These days, in politics and government, we see one of two approaches in almost everything pols do: theatre or substance. Once in a great while, they do both together. That’s when the “people’s government” can work at its best, or at its worst.
Theater consists of drama, of sending a message. Substance, on the other hand, is taking meaningful steps on an issue, confronting a problem with effect, not spin. But to combine theater and substance usually is to take the lead in a creative way, capturing everyone’s imagination, resisting where the odds seem hopeless, or beating at their own game the special interests or power brokers in ways that are spectacular, even inspiring.
Today’s running controversy with the county police chief in jail, the county executive who appointed him — despite written warnings from police officers not to — and the district attorney — the police chief’s avid mentor — both under fire, brings back memories of a previous DA in Suffolk, the late James M. Catterson Jr., and excesses with both investigators and assets from his office.
Back in the mid 1990s, the county was mired in a multi-million dollar mess after leasing more than a thousand vehicles for its fleet of PD and civilian cars and trucks. Though the county hoped to save money, the car lease proved to be a rathole of wasted public funds. The DA at the time, however, seemed protective of the lease for questionable reasons.
The Suffolk County Legislature’s Budget Review Office, an independent, nonpartisan group of analysts with an excellent record, became the first agency within government to question the terms behind the car lease. BRO, by the way, had already annoyed the then-county executive Robert Gaffney, owing to their candid critique of other county executive initiatives.
Then, at an informal meeting between the legislature’s budget review office staff and the county executive’s budget staff, one BRO staffer quipped that the car lease was a “sweetheart deal.” Though this was an apt description (toddlers could have negotiated a better car lease, as compared with the private sector), nevertheless calling it a “sweetheart deal” made the county executive and especially a prima donna deputy ever-so-cranky. As was customary in Suffolk, the county executive’s people called in the Suffolk DA to settle political scores by launching criminal investigations. And as was also customary, the DA quickly obliged.
First, the DA despatched a squad of his detective investigators, who popped in unannounced and grim-faced, at the BRO offices in Hauppauge, flashing badges and asking endless questions about what BRO really knew of the car lease.
Now this was theater on the DA’s part, aimed at intimidating the BRO personnel, a group of low-key accountants and budget analysts. These BRO types, for their part, were coming up with real substance on the car lease issue, and were the kind of personalities not given to theater. To their credit, BRO went on to release a series of highly critical reports of this car lease, prompting the county legislature to hold hearings about it. Undaunted, the DA started intimidating legislators, to which the press gave front-page coverage.
As for the lease itself, reaching the level of a scandal, the legislature hired a special investigator; she was an eminently qualified, former assistant U.S. attorney, who moved into the legislature’s building in Hauppauge with a burglar-proof office and secure phone line, to delve into possible criminality with the lease and those connected to it. This was a courageous act on the legislators’ part at the time, an act of significant substance.
Not to be outdone, the DA had one of his specially equipped surveillance vans (used to eavesdrop on crack houses and the like) park right outside the special investigator’s office window. How’s that for theater? In response, the legislature passed a budget amendment taking the van away from the DA and transferring it to the health department for medical outreach. How’s that for hopefully both theater and substance?
The surveillance van was moved, and its budget title was returned to the DA courtesy of the county executive’s veto after a couple of weeks. Seems petty on the surface, but it confronted emerging, dangerous power, the kind that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once talked about: “The accretion of dangerous power does not come in a day. It comes, however slowly, from the generative force of unchecked disregard of the restrictions that fence in even the most disinterested assertion of authority.”
Then the DA appointed his own special prosecutor, who targeted the legislator who chaired the hearings. No charges were ever filed despite a prolonged back and forth (though that particular legislator, Herb Davis, at his own unreimbursed, personal expense, hired a defense counsel). Meanwhile, the legislature’s special investigator reported with real substance on all manner of irregularities with the car lease, but no action followed. The lease expired a few months later, when its poorly negotiated terms hit the county with a vengeance, making Suffolk cough up Cadillac-priced repairs and fees after the county turned in the vehicles – a fiscal nightmare.
Fast forward to the confrontation today between Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota. With the county executive’s police chief in jail, Bellone acknowledged that he received the anonymous warnings. He said when he consulted Spota, he received assurances that the candidate chief was the best, and was told to ignore the warnings. So the county executive has demanded the district attorney’s resignation not only for this bad advice, but also for running what Bellone described as a “criminal enterprise.” Bellone added some theater to all this, signing a letter demanding Spota’s resignation, and bringing reporters with him to the DA’s office to personally hand deliver the letter.
Enter the current Suffolk County Legislature, which engaged in some deft theater of their own. In this instance, they held a news conference on April 27 to announce with bells and whistles their newly drafted bill for the hiring of a special investigator with subpoena power.
Compelling questions, they said, indeed had to be answered:
- As to those police officers who had warned the county executive not to appoint the police chief, what else do they know?
- What “criminal enterprise” of the DA was Bellone referring to?
- What’s behind Spota’s accusation that the county executive tried to run interference with the DA’s prosecution of certain county executive staff?
- What’s up with questionable wiretaps widely used in Suffolk law enforcement?
- Why are the county executive and the Suffolk PBA publicly and privately pushing the legislature to back off with their bill?
Maybe the last point explains the legislature’s tap dance now. The legislators finished their news conference, but weeks later, to this day, they have meekly failed to file their bill, so it will never come up for a vote, or even further discussion.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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