I requested ethics opinions, not for political manipulation, but to stop improper behavior by certain officials.
Charges Against Romaine
According to Newsday, the Grand Jury commented on my asking for ethics opinions on the actions of Legislator Ed Romaine and former Chief Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino.
The Grand Jury incorrectly interpreted my state of mind as being politically motivated. The report went so far as to claim that I used the commission as a sword to punish political enemies.
The Grand Jury’s contention that the seeking of the opinion was politically motivated is refuted by the letters attached herewith from County Executive assistant Ben Zwirn to Legislator Romaine himself and his staff (see attachment). These letters show that the objective of the administration was truly to stop Mr. Romaine from acting in a manner that was detrimental to the taxpayers and in violation of the county ethics code.
Regarding Zwirn’s initial letter written to the ethics board to drop the case against Romaine, Romaine had both a spouse and a sister-in-law working at the county nursing home, and remarkably was not only speaking and voting on the nursing home issue, but was actually introducing legislation to hamper my ability to close or sell the facility. Had my motivations been political and simply to hurt Romaine, he would not have been asked repeatedly to stop his improper behavior.
Upon his first transgression, a ruling would have been sought from the Ethics Commission that he had violated the ethics code. A courtesy call was given to Mr. Romaine explaining the problems we had with his conflict and asking him politely to stop. He reacted negatively. We thought it imperative, because of the severity of the matter, to follow up in writing, again giving Mr. Romaine a chance to correct his ways. Not one, but two letters were sent to Mr. Romaine’s office asking that he reconsider his actions. He refused to say that he would do so. We warned him that if he did not cease these improper activities that he would leave us with no choice but to seek an ethics opinion that would stop him from becoming improperly involved in these debates.
This is important because the Grand Jury made a very definitive statement that I had sought this opinion for political reasons.When an official sees another official engaging in unethical conflicted activity, the remedy is not to take matters into one’s own hands, it is to seek the type of redress that is afforded by the law. Such redress is to seek an ethics opinion, which is exactly what I did. How ironic that the person who committed the violations, Mr. Romaine, is being lauded as a hero, while the person who tried to stop his unethical behavior is being unduly criticized for simply posing the question to the Ethics Commission.
I believed then and I believe now that Romaine violated the County code of ethics.
Newsday reported that Zwirn claimed to have taken the initiative on his own to withdraw the matter and that I was angry about it
But this presents a complete contradiction in the narrative. On the one hand, Zwirn testified that I wanted the matter finally resolved after long delays, but simultaneously says that I wanted it prolonged. (The fact that the request for opinions on the Romaine and Sabatino matters were delayed for years and were not resolved quickly to the administration’s favor discredits the theory that the Ethics Commission was somehow unduly influenced by the Executive).
I expressed reservations related to the contents of his letter, which I felt were over the top in talking of the death of the official’s son and that parts of it could be taken out of context to suggest that no violation had occurred. Consequently, a shorter, more to the point letter was prepared. Indeed, when an aide for Legislator Romaine asked for a copy of the letter, he was provided with the shorter version. As noted on page 39 of the report, when the letter was delivered, the person doing so said to Mr. Romaine, “I was told you were looking for this.”(emphasis added)
The Charges Against Sabatino
Newsday reported that the Grand Jury commented on my administration’s request for an ethics opinion regarding Paul Sabatino’s actions. Unfortunately, without any justification, it was stated that my intent was politically motivated. Once again, there was no evidence to suggest this at all.
It is disconcerting that the Grand Jury report just passed over the egregious conduct we believed that Sabatino engaged in. Would it not be relevant to list these possible conflicts so that the public could get a better idea as to what we were trying to stop?
In our opinion, Sabatino did not engage in simply one inappropriate action. There were as many as five. After being terminated from the executive branch for numerous reasons, Sabatino almost immediately went to work for the county union, which was his adversary as a management employee for the past four years:
- First, Sabatino had access to crucial inside information that would hurt the county if disclosed to the union. For example, he was aware of how much and where monies were sprinkled throughout the budget to support any potential salary increases. Once a union got hold of this information, they would know how high we can bargain in the negotiations.
- Second, Sabatino was the county management’s liaison to the AME Union while he served as chief deputy. A more obvious conflict is hardly imaginable. He was even appointed a management trustee to the Association of Municipal Employees Benefit Fund.
- Third, the union leader acknowledged in a September 26, 2010 Newsday article that Sabatino will, “be presenting the case that the John J. Foley [nursing home] is a necessary facility for the residents of Suffolk County.” Remarkably, Sabatino actually did legal work for the nursing home employees in suing the county to stop the closing or sale of the home.
- Fourth, Sabatino also appeared at the Newsday editorial office advocating for a client who had met with County officials during Sabatino’s tenure to persuade the county to hire him to create a plan to sell tax liens. County management, of which Sabatino was a major player, rejected this proposal in favor of the securitization of tobacco proceeds. Immediately after leaving the county, Sabatino was assisting this client in his opposition to the County’s position.
- Fifth, we had reports that Sabatino was providing inside information to a former county doctor who was suing the county. This information was very damaging to county management, which ultimately is the taxpayer.
Ironically, one email to County Executive deputies from a highly placed official in the executive’s office noted how Sabatino himself believed such conduct was inappropriate and constituted a conflict (See attachment):
PSII [Paul Sabatino] for the 2005 to 2007 budgets knows and may have copies of spreadsheets identifying
1. Where funds are hidden for salary adjustments for all bargaining units …
2. All forecasts for deficits for the nursing home …
3. Was involved in decisions for… substitution of contracted employees for AME [(Union Members)] …
All of the above are issues in the 2008 budget.
My predecessor had a gig as a consultant to AME after he retired. I don’t know if he ever got an ethics sign-off or not, but PSII was apoplectic over the arrangement at the time. (emphasis added.)
No one would have believed that years later our very legitimate attempt to cease what to us was obvious conflicted activity would be turned on us with the claim that our request for this opinion was politically motivated.