Op-Ed: It’s Time to Act on Lawmakers Facing Charges

The recent arrest of Suffolk County Legislator-Elect Nicholas Caracappa and the arrests of Suffolk County Legislators Rudy Sunderman and William “Doc” Spencer are deeply troubling.

Our elected officials must be held to the highest standards and accountable to those who placed their trust in them to act as an example while serving the public. We must all denounce the crimes they are accused of, recognize that there may be victims that need help, and acknowledge that persons accused of criminal acts are entitled to due process. And, state law must be changed to protect taxpayers.

According to police, Caracappa was arrested for Criminal Contempt 1st degree and Criminal Obstruction of Breathing related to a domestic incident.  Domestic violence is a very serious problem and a national health concern having significant negative impacts on individuals, families, and our communities. It is a primary cause of injury to women in the United States. One  in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. Domestic violence can cause short and long-term physical and mental health problems, and in some cases results in victims being murdered.  Domestic violence also affects children, who when exposed have a higher risk for long-term physical and psychological problems including depression and anxiety.  We must all denounce domestic violence, ensure victims receive services (victim service provider budgets are being cut by up to 25% because of a lack of government funding due to COVID), and support the law enforcement and criminal justice professionals that investigate and prosecute offenders. Breaking the cycle of Domestic violence must be a priority.

According to prosecutors, Spencer was charged with third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance for attempting to trade oxycodone pills for sexual favors with a woman he thought was a sex worker. The Opioid epidemic continues to take the lives of many of our loved ones on Long Island. We must continue to recognize and support the extraordinary efforts of the District Attorney’s Office and Law Enforcement to hold criminals accountable no matter who they are or what their walk of life is when they engage in conduct that increases addiction and contributes to overdose deaths.

According to prosecutors, Legislator Rudy Sunderman is accused of perjury and ethics crimes relating to allegedly holding two paying public jobs at once which is not permitted. A grand jury indicted Sunderman on five felony counts of perjury and misdemeanor ethics charges.

Although these types of charges may appear to be victimless, they are not. These laws are in place to prevent potential conflicts of interest for lawmakers, prevent corruption, and protect the public trust.

Sweeping Statewide Legislation Applying to Every Officeholder on the State, County and Municipal Level is Needed to Protect Taxpayers

Public officials facing criminal charges stay on the job because state law allows it and they can remain in office unless they’re convicted of a felony or for crimes that violate their oath of office. Staying in office while awaiting a trial also allows these officials to continue to collect their salaries, which for Suffolk County legislators, who work part-time, is $100,854 a year, and allows them to continue to set policy, enact laws, and maintain leadership positions while continuing to build their pensions. State law must change to prevent this.

If convicted a judge can, but is not required to strip or reduce the pension of a public official convicted of a felony that had a “direct and actual relationship to the performance of the public officer’s existing duties.”  In other words, if a County Legislator is convicted of criminal sale of a controlled substance they would not likely be stripped of their pension, a pension that accrued while they were in public office earning a salary while defending criminal charges against them.  State law must change to protect taxpayers.

  1. Elected officials who are arrested for a felony or a crime related to a sex offense or domestic violence, should have their pensions and paid time off accruals capped at the time of their arrest.
  2. If that elected official is convicted and not subject to losing their pension because of the narrowly drawn state law, they should be required to repay any public salary collected and lose any paid time off accruals from the day of arrest or indictment to the day of conviction. If they are acquitted their pension and paid time off accruals during that time period would be fully restored.

All of us, including elected officials and party leaders, must publicly condemn the crimes that these public officials are being accused of, support any potential victims, ensure that prosecutors and law enforcement continue to have the resources they need to protect the public and hold offenders accountable, acknowledge that everyone is entitled to due process, and change state law to protect taxpayers.

Laura A. Ahearn is an attorney and former candidate for the State Senate

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