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Editorial: Look deep into corrosive mix of politics and judges

U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch is shown in this

U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch is shown in this file photo. (June 6, 2012) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Public corruption corrodes the public trust. Corruption in the judiciary, or even the appearance of it, is worse. It undermines our confidence in the rule of law.

That's why "The Insiders," a Newsday investigation published Sunday, is maddening. The extensive reporting by Sandra Peddie and Will Van Sant connects the dots that depict the bones of patronage, describing how some political power brokers are rewarded for delivering minor-party endorsements to judicial candidates.

These poisonous connections are nothing new on Long Island. Every decade or so, the usually subtle practice grows so blatant that federal prosecutors are needed to extract these oozing sores from local government. Newsday's reporting on wheeler-dealer Gary Melius, operator of Oheka Castle in Huntington, continues to reveal deep hooks into the Suffolk County bench. The most recent Newsday story found that Thomas Whelan and Emily Pines, two state Supreme Court judges sitting in Suffolk County, broke rules in awarding $600,000 in contracts and fees to Melius; his daughter, Kelly; his former son-in-law, Richard Bellando, who heads the Nassau County Independence Party; Huntington Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson; and partners in politically connected law firms.

Once again, feds are on the case

This patronage is wrong. Whether it's worthy of criminal prosecution will be determined by Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Her office is aggressively investigating Melius and Edward Walsh, chairman of the Suffolk County Conservative Party. Walsh was suspended from his job as a county correction officer for allegedly filing false time sheets. On one of those workdays in question, Walsh was at a shareholder meeting of a company just after Whelan awarded control of it to Melius. The firm, Interceptor Ignition Interlocks, makes vehicle Breathalyzer devices that defendants convicted of drunken driving must purchase. Melius tried to get Frank MacKay, chairman of the state Independence Party and a close friend of Whelan, on the board of Interlocks.

This tangle of cronyism can't be investigated by local district attorneys, who may have long-standing relationships with, or political connections to, these players. What's been going on stinks, and it's been occurring under the noses of local law enforcement. Perhaps because of political fundraisers hosted at Oheka, no one had caught a whiff.

Federal prosecutors have a colder eye, a better arsenal of criminal laws and skilled forensic teams to plow through boxes of opaque legal and banking documents. Across the nation, the U.S. Department of Justice has made state and local corruption a priority, generating headlines in New York over state legislators involved in kickback schemes or submitting phony vouchers for meal and lodging stipends.

Full-court press for answers

Lynch is well versed in the suburban version of "Let's Make a Deal," which always seems to involve a favored group with an octopus-like ability to grab favors. In the early 1990s, Lynch led the prosecution of John McNamara and Brookhaven Town officials in a bribery scheme to get favorable treatment for real estate projects. Once again, she must tap into the tremendous resources needed to ferret out misdeeds.

Immediate action should be taken by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct to review the actions of Whelan and Pines. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman should demand to know who made the recommendations that Whelan and Pines get the plum assignments to oversee commercial cases and how the two were allowed to skirt rules governing the awarding of lucrative property management fees.

We need to know who stained our judiciary and deprived us of the honest services citizens have a right to expect from their government.

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