Top 15 Long Island News Stories of 2015

Top 15

15) American Pharoah Wins Triple Crown
Down the stretch no other horse could come close to beating this great American Thoroughbred. American Pharoah won the 2015 Triple Crown in terrific fashion, becoming the 12th horse in history to cross the finish line first at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes—a feat that hadn’t happened in 37 years. The drought came to an end on June 6 when American Pharoah drew away from the pack to the roars of 90,000 fans packing Belmont Park and won the daunting 1½-mile race by 5½ lengths. Behind him all the way were his owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Victor Espinoza and Zayat Stables racing manager Justin Zayat. The three-year-old colt rode off into the sunset, so to speak, after earning more than $8 million in his racing career. “We owe American Pharoah everything,” said Ahmed Zayat. “He is a once-in-a-lifetime horse…He runs with his heart and he is brilliantly fast.”

14) Port Ambrose Sunk
Two years after Liberty Natural Gas, a company backed by a Canadian hedge fund, proposed building a liquid natural gas (LNG) port about 20 miles off the southern coast of Long Island—whipping environmentalists into a frenzy of opposition—Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last month he would exercise his veto power to kill the plan. Aside from the threat of a spill, critics were concerned that the estimated 45 LNG supertanker deliveries annually would be a target for terrorists, encroach on an area eyed for an offshore wind farm and would negatively impact the fishing industry. Alas, the Democratic governor followed the lead of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who had vetoed an earlier LNG port that the same company proposed closer to the Jersey Shore years earlier.

13) Drones Gone Wild
Call 2015 the Year of the Drone. Six reports of drones last year on LI quintupled to 34 for the first eight months of ‘15, bringing to at least 40 the number of increasingly popular radio-controlled unmanned aircraft reported by pilots, air traffic controllers and citizens on LI in the past two years. The local increase in drone sighting reports suggests that LI is outpacing the estimated nearly threefold national increase in sightings of drones and other such devices reported to the Federal Aviation Administration since last year. Although none of the drone sightings over LI indicate a close call with a plane, 16 were well above the 400-foot ceiling set by the FAA and four were within a five-mile radius of an airport, which is also a violation of federal rules. Suffolk and Huntington town lawmakers passed drone regulations this year, Nassau lawmakers are discussing a similar proposal, as are officials in the Town of Hempstead, plus the Village of Saltaire on Fire Island.

12) Common Core Uproar
The first “conscientious objector” on Long Island, Comsewogue teacher Beth Dimino, inspired a movement known across the land as #diminoeffect by refusing, with the support of her superintendent Dr. Joe Rella, to administer the mandated controversial Common Core exams this April. She called the tests “child abuse,” a claim she made to riotous applause at Ward Melville High School more than two years ago when New York State Education Commissioner John King (now the newly appointed Secretary of Education) was on stage. By refusing to proctor the tests, Dimino stood with the 20,000 children across Long Island who refused to sit for the exams. The LI-led “Opt-Out” movement has become an inarguably oppositional force to be reckoned with across the state, culminating with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (second) Common Core task force and state-wide concessions for a four-year moratorium to revise Common Core State Standards.

11) Cutchogue Fatal Limo Crash
The Long Island tragedy of the summer came July 18, when a Peconic man allegedly drove drunk and crashed his pickup truck into a limousine, killing four women and injuring six others who were touring the North Fork wine country celebrating a birthday. The fatal crash on Route 48 in Cutchogue came six days after an allegedly drunk driver crashed into a car on the Southern State Parkway in Bay Shore, killing a man and his two children. In the Cutchogue case, Steven Romeo, crashed into a limo that was making a U-turn, killing Brittany Schulman and Lauren Baruch, both of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, of Kings Park; and Amy Grabina, of Commack. All were 23 except Baruch, who was 24. Prosecutors said Romeo, 55, told police that he drank several beers before the crash. He was charged with driving while intoxicated.

10) LI’s Lynch Confirmed as AG
Loretta Lynch, the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which prosecutes federal crimes on Long Island, was confirmed at U.S. Attorney General in April, five months after President Obama nominated her for the position. Lynch became the first black woman in US history to hold the title as the nation’s chief prosecutor. As has become the norm in Washington, DC of late, Lynch’s Congressional confirmation was often contentious as Republicans bristled at her support for Obama’s executive action on immigration. But Lynch’s resume was hardly in dispute. During her career she had overseen high-profile cases involving terrorists, corrupt politicians and gangsters. She replaced Eric Holder, who resigned in late 2014.

9) NYPD Officer Brian Moore of LI Killed
Tens of thousands came to St. James Church in Seaford to pay their respects at the funeral held for NYPD Officer Brian Moore, who had died in the line of duty in Queens. On May 2, the 25-year-old cop, who worked at the 105th Precinct in Queens Village, was shot in the face by an ex-con wielding a .38-caliber handgun stolen from Georgia in 2011. At the funeral, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton posthumously promoted Moore to the rank of detective first grade. Coming from a family of police officers—his dad and his uncle are both retired NYPD sergeants—the young officer was still living at his father’s house in North Massapequa. Moore, who had made more than 150 arrests since joining the force five years ago, was patrolling in an unmarked police car with his plainclothes partner around 6:15 p.m. on a Saturday evening when they spotted a man suspiciously “adjusting an object in his waistband” and decided to question him. Their suspect turned out to be Demetrius Blackwell, 35, who allegedly whipped out his gun without warning, fired at them and fled.

8) Casino Wars
After the Nassau Regional Off-track Betting (OTB) Corp. nixed plans to build a video lottery terminal parlor—aka, a mini-casino—in Westbury last January in the face of intense public opposition, the Nassau OTB was slow to declare another location, but just this week it announced that Belmont Park racetrack in Elmont is Plan B. Another round of vocal grassroots opposition is sure to follow, but whether that community will be as successful as Westbury remains to be seen. Meanwhile in Suffolk, Medford residents continue to fight against a similar proposal by the Suffolk OTB to build an estimated $40-million, nearly 100,000-square-foot parlor on a vacant lot near the Long Island Expressway. Place your bets on whether either project can overcome LI’s odds-on favorite: NIMBYism.

7) Oyster Bay Scandals
First, Frederick Ippolito, the commissioner of planning and development for the Town of Oyster Bay, was arrested in March on six counts of tax evasion for allegedly failing to report more than $2 million in consulting fees over a six-year span. Six months later, Harendra Singh, a Syosset-based restaurateur, was arrested for allegedly bribing a Town of Oyster Bay official, inflating the amount of Sandy recovery aid one of his properties qualified for and perpetrating tax fraud, among other charges. Meanwhile, Newsday reported that federal investigations may lead to additional legal action regarding the town and related players. It was almost enough for longtime Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto to lose his bid for a 10th term in November, but the veteran Republican clung to his job with less than 100 votes in a race against a little-known Democratic challenger.

6) Madeline Singas Takes Over as Nassau DA
The career prosecutor cruised to victory over her better-known Republican challenger, Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, in the race for Nassau County District Attorney in November. Singas, who had been serving as acting DA since her former boss, Kathleen Rice, went to Congress in January, was considered the underdog. But Singas managed to convince enough voters that her resume was superior to Murray’s, who had spent the last decade running Hempstead. Singas touted her prosecutorial experience on the stump and painted her competitor as unfit to oversee such an important office. Murray’s defeat was shocking to some political observers who thought the Republican machine that dominates Nassau politics would prevail against a novice campaigner. Come the New Year, Murray is out of elected office and Democrats get to keep the district attorney’s office—the only major political office Democrats currently hold in Nassau. But don’t cry for Kate, Nassau. The board of trustees at Nassau Community College have appointed Murray to handle “governmental affairs” as acting general counsel, which pays $150,000 a year.

5) Suffolk Conservative Party Chair Ed Walsh Charged
Ed Walsh, the powerful Suffolk County Conservative Party leader and Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department lieutenant, found himself facing the wrong side of a jail in March when he was indicted on federal charges of theft of government funds and wire fraud. He has pleaded not guilty. This case began when an FBI investigation looked into Walsh’s time sheets from 2011 to 2014 and claimed to have found that Walsh had been paid $80,000 for working while he was actually out golfing, gambling and doing party business instead. His lawyers say he’s always had a flexible schedule. As one of his attorneys reportedly said: “It’s not like he was a clerk at King Kullen.” His trial is set to begin March 15, 2016, just after the pension for his $121,000-a-year job will fully vest because he will have been on the county payroll for 25 years in February. It’s no secret that Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, a Conservative Party member, does not hold his own party leader in the highest regard: he’d suspended the lieutenant and tried to fire him too. But Walsh, 49, remains a formidable figure, still heading the largest Conservative county organization in the Empire State.

4) Altice Announces Purchase of Cablevision, Newsday
Qu’est-ce que c’est?! A French telecommunications giant made a $10 billion deal to buy Cablevision in September and suddenly Newsday employees are running around Melville practicing their high school French in anticipation of having new owners in 2016 who care nothing about the Knicks. Zut alors! Altice said it would offer the Dolans’ company $34.90 a share but the stock has done nothing but drop below the asking price as concerns have increased. Recently New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he might put the kibosh on the deal if he decides that it isn’t in the public interest. Altice is notorious for imposing drastic cost cuts after it acquires something new. It’s said it wants to find $900 million in savings and “synergies” here, which could involve curtailing customer service and slowing down upgrades in the future for Cablevision’s current 3.1 million subscribers. Plus there’s the prospect of draconian job losses, which doesn’t sit well with the Communications Workers of America, the union representing 300 Cablevision employees, let alone the hapless workers at Long Island’s paper of record. The city may not have a say in this deal but the state’s regulatory body, the Public Service Commission, certainly will. Whether Newsday is about to run its last word is another story.

3) Ex-SCPD Chief James Burke Arrested
Burke, who served as chief of the Suffolk County Police Department until his retirement in October, was indicted in December for covering up a retaliatory assault on a suspect who stole a duffel bag from inside his department-issued SUV. A federal district court judge held Burke without bail, calling “the corruption of an entire department by this defendant shocking.” The charges against Burke stem from the December 2012 arrest of Christopher Loeb, then 27, who was suspected of breaking into vehicles, including Burke’s. Burke went to Loeb’s house in St. James during his arrest and retrieved his duffel bag, which contained his gun belt, ammunition, a box of cigars and a number of other items, including sex toys and pornography, authorities said. Federal prosecutors allege that it was the porn that served as Burke’s motivation for beating Loeb inside Suffolk police’s Fourth Precinct. Burke has pleaded not guilty.

2) Isles Leave With Billy’s Encore
The Islanders could not seal their end of their deal and give hockey fans a dream postseason matchup against the Rangers, but they did give Long Islanders plenty to root for. And what a magical curtain call it was. In the final year of playing at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Isles finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and had arena faithful partying like it was 1984. But the Cinderella story was not meant to be, with the Isles losing in Game 7 to the Washington Capitals. They now play in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and are in danger of skating to the bottom of the barrel in average home attendance. Despite the Isles’ loss in April, The Old Barn roared one final time when Billy Joel closed out the arena during a sold-out show in August. The Coliseum is currently going through a $261-million renovation, which developers hope to complete next year.

1) Ex-Sen. Dean Skelos Corruption Conviction
Former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was simultaneously the highest-ranking Republican in the state, one of the three most influential lawmakers statewide and arguably the most powerful politician on Long Island. That is, until he resigned his leadership post when he and his son, Adam, were arrested on federal corruption charges in May. The senator was expelled from office after his conviction earlier this month. Prosecutors convinced a Manhattan jury that the disgraced senator used his power to extort $300,000 in payments to his son for work Adam either didn’t do or was unqualified for over a four-year span. While potential candidates line up for the special election to fill the seat that Skelos held for three decades, defense attorneys for the father and son prepare to mount their appeal. And political observers are placing their bets on which lawmaker from LI the feds arrest next. As U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has said: “Stay tuned!”

-Compiled by Timothy Bolger, Jaime Franchi, Rashed Mian and Spencer Rumsey