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Board hires outside firm to investigate police department’s response to retirement party

In a 4-2 vote, the Southold Town Board voted Tuesday to hire an outside law firm to examine the town police department’s response to community complaints about an officer’s retirement party held in May in violation of an executive order banning mass gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorney Justin Block, who is of counsel to Sinnreich Kosakoff & Messina of Central Islip, was hired to conduct the investigation. Mr. Block is a past president of the Suffolk County Bar Association.

Town attorney Bill Duffy said Tuesday that he consulted with four law firms before recommending the board hire Sinnreich Kosakoff & Messina. “[Mr. Block] will be doing an investigation, interviewing certain employees, getting their side of the story and looking into their conduct from that night,” Mr. Duffy said.

Once complete, he’s expected to make recommendations he feels are appropriate to the town board.

Board members Jim Dinizio and Sarah Nappa both voted against the measure. Ms. Nappa cited the law firm’s prior dealings with Southold Town as her reasoning.

According to Mr. Duffy, the firm was retained two to three years ago to represent the town on an Article 78 proceeding that had to do with the town’s short-term rental law.

“We litigated that and they represented us on the Article 78 and we won,” Mr. Duffy explained.

Ms. Nappa voiced her concerns over a possible conflict of interest ahead of the vote and again in a statement after Tuesday’s meeting.

“If there are allegations against the board or any of the town’s employees, even an ‘appearance of conflict,’ could cause alarm under the New York State Lawyer Ethical Rules as the town can’t be investigated by its own law firm,” she said. “Therefore, best practice would be to hire a firm with no ties to the board or any employee.”

Mr. Dinizio did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. 

The board directed Mr. Duffy to retain an outside firm to investigate after members were unsatisfied with a preliminary report prepared by police Chief Martin Flatley.

“The Town Board wants the residents of Southold to know that we are taking the allegations very seriously and are determined to get to the bottom of what happened,” Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said in a statement earlier this month. “These allegations are very troubling. The public wants answers — and they deserve answers.”

The May 29 retirement party was for Sgt. Steven Zuhoski, who worked his final shift that evening after nearly 24 years with the department. Photos of the event, most of which were removed from social media the following day, showed dozens of partygoers present at Sgt. Zuhoski’s Cutchogue tree farm despite the governor’s orders limiting gatherings to just 10 individuals.

Four town residents later told The Suffolk Times that they contacted police about the party, calls that were verified through cell phone call histories, though no report was generated by the police department. Witnesses interviewed by a reporter estimated that upwards of 150 people attended the event, which included bagpipers and a fireworks show. One photo viewed by The Suffolk Times showed a patrol car at the party.

Reports of the event and the department’s apparent lack of response generated complaints to town officials.

Chief Flatley had submitted a report to the town attorney’s office detailing the results of his inquiry into the event, which town residents said led to more than half a dozen complaints that the chief said were not recorded in the police blotter. At the Town Board’s request last week, the chief said he would review recordings from the department call system to see if residents did notify police and how those calls were handled.

That initial report will not be made public, officials said.