Op-Ed: County’s Justice System Is Broken

 Suffolk County has been described as the “Wild East”—because of its many government scandals and history of corruption. That’s why Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta has been seeking creation of an Office of Inspector General in Suffolk.

Mr. Trotta, a Fort Salonga Republican, says such an office (one exists in neighboring Nassau County) is necessary because of a “culture of corruption and mismanagement” in Suffolk County government.  Mr. Trotta should know: he was for long a Suffolk Police Department detective before being elected a legislator in 2013.

Moving testimony for an Office of Inspector General—from a Suffolk attorney who specializes in criminal law—came recently at a hearing on the Trotta bill before the legislature’s Government Operations Committee. “Four decades ago, at age 14, in a courtroom just across the street from this building,” testified lawyer Daniel Rodgers in Hauppauge, “a Family Court judge directed that I be placed in handcuffs…. and taken through an underground tunnel and into Building 77…called the Suffolk County Children’s Shelter.”

Mr. Rodgers, of Cutchogue, who was to go on to become an assistant Suffolk DA and a special prosecutor in Suffolk, continued: “For six weeks I was locked in an 8-by-10-foot cinder-block room with a steel door, an iron cot bolted to the wall and bars on the windows. Subsequently, that same Family Court judge sentenced me to a maximum 18-month sentence at an upstate reform school…You might think there was a sound, logical reason for a Suffolk County Family Court judge to do that, but there wasn’t,” he said. “You see, I had never been arrested. That was because I never committed a crime.”

“I was a PINS kid, a ‘Person In Need of Supervision.’ This, after my mother died unexpectedly when I was eleven, left my father with five children and sent my life into a tailspin.”

“I’m mad as hell because, even after forty years, nothing has changed. Recently, the supervising judge of Suffolk County Family Court issued a memorandum to all Family Court judges, pointing out that Suffolk County detains more children than any other county in the entire state by a very wide margin. You see, Family Court operates with confidentiality, in secrecy, in darkness. I for one can tell you, very few good things happen to our children in the dark.”

“So what’s the problem here in Suffolk County? Let’s call it what it really is: powerful police unions, toxic political parties and complete lack of oversight and therefore accountability,” said Mr. Rodgers. “As a practicing criminal attorney and former Suffolk prosecutor…I’ve seen just about everything. Most cops in Suffolk are honest, decent hardworking men and women. Ask any one of those honest officers and they’ll tell you about the five percent who aren’t. But everyone is afraid.”

“Most judges in Suffolk County are honest and decent. But I’ve seen the sheer incompetency. Everyone knows judges in Suffolk County are selected not because they are good or competent or wise, or even because we as citizens of Suffolk County want them. Judicial qualifications in Suffolk County are relative to how much time you volunteer at your local political party headquarters. Nothing more. Let that sink in for a moment,” said Mr. Rodgers.

“Our system in Suffolk County is broken and has been broken for decades and will continue to be broken unless we act. Please, I’m hoping one of you will have the backbone to stand up and be a hero,” he told the legislators. “Support the creation of an Independent Office of Inspector General in Suffolk County.”

But, said Legislator Trotta last week, his measure still has not gotten out of committee. He described Mr. Rodgers as “a good guy” and said his testimony emblematic of how “our bill is necessary to expose things like this.” Co-sponsored by Anthony Piccirillo, a Holtsville Republican, the measure declares that “it has become clear that greater change and oversight is essential to identify and eradicate instances of fraud, waste, abuse and corruption at the county level.”

            When I asked Mr. Rodgers last week how he was able to recover from his ordeal, he related that after being released from reform school, he spent three years at what was the Melville House in Huntington, set up by folks from Stony Brook University, to try to assist boys here. “They turned me around.” He went on to SUNY Oswego and then law school in Ohio and returned to Suffolk County. His law offices are in Hauppauge and Southampton.

He said “I will continue” to press for an Office of Inspector General in Suffolk.

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