The Grand Jury relied on incorrect information when it mistakenly stated that an Ethics official working for the commission was given health benefits to which he allegedly was not entitled, and that this supposedly clouded his independence.
The Grand Jury received inaccurate information that a county official hired to assist the ethics commission was not entitled to health benefits. Newsday reported that the official in question was Judge Lama. Newsday also had reported that Comptroller Joseph Sawicki conducted an audit of Lama’s timesheets. The audit by Comptroller Sawicki was simply incorrect. It took the view that Lama did not qualify for benefits because he did not work more than 50% of a full-time position in each payroll period. This is a ridiculous and illogical standard. Obviously, one must look at the hours accumulated over the course of that year, not on a week to week, or biweekly fashion. To adopt the logic of the comptroller, administrators in his office would have to monitor an employee pay period by pay period. So, in one two-week period the employee would be eligible for benefits while losing the benefits the following week, only to have them reinstated the next. Under that scenario, the Comptroller should have denied other employees health benefits for their part-time work. He did not.
Indeed, the Comptroller’s inaccurate audit which was relied upon by the Grand Jury was refuted by the County’s Labor Relations Director. In a letter dated July 11, 2011, he stated:
From a standpoint of determining eligibility of health insurance alone, it is not possible to alter someone’s health insurance on a weekly, biweekly, or even monthly basis. This is due to the rules requiring a waiting period to commence health insurance of approximately two months. Therefore, it would be impossible to put someone on or take them off health insurance from a weekly or even biweekly basis.
The comptroller also failed to include Judge Lama’s accrued vacation and sick time in calculating his hours. The Labor Director noted:
The first question involved part time workers and how holiday and paid time off through use of accruals would impact their part time work schedule. Under the AME contract, paid holidays and the use of paid accruals (i.e. Vacation, Sick, Personal, Compensatory) is considered time worked.
The same is true for a management employee.
Therefore, Sawicki was wrong in his determination that Lama received benefits to which he was not entitled and Newsday suggested that the Grand Jury relied on this information.
The Grand Jury report suggests that there was some secret operation to have an ethics official classified as a management employee so he could qualify for benefits where he could not otherwise obtain them. There was no such arrangement.
What happened here, according to the County Attorney, is that the legislation appointing the ethics official, as drafted, inadvertently and incorrectly listed him as a union employee. It was later discovered that he was management, because he could be fired at will by the ethics commission and did not have civil service protection. Notwithstanding this very simple explanation, the Grand Jury reported that the ethics official’s “independence was impaired by the improper financial benefit he received from the executive branch of government…” It is truly baffling how this minor correction could be presented as some type of clandestine conspiracy to grant a favor to an ethics director, in order to get a favorable opinion from him.
What is even more baffling is that the Grand Jury’s own definition of a management employee clearly establishes that the County Attorney’s office was correct in eventually designating that Judge Lama was a management employee. Indeed, on page 16, the Grand Jury report notes:
Suffolk County Employees, other than sworn police or correction officers, are categorized as either management employees, meaning that they serve at the pleasure of their designated supervisor, or are civil servants protected by collective bargaining agreements and are members of the Association of Municipal Employees (herein after A.M.E.).
The Grand Jury simply contradicted itself – on the one hand defining a management employee as someone who serves at the pleasure of his supervisor, and then criticizes my administration for designating Judge Lama as management, when he indeed served at the pleasure of his supervisor.
This mistake is crucial because the Grand Jury thereafter mistakenly suggested that Lama received a favor from the Executive Branch to give him something to which he was not entitled and that this so-called favor compromised the judge’s independence.
It is illogical to suggest that an action was taken as far back as 2004 (when Lama was deemed management) to influence a decision by Lama on a question that would not even be posed to him until 2007 (the filing of the financial disclosure form). It is also worth noting that whether Lama was classified as a union or management employee was irrelevant in these years since the county attorney’s office notes he qualified for benefits regardless.
The Grand Jury report ultimately included a line that “there is no evidence to link the two,” (the ethics official’s status and his opinions), but the damage was already done. By connecting the two in the narrative, people could reach a false impression of what actually happened. Indeed a News 12 editorial picked up on this topic, and concluded that I “approved salary benefits to a commissioner to avoid having to file disclosure forms embarrassing to [my] wife.”
In its lead story, Newsday wrote, “Lama … was allowed to collect more than $14,000 in benefits to which he was not entitled [this is incorrect].” The very next sentence states “Lama … also let Levy file the less extensive state financial disclosure form, though the report states that he was mandated to file the more detailed county form [also incorrect]. Once again a linkage was made even though it was based on a totally false premise.
This is just plain wrong. Wrong facts, and no evidence, but still a suggestion is made that there was something nefarious.