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Keep your eye on Michael Cohen

Rendering of the proposed arena at Ronkonkoma with

Rendering of the proposed arena at Ronkonkoma with a view of the LIRR. Credit: Crawford Architects

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Daily Point

The Cohen search and the Southern District

The FBI raid on the offices of Michael Cohen, who has described himself as the “Mr. Fix It Guy” for President Donald Trump, has put a new spotlight on the region’s U.S. attorneys, especially the status of Geoffrey Berman, who is serving on an interim basis in Manhattan.

Monday’s dramatic turn of events is likely to further complicate consideration of Berman for a permanent appointment.

Special counsel Robert Mueller turned over information about Cohen’s involvement with payments to two women who claim to have had affairs with Trump to the Southern District of New York. On Monday, an NYC team of FBI agents executed a search warrant on three locations where Cohen kept records, and much fuss was made that Berman, a Republican who is considered an ally of Trump, had signed off on the action.

But by Tuesday, we learned Berman had recused himself from any decision-making in Mueller’s investigation. A decision was made to accept the recusal by senior officials reporting to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general in charge of the Russia investigation. No official explanation was given for the move. It’s rare for a U.S. attorney to recuse himself unless he has a personal or financial relationship with the subject of the probe.

Berman was a campaign donor to Trump, a former law partner of Rudy Giuliani and a close friend of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Attorney General Jeff Sessions named Berman interim U.S. attorney, although Trump took the unusual step of personally interviewing him for the job.

There was every indication Trump would soon formally nominate Berman for the post, which needs Senate confirmation. That hasn’t happened because Trump has been unable to reach an agreement with Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand on the top prosecutors in the Southern District and for the Eastern District for Long Island, where Richard Donoghue holds the interim spot, as well as on a nominee for the vacancy on the prestigious Second Circuit. Without a deal, the New York senators could stall confirmations indefinitely.

An interim designation, however, lasts only 120 days, or until the Senate confirms a nominee. Berman and Donoghue took office on Jan. 5, but with the White House in turmoil and the Mueller probe at full tilt, it’s now more unlikely than ever that Trump will make any nominations, never mind the Senate confirming nominees by the Cinderella deadline of May 5.

The process for what happens next was decided in 2007 by the Senate, which empowered the federal judges of each district to select the U.S. attorney. For the Eastern District, Donoghue seems to have the inside track with the local judges because of his outstanding track record of 11 years as an assistant U.S. attorney on Long Island and his straight-shooter reputation.

In the Southern District, however, Berman was never a sure bet. Now that the Cohen-Trump probe has taken center stage, the appointment of someone who has recused himself from any involvement in the Mueller investigation could sink Berman’s efforts to get judicial approval.

And if Trump fires Mueller, Rosenstein or Sessions (or any combination) to stop the special counsel’s investigation, the Southern District judges are more likely to be motivated to nominate a stellar former judge or federal prosecutor to lead the district and do what he or she wants with all the files seized in the Cohen raid.

Rita Ciolli

Pointing Out

The front row Suffolk arena seat

So, how did Suffolk County come to choose a plan to build a 17,500-seat arena, along with a hotel, medical offices and more, for its 40-acre site in Ronkonkoma?

An evaluation committee made up of Suffolk officials began reviewing the submissions to the county’s request for qualifications “right away” after the mid-December deadline, according to Louis Bekofsky, Suffolk’s deputy commissioner of economic development and planning.

Bekofsky was part of the committee, along with Theresa Ward, the commissioner of economic development and planning; Jonathan Keyes, the director of downtown and transit-oriented development; and Lisa Black, chief of staff to County Executive Steve Bellone.

At the end of February and beginning of March, the committee, along with representatives from the Town of Islip, interviewed the four bidders — Jones Lang LaSalle and its partners, Tritec Real Estate, RXR Realty, and Renaissance Downtowns. In mid-March, a public meeting was held featuring the bidders.

Last Friday, the evaluation committee gathered for “several hours,” according to Black, and chose Jones Lang LaSalle and its arena proposal. Bellone and Islip officials were informed Sunday, Black said.

Among those not informed before the decision was made public: Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine.

“I had no inkling, no discussion,” Romaine told The Point. “This is all on the county, and the county hasn’t kept in touch with us.”

County officials told The Point they didn’t think it was necessary to involve Brookhaven in the process as of now, because the property is within Islip’s boundaries. Several sources noted that Islip officials and community members felt they weren’t involved enough during Brookhaven’s effort to redevelop its part of the Ronkonkoma Hub — under development by Tritec.

“It doesn’t mean that Brookhaven’s not going to be a part of this,” Bekofsky said, noting that there will be a role for the town later in the process. “This isn’t signing on the dotted line what’s getting built tomorrow.”

It was three years ago when Bellone, Romaine and Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter stood at a news conference at the Ronkonkoma train station to announce the creation of the Ronkonkoma Hub Regional Alliance. Bellone said then he was going to “put politics aside, and parochialism aside.”

Said Romaine at the time: “Opportunities and problems don’t respect boundaries.”

Randi F. Marshall and Michael Dobie

Pencil Point

The buck stops here?

More cartoons by Mark Wilson

Bonus Point

Don’t cheer this top listing for Nassau, Suffolk

Attom Data Solutions’ just-released analysis of 2017 property taxes in 1,400 U.S. counties has both Nassau and Suffolk standing out for their high taxes, albeit in slightly different ways.

Nassau’s property taxes placed fifth-highest, which would be alarming until you realize the county once regularly contended for the nation’s top spot.

Nassau tallied an average property tax per household of $11,415. National champion Westchester County scored a bodacious $17,179. Between the two were Rockland County and Essex and Bergen counties in New Jersey.

Attom’s presentation also ranks the counties by which candidate carried them in the 2016 presidential election.

With average annual property taxes in 2017 of $9,471, Suffolk was just edged out of the top 10 list of counties. But among all counties with more than 1,000 homes carried by Donald Trump in 2016, Suffolk had the second-highest average property taxes in the nation, behind Morris County, New Jersey ($10,294).

It’s an interesting fact because federal tax changes passed last year at Trump’s urging will hit suburbanites who pay high property and state income taxes hardest of all. With a limit of $10,000 on such deductions, the average taxpayer whose county sniffed the top of this list will have almost no room left under the cap to deduct a state’s income tax.

So among counties that supported Trump, Suffolk will likely be among the ones hurt worst by this part of his plan.

And what effect will Trump’s changes have on the coffers of states like New York?

Fitch Ratings just released an analysis that has mostly concluded that it’s way too soon to tell. Particularly confusing as Fitch tried to assess 2017 and 2018 state revenue was the rush by taxpayers to prepay this year’s taxes in December.

Put simply, states like New York have more money than usual at this point in the year, but they can’t really tell how much more might be coming.

Lane Filler