Timothy Bolger

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Timothy Bolger is the Editor in Chief of the Long Island Press who’s been working to uncover unreported stories since shortly after it launched in 2003. When he’s not editing, getting hassled by The Man or fielding cold calls to the newsroom, he covers crime, general interest and political news in addition to reporting longer, sometimes investigative features. He won’t be happy until everyone is as pissed off as he is about how screwed up Lawn Guyland is.

Calarco Replaces Gregory As Presiding Officer of Suffolk Legislature

Suffolk County Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue)

Suffolk County lawmakers have named a new leader of their legislative body for the first time in six years.

The county legislature voted Thursday to make Legislator Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) the Democrat-led chamber’s new presiding officer after his predecessor, Legislator DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), stepped down to take a role on the Babylon Town Board.

“Being the presiding officer is not an easy task,” Calarco said after the vote confirming his appointment. “I have a lot of respect for how hard it is to manage this position.”

With six years at the helm of the 18-member body, Gregory is the second-longest serving presiding officer in the county’s history. The late former Presiding Officer William Lindsay served longest with eight years.

“Leaving the Suffolk County Legislature will be bittersweet,” Gregory said upon handing over the reins to Calarco.

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) took over Calarco’s title as deputy presiding officer when Calarco was promoted.

In a show of bipartisanship, Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who leads the legislature’s Republican minority, voted to support Calarco.

But Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) warned that the legislature needs to focus on correcting its financial troubles after it was ranked the most fiscally stressed county in New York State.

“We should take a hard look at the reality of whats going on in this county,” Trotta said. “We’re not doing the right thing.”

Calarco said that fixing the fiscal mess is among his priorities, which include working to mitigate sea-level rise, drinking water contamination, economic development, diversity, and keeping young people from moving away.

To those who think he doesn’t push back enough, Calarco said while he prefers to find solutions to problems before they blow up, he won’t back down, if tested.

“I will push back against unnecessary partisanship, which I don’t expect to have,” he said.

Long Islanders Showing Solidarity Against Anti-Semitism

Students grasp each other’s wrist symbolizing equality among all people. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sadie Colbert)

Long Island faith leaders are planning a show of solidarity following a recent spate of anti-Semitic hate crimes across the New York Metro area, many of which proved violent.

The Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center is inviting the public — including those of all faiths and creeds — to a gathering on Friday at the JCC in East Hills, where attendees will be able to participate in projects to help the victims of recent attacks. Attendees will be able to coordinate plans to attend the the No Hate. No Fear. Solidarity March scheduled for Sunday at Foley Square in Manhattan.

“All are encouraged to join and participate in song, statements of solidarity, and social action to renew our connection and fortify our bond to one another,” the JCC said in a statement.

In a separate event, Long Islanders will also march from the corner of County Seat Drive and 11st Street in Mineola to the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building at the corner of Old Country Road and Franklin Avenue starting at 3 p.m. Jan. 12, with remarks slated for 3:40 p.m.

Recent anti-Semitic crimes include assaults in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, a suspect allegedly stabbing five people at a rabbi’s house during a Hanukkah party in Rockland County, and racist graffiti found at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove.

The incidents also prompted Nassau and Suffolk County leaders to join with the Holocaust center to form a Bi-County Coalition Against Hate and Bigotry last month.

“As a historical institution charged with the responsibility of educating about the hatred that led to the Holocaust, we are deeply aware of the fear these incidents create in the Jewish community, particularly among Holocaust survivors and their families, and the dangers that these acts of antisemitism pose to the broader society,” the Holocaust center said in a statement. “We ask all Long Islanders to stand together in a collective call for safety, unity, and tolerance.”

The gathering will be held at the Sid Jacobson JCC, 300 Forest Dr. in East Hills from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. For more information, visit sjjcc.org

Suffolk Pols Hint At Looming Police Scandal Upon Rejecting Nepotism Promotion

Suffolk County lawmakers who rejected promoting the nephew of a high-ranking police official on the same day that the ex-district attorney was convicted of corruption warned that more scandals were coming soon.

Suffolk legislators voted 9-7 on Dec. 17 against approving a waiver of the county’s anti-nepotism law to allow Sgt. Salvatore Gigante — whose uncle is Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante — to be promoted to the district attorney’s detective squad.

“This is not over,” said Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), who is stepping down next month to join the Babylon Town Board. “There are other things that are coming. I wont be here, but I assure you this is not over.”

The vote to reject the promotion came on the same day that ex-Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota and his former chief deputy in charge of public corruption Christopher McPartland were convicted in Central Islip federal court of covering up former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke beating a handcuffed suspect that stole Burke’s sex toys, porn, and other items. Burke pleaded guilty has since been released from prison. Spota and McPartland are planning to appeal their convictions.

“There’s still serious, serious problems with this police department and I think you will see that in the next few months how they’re being exposed,” added Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a former Suffolk police detective. He also expressed concern that the Gigante transfer would send a message to the other 2,200 members of the department that promotions depend on connections, not merit.

Gigante’s proposed promotion prompted a whistleblower to make a complaint to Gregory’s office about how the department handled it. Critics said that the department overlooked more qualified candidates, including some who were minorities, in favor of Gigante, who is white. Department leaders maintained that Gigante was the best man for the job and that his uncle recused himself from the process.

Some lawmakers argued that District Attorney Tim Sini should be allowed to hire whoever he wants and that the chief of detectives has proven himself to be honorable. Gregory argued that the anti-nepotism law needs to be applied fairly for it to work. He also balked at the practice of department leaders transferring employees to new titles before lawmakers approve the waiver, as was done with Gigante.

Trotta noted that earlier in the day, Richard Donoghue, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, held a news conference following Spota’s conviction, where Donoghue announced: “The days of Long Island’s good old boy networks combining politics, power, and policing, to benefit the select few at the expense of the taxpaying public are dead and gone.”

Before voting against Gigante’s promotion, Trotta said: “Apparently they may not be.”

A federal review of Gigante’s transfer concluded without any action. And lawmakers didn’t pass reforms the presiding officer proposed to correct issues that he said arose during the debate, such as barring the subject of a complaint from contacting a whistleblower. But Gregory said numerous people came to him with additional allegations of illegality and that he referred them to federal investigators.

“Things are happening,” he said. “I don’t know when, but things are happening.”

Will New Leadership Stabilize NUMC?

Nassau University Medical Center

Nassau University Medical Center officials are narrowing their search for a new CEO that the East Meadow hospital’s stakeholders hope will give NUMC stability after its gone through four leaders in two years.

Hotelier and attorney George Tsunis is resigning Jan. 17 from his position as chair of NUMC operator Nassau Health Care Corp., or NuHealth, the public benefit corporation that Nassau County Executive Laura Curran appointed him to last year. He has also served as the hospital’s interim president since October following the resignation of Winnie Mack of New Hyde Park-based health care group Northwell Health, who did a six-month stint as NUMC CEO. And last year, the NuHealth board named Dr. Paul A. Pipia its interim CEO after the board voted to fire its previous president, Dr. Victor Politi, who was appointed by former Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano in 2014.

“Nassau County has an enormous financial stake in the hospital’s proper operation,” Nassau County Legislator Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), who leads the Democratic minority in the county legislature, said last month while urging the body’s Republican majority to hold hearings into patronage at NUMC. He noted that Nassau taxpayers are the guarantors of about $200 million in NUMC’s debt.

The 530-bed NUMC, founded in 1935, is the region’s lone public hospital. It serves as a safety net for uninsured patients and neediest populations. In an effort to turn around the financially strapped medical center, Northwell Health this year got New York State approval to enter a management consulting partnership with NUMC to help devise a long-term plan for the struggling hospital.

“As a safety net hospital, Nassau University Medical Center has a long tradition of caring for tens of thousands of needy patients,” said Michael J. Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, which has had an affiliation with NUMC since 2005. “As Nassau County’s and New York State’s largest health care provider, Northwell believes we have a social responsibility to assist NuHealth, which is an indispensable asset and critical resource for residents of Nassau County.”

Under the three-year strategic transformation advisory services agreement, a team of Northwell’s administrative and clinical leaders will identify operational, management, and strategic needs, and develop recommendations to improve them. The NuHealth board will then review the recommendations for possible adoption. How that partnership will fare after Tsunis’ departure remains to be seen.

Besides inking that deal, Tsunis tenure also included last month negotiating a contract for NUMC’s 3,000 employees, who had been working without a contract since last year, and rooting out patronage employees appointed by the previous administration.

While running for county executive, Curran held a news conference outside of NUMC and called for an end to patronage, the act of appointing politically connected employees, at the hospital, which has long hired workers tied to the administration in power at the time.

“Unfortunately, NUMC, while providing critical care to so many, has become another symbol of the culture of corruption in Nassau County,” Curran said in front of the hospital in 2017. “Politics should and must play no role whatsoever in the appointment of the NUMC Board of Directors or staffing of the administration. I vow to appoint directors who have expertise in finance, health systems, marketing and the other areas necessary for real leadership and members without conflicts of interest. I will not, under any circumstance, appoint any Board Members who will allow waste of hospital funds to continue.”

The search for a new NUMC CEO has reportedly been narrowed down to two candidates. They are seasoned hospital leader John Gupta and ex-deputy Nassau exec Tom Stokes, who worked for Tom Suozzi, Newsday reported.

Will Tsunis’ replacement stay in the post longer and give the hospital the steady leadership that it needs? Stay tuned.

United Way of Long Island’s Longest-serving Staffer Retiring

Betty Eberhardt at a United Way of Long Island event.

Elizabeth “Betty” Eberhardt started working as a secretary at United Way of Long Island in 1975, took on many other roles over the decades, and became one of the most valued, respected and loved colleagues.

Now, as United Way of Long Island celebrates its 55th anniversary, it’s also saying goodbye to its most tenured staffer, Eberhardt, now assistant vice president, who is retiring next summer after 45 years with the local nonprofit, an affiliate of the global network.

“Many people leave their organizations because they want to change the job they’re doing,” says Eberhardt, whose career has included roles in the media relations, fundraising, and allocations departments. “I’ve been blessed to be able to do that within one organization.”

It is with near certainty that Eberhardt is one of the longest-serving United Way employees in the nation. 

“Betty’s commitment to our mission is unparalleled,” says United Way of Long Island President and CEO Theresa A. Regnante. “Her passion is evident in her work and in the partnerships she has helped establish over the decades.”

Over the years, Eberhardt has seen the need for financial assistance fluctuate as recessions come and go, and witnessed the agency’s growth. This includes forming initiatives in response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and building healthy, efficient and sustainable housing of late.

Chief among her accomplishments was starting the precursor to the 2-1-1 helpline that connects those in need with the nonprofit’s many assistance programs. When the service started, it was just Eberhardt answering the phone. 2-1-1 Long Island has since grown into a 24/7 operation with a call center and online database that collectively get hundreds of thousands of requests for help annually.

“Betty made a major impact on all of the people she touched,” says Ronnie Renken, a United Way of Long Island board member who started volunteering for the organization in 1976. “Her main concern has always been the people of Long Island and the impact that United Way has made on their lives.”

John Renyhart, senior vice president of marketing for the nonprofit in the ’80s and ’90s, recalls that Eberhardt also helped start the heating assistance program Project Warmth, which is now entering its 26th season.

“She is very good at connecting United Way with larger projects,” he says. “The organization is fortunate to have had her expertise for nearly five decades and the dedication that she brings to the job.”

As Eberhardt reflects on her storied career and prepares for retirement, she’s just happy to have had a chance to help.

“The most rewarding task is being a small part of helping families in need,” she says. “That is very personally rewarding.”

A Day In The Life of Santa Claus

Long Island Press Editor-In-Chief Timothy Bolger as Santa Claus at Dance Connection in Islip on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Photo courtesy of Dance Connection.

Few jobs may be as heartwarming while simultaneously tugging at your heart strings than that of dressing up like jolly old St. Nick and wading into a crowd of wide-eyed toddlers.

In my limited recent experience donning a Santa suit for a half dozen classes at my 3-year-old daughter’s dance school, most of the kids were excited to see me, generous with the hugs, and happy to pose for a photo. But there were a couple who cried, and there’s a feeling of powerlessness that washes over you when you realize there’s nothing you can do to stop the tears you caused. Of course, my experience is nothing compared to the professional mall Santas that do this for money all season long.

“The children were asking not for toys,” one of the Kris Kringles working Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City told me the year after Superstorm Sandy hit. “They were asking for homes, heat and light.”

It’s not only kids with heavy hearts who sometimes land in Santa’s lap. The terminally ill and those grieving a loss are among those who turn to Father Christmas looking for a reason to believe.

His reply? “I’ll see what I can do.” 

The endless supply of hugs ease the tough days. But the uplifting moments often outnumber the heart-wrenching visits for the pros.

“I’ve … had three different couples get engaged while sitting on my lap,” a Santa at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury recently told the Press.

My run in the big red suit and beard — not counting a few times attending SantaCon in New York City a decade ago before it became Public Enemy No. 1 — was not quite as eventful, but gave a much-needed boost of holiday spirit nonetheless. Getting the suit on right was the hardest part. And it’s somewhat comforting to know my beard isn’t quite gray enough yet to not have to use the fake one.

A dissonant blend of The Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” and the screams of excited children filled the air in the supply closet where I suited up and waited to be summoned into one of three classrooms full of young children waiting to meet Santa.

Once I got my cue — such as a chorus chanting Santa’s name — the task proved to be the easiest acting gig ever. Just jingle some bells, yell “ho, ho, ho,” tell the kids Merry Christmas, ask them if they’ve been good, and hand out a few toys with the help of some cheerful elves.

A rare curve ball came my way when one of the kids — a girl whose holiday spirit rivaled that of Cindy Lou Who — asked me about her Elf on The Shelf. She was slightly older than the rest of the group, so I feared she was at the age where she was testing Santa to see if he’s real. I braced for her to quiz me on her elf’s name and tried to figure out a safe response. Thankfully, her inquiry turned into a harmless story about a gift her elf had brought her. 

It was a close call, but it got a little hotter in that Santa suit for a moment. I survived my stint as Santa without shattering any kids’ dreams.

“Santa’s job is just to get a smile,” the wise Santa at Roosevelt Field Mall told me back in 2013. “When they start doubting, I say to the children: If you don’t believe in Santa Claus, think of all the fun that you are missing!”

Long Island Officials Tout Largest MS-13 Bust in NY History

ms-13

Ninety-six members and associates of the ultra-violent street gang MS-13 have been arrested in what Suffolk County prosecutors are calling the largest take down targeting the gang in New York State history. 

The bust was the result of a nearly two-year joint investigation between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, officials announced Friday. The probe culminated in a grand jury indictment against 45 gang members and 19 associates. The role of the other 32 suspects nabbed in the dragnet was not immediately clear.

“Our message is simple: to the residents of Suffolk County, we will do what it takes to protect our communities; not one of us should have to live amongst these ruthless gang members,” District Attorney Tim Sini said. “To MS-13: we are coming for you.”

The investigation thwarted seven alleged murder plots by charging defendants for conspiracies to commit murder before the planned slayings occurred, authorities said. Charges also included drug trafficking, weapons possession and sales, gang violence, and other offenses.

The larger probe netted more than 230 MS-13 gang members worldwide. Suffolk authorities said they used about 215 court-authorized wiretaps as a part of the investigation.

Authorities said the bust ended the so-called New York Program, which was orchestrated by the leadership of MS-13 in El Salvador to develop a greater presence on LI. The defendants charged in the indictment include the leadership and members of nine MS-13 cliques that operate on the Island.

The investigation revealed that MS-13 gang members allegedly sold cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, and marijuana, and sent the proceeds to gang leaders in El Salvador to purchase weapons, ammunition, and additional drugs, prosecutors said. Investigators seized more than 10 kilograms of cocaine, quantities of heroin and marijuana, more than 1,000 counterfeit pills that appeared to be oxycodone but were found to be fentanyl, authorities said.

MS-13 has been the target of an intense crackdown since members were involved in a quadruple murder in Central Islip in 2017. President Donald Trump twice visited Long Island specifically to discuss efforts to eradicate the gang, as did former U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions. The gang, which was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s and is run from El Salvador, has been blamed for dozens of murders in Nassau and Suffolk counties over the years.

“Today’s arrests close the book on MS-13’s attempt to build an arsenal of brutality on the East Coast,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan. “For over two years, a wiretap investigation provided critical insight into MS-13’s goals of recruitment, expansion, brutality, violence and rule. … This announcement is a message to MS-13 leaders in El Salvador and LA that New York will not be your home.” 

Related Story: MS-13 Morphing After Crackdown, Experts Say

Long Island Gets $87.9M in Economic Development Grants

Visitors at Montauk Point.

Ninety-four Long Island projects received a combined total of $87.9 million in New York State economic and community development funding, officials announced Thursday.

LI was named one of five top performers among the 10 Regional Economic Development Councils statewide that were all granted a total of more than $761 million in the 2019 regional council competition.

“By bringing together local leaders and stakeholders who are invested in their communities we have replaced the ‘one size fits all’ approach to economic development with one that is unique to each community, creating opportunities for success all across the Empire State,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. 

Since its inception in 2011, more than $6.9 billion has been awarded to more than 8,300 projects that are projected to create and retain more than 240,000 jobs statewide, including $727 million for 885 projects on LI.

Projects awarded this year on LI include $3 million awarded to The YMCA of Long Island to build a new state-of-the-art facility to provide pediatric and wellness services in Lake Success in collaboration with Northwell Health. 

Biocogent LLC, a Stony Brook University incubator company, will receive $1.5 million to add jobs and expand its bio-manufacturing capacity outside the incubator.

Pal-O-Mine, an equine therapy provider, will receive $600,000 to expand its facility and program for high-risk youth and adults with disabilities to receive job training, work-force preparedness, and internships.

And the Montauk Lighthouse Historic Restoration project received $438,500 in grants.

A full list of winners can be found here.

Ex-Suffolk DA Spota, Aide, Convicted of Cover-up

Thomas Spota
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota during a press conference in July 2012. (Long Island Press)

Ex-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and his former top deputy were convicted Tuesday of conspiring to cover up police brutality following a month-long trial at Central Islip federal court.

Following a day of deliberations, a federal jury found found Spota and his former public corruption bureau chief Christopher McPartland guilty of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding, witness tampering and obstruction of an official proceeding and accessory after the fact to the deprivation of civil rights.

Federal prosecutors said Spota, McPartland, and ex-Suffolk police chief James Burke conspired to conceal Burke’s role in beating a suspect that stole a bag of sex toys, pornography, and ammunition from the chief’s SUV in 2012. Authorities also said the three talked about using their power to cover up the chief’s attempted cover up of the beating that Burke ultimately pleaded guilty to in 2016. Burke has since been sentenced and released from prison. 

In addition, investigators said they used intimidation, threats, and corrupt persuasion to pressure multiple witnesses, including co-conspirators, not to cooperate with the federal investigation, to provide false information, including false testimony under oath, and to withhold relevant information from investigators.

The thief, Christopher Loeb, a recovering heroin addict, also served time, had his conviction vacated, and later won a $1.5 million settlement from the county.

The prosecution’s star witness was retired Suffolk County police Lt. James Hickey, then the commanding officer of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, who Spota, McPartland, and Burke tasked with orchestrating the cover up and making sure detectives who witnessed the Loeb’s beating didn’t cooperate with federal investigators, authorities said.

 

School Bus Stop-arm Cameras Coming Soon to Long Island

A school bus stop arm camera, like this yellow device attached to the side of a bus, can catch drivers illegally passing the vehicles (Photo courtesy of American Traffic Solutions).

Long Island’s school buses will soon be equipped with new technology that automatically generates traffic tickets for drivers who illegally pass a bus when it’s stopped while children get on or off.

Nassau and Suffolk county lawmakers have approved legislation authorizing local school districts to start the process of contracting the devices known as school bus stop-arm cameras after New York State legalized the photo enforcement method earlier this year.

“I have seen cars zooming past stopped school buses,” said Suffolk County Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-East Islip), the legislature’s Republican leader. “I have witnessed near misses. We have to do everything in our power to protect our kids.”

Twenty-one states nationwide have legalized school bus stop-arm cameras that mail home fines to drivers who break laws against driving by a stopped school bus, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Vehicles pass stopped school buses about 50,000 times daily, according to statistics provided by the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, a nonprofit school bus safety advocacy group that also has been calling for the cameras for years.

Under the law, violators will be fined $250 for a first offense, $275 for a second offense within 18 months, and $300 for a third or subsequent offenses within 18 months.

Critics have called such traffic-enforcement cameras intrusive and a ploy for lawmakers to plug budget gaps in the name of public safety — an argument similarly applied to red-light cameras and LI’s short-lived school zone speed cameras.

“They have to have some protections there for the data,” Jason Starr, the former Nassau County chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has said.

Proponents maintain that the goal of the bus cameras is to help protect kids, not track drivers. Among those who testified at the county legislatures to lobby for passage of the laws were kids themselves. But even traveling to the Suffolk County Legislature to ask for protections put children at risk of drivers who ignore school bus stop signs.

“When we pulled up with our students at the legislative public hearing, our kids were starting to get off the bus when a car whizzed right by in the parking lot while the [school bus] lights were flashing,” a Longwood School District official told the legislature last month. “Luckily, the bus driver, whose antenna was way up, stopped the kid right away … It’s an accident waiting to happen too often.”

Educators say kids and parents don’t need the extra stress caused by such a simple task as crossing the street on their way to or from the school bus.

“Students face a lot of worries between school, college acceptances, sports, studies,” Dawn Sharrock, a Middle Country Board of Education vice president, also told the legislature. “We don’t need to make getting on and off their school bus daily one of those worries that they have to have.”