A Suffolk County police sergeant’s promotion that allegedly violated nepotism laws has sparked renewed questions about the department’s ethics just as a new police commissioner works to repair the agency’s scandal-scarred reputation.
Sgt. Salvatore Gigante, the nephew of Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante, was transferred January 2 to the district attorney’s detective squad, where he applied to be promoted to detective sergeant. But because the county legislature has yet to approve a nepotism resolution in light of his high-ranking uncle as required by law, the move sparked a federal investigation, whistleblower probe, a union grievance, proposed legislative reforms — and some testy exchanges among county officials.
“These guys are running around like cowboys and this is something I can’t stand for,” says Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), who’s sounding the alarm on the issue. During a hearing last month, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart told the legislature: “When someone in a position of public power makes unsubstantiated claims about the police department, our community’s confidence in this department is damaged and public safety suffers.”
Like neighboring Nassau County police, Suffolk police is among 13 departments in the nation under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The agreements with Long Island’s two largest police forces mandate ongoing federal reviews of their hiring practices — specifically, ensuring that local police hire enough minorities.
Gigante’s transfer triggered a DOJ probe because he is white and other candidates passed up for the DA squad job are black and Hispanic. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s aides withdrew the nepotism resolution from consideration in March, but resubmitted the measure last month. The status of the DOJ inquiry was not immediately clear.
“I went for an interview and was told that, ‘You know the way it is, Jeff. You know, politics. You’re not getting the job,'” Det. Sgt. Jeffrey Walker — who is black, has 25 years on the job, and has been a detective sergeant for eight years — told the legislature’s government operations committee on June 12.
Before the meeting, Walker went to Gregory with his allegation, triggering the whistleblower probe that the presiding officer delegated to the legislature’s counsel, who hired an independent investigator, Joel Weiss, to handle the inquiry. David Kelley, Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini’s former campaign manager who had been Sini’s colleague in the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was hired as outside counsel to handle the matter for the administration.
In a letter obtained by the Press, Kelley wrote Weiss urging him to “refrain from any further investigation of this matter” to avoid “any possible impediments or obstruction to” the DOJ’s probe. But in an email obtained by the Press, Carolyn Weiss of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division wrote Joel Weiss in May to say, “We do not see your investigation as an impediment to our review.” The two Weisses are unrelated.
And the Superior Officers Association filed a grievance because Gigante is supervising detectives while only a sergeant, not a detective sergeant, as the title requires. During the legislative meeting, Hart said that police personnel transfers can’t wait for local lawmakers.
“We cannot leave vacancies for important positions within units unfulfilled while we wait for a resolution to make its way through the legislative calendar,” she said, arguing that since Gigante hasn’t yet been promoted to detective, the nepotism law wasn’t violated. “He was not the most senior sergeant, but he was undoubtedly the best fit for the job.”
The dust-up comes after Sini recently had a judge vacate a 1976 murder conviction of a man who authorities determined was wrongfully convicted and launched a Conviction Integrity Bureau. It also comes as his predecessor, Thomas Spota, is fighting federal corruption charges and Spota’s former protege, ex-chief of department James Burke, was recently released from prison after pleading guilty to beating a handcuffed inmate and covering it up.
In response to the transfer situation, Gregory proposed legislation to reassign Gigante, clarify the county nepotism law, and strengthening the law to penalize anyone who intimidates whistleblowers, as Gregory says happened to Walker. The proposals are expected to come up for a possible vote at the legislature’s July meeting.
“An individual that triggers a nepotism waiver has to recuse themselves from lobbying on the issue,” Gregory says.