … is violative of the code."
It's a pretty straighforward concept. Prosecutors investigate police misconduct cases, so political cash from officers' unions looks bad -- that's the appearance of impropriety. And, as we have seen in recent Suffolk law enforcement history, it's a lot worse than it looks.
The opinion is a small step but a big win for cleaner politics in Suffolk. It’s also a huge victory for county Legis. Robert Trotta, a retired detective with 25 years on the Suffolk force, whose crusade against dirty PBA politics has made him a pariah among union leaders and some political leaders.
The decision won’t necessarily stop the PBA and other law enforcement unions from donating to district attorney candidates: The ruling says candidates shouldn’t take the money. And the maximum $1,000 fine to the recipient might not change behavior.
Nor does the Suffolk ethics board have the reach to look at the broader problem of police union political spending.
Trotta has also hammered the PBA for donating amounts above the $5,000 limit on campaign contributions from an incorporated entity. That’s illegal for any corporation that has functions other than political action, like the PBA, but unfortunately no law enforcement or regulatory authority wants to touch the powerful union on this issue.
The PBA and its political action committee contributed $14,900 to ousted DA Tim Sini in 2021 and $17,500 in 2020 for his reelection bid, according to elections records. In 2020, Sini also received $1,000 each from the county deputy sheriffs PBA and the county detective investigators PBA. And he benefited from $329,600 in police super PAC spending in 2017, and received another $23,000 in direct contributions from police unions.
County Executive Steve Bellone approved a new PBA contract in 2019 that would guarantee officers with at least 15 years on the job annual pay of at least $200,000 a year. For Bellone's reelection race later that year, the political arms of Suffolk's police unions kicked in $830,000. This ruling affects only DA candidates, but those contributions aren't the only ones that need reining in.
Police reform groups and taxpayer organizations have repeatedly accused the Suffolk PBA's super PAC of making illegal contributions. Even the $1 dollar a day taken out of cop's paychecks for political action appears to be illegal, say officers who never authorized the donation.
Curtailing the appearance of impropriety is a start. But the actual impropriety of the political and financial relationship between Suffolk’s cop unions and its politicians must be targeted, too.
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