Home Opinion Greg Blass Greg Blass How the Suffolk DA came to be the highest-paid elected...

Greg Blass
How the Suffolk DA came to be the highest-paid elected official in the county — and what you can do about it

The Suffolk County courthouse on Griffing Avenue in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The Suffolk County District Attorney is our highest-compensated, elected county official, fully paid by us as county taxpayers. Yet huge raises for that job keep on coming. It now pays $195,000. Add benefits and health coverage, and we’re in the range of $230,000. This will again increase next year by about $10,000, in base salary alone, with another $2,000, in 2019. There’s a story behind this, involving in part the dynamic duo running for Suffolk DA this year, foreshadowing the kind of DA either would be.

A few days ago, the county legislature passed a four-year freeze for the automatic pay raises they themselves have received for many years now. But they couldn’t touch the DA’s runaway salary, owing to a “home rule message” they passed, with only one dissenting vote (yours truly), in 1980. This “home rule message” was on a proposed state law that allowed NY State to set local DA salaries. The NY District Attorneys Association lobbied their buddies in Albany at the time to get DA salaries out of local control, the county legislature went along with it, making it a safe vote for the state legislators, and here we are.

So stay with me on this, and note the roles of state legislators vs. county legislators.

Known as Judiciary Law Sec. 183a, the state law fixes the salaries that counties (outside NYC) pay their DAs. For those counties with populations of more than 500,000 (such as Suffolk County), DA pay is to be “equivalent” to what the state pays as salary to NY Supreme Court justices. The Suffolk legislators should demand this law’s repeal.

Enter the State Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation, eagerly created by our state legislators in Albany. So a crew of unelected appointees recommended judicial salary increases. The outrage about this commission is not only the unsupported, excessive salaries it set for judges (and thus local DAs), but also the authority the State Legislature gave the commission’s recommendations, which have the “force of law,” unless overridden by the legislature. The clincher is that such override would never happen because the state legislators, and their committees, have quietly abandoned this oversight responsibility. Why oversee an out-of-control salary commission that also has the power to set your state legislative pay raises?

So this commission, which was supposed to have been established on June 1, 2015, with six months to put together its judicial pay recommendations, wasn’t appointed until the end of October 2015, didn’t hold its first organizational meeting until November, with so little publicity that barely anyone but judges and their cohorts testified at its one and only public hearing three-and-a-half weeks later. Its final report followed three-and-a-half weeks after that on Christmas Eve of 2015 setting salaries for judges, and thus for DAs.

The insane climb in pay for DA’s described above is the result of the commission’s binding “report.”

A lawsuit by a non-profit, non-partisan citizens group, to be heard by one or another well-paid judge, now challenges this commission’s work and methods, along with this appalling, unconstitutional grant of authority by our Albany “watchdogs.” For details on this lawsuit, and the compelling testimony last January before the state legislature by the director of the Center for Judicial Accountability, see the CJA website.

Back to Suffolk County – interestingly, CJA has asked the Democratic candidate for Suffolk DA, Timothy Sini, to refuse, if elected, all the these raises by this sham commission. He should respond forcefully. But he won’t. He’s already been called upon to explain how he allowed no less than 84 complaints of serious police misconduct, under investigation by the internal affairs unit of the Suffolk PD, disappear without a trace while he was serving as Suffolk PD commish. Some of these evaporated complaints were actually filed by other police officers.

Sini has favored the people whose laws he seeks to enforce as DA with dead silence. Why should candidate Sini answer anything? The bosses gave him all the significant ballot lines for election save one – Republican. That ballot line the bosses reluctantly gave to attorney Ray Perini, now left on his own, as the deal is in for Sini to be the bosses’ DA. Anyway, the same questions lodged with Sini have been asked of candidate Perini. And from him as well, no reply.

Then there’s Suffolk County Sheriff candidate, who may soon have the ultimate gift of the party bosses: all the ballot lines of all the parties State Senator Phil Boyle. Though not running for DA, he has had by far a major “oversight” role with this salary commission, but never plays it. He’s a majority member of four major senate committees in Albany, yet he pleads ignorance about this committee’s antics.

The real irony, however, with the insanity of the state setting climbing salaries for our local DA, lies with the bogus reason given back when the shell game started in 1980, first to the county legislature, then to the state legislature. The farce they fell for was that hefty raises for county DA’s are necessary to encourage competition to run for this office among qualified, experienced attorneys. Yet every Suffolk DA race from then till now has been more fixed than this salary scam. Competition be damned! The party bosses would have it no other way.

Let’s close by repeating the solution: The Suffolk County legislators have to push our state legislators who represent Suffolk County to give a break to the taxpayers by repealing Sec. 183a of the state Judiciary Law. The people can make a difference. Lean on all these legislators to do the right thing. You can make a difference!

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg