The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office opened an investigation into the Southold Police Department’s response to community complaints about an officer’s retirement party but placed it on hold pending the findings of an independent investigator hired by the Town Board, town records show.
An invoice sent to the town by outside counsel in August shows assistant district attorney Kevin Ward had a 15-minute phone call with an attorney at Sinnreich, Kosakoff & Messina on July 30, notifying him of the investigation. Mr. Ward is a prosecutor with the public affairs bureau, which leads investigations and prosecutes criminal cases aimed at promoting honest government.
“Call from ADA Kevin Ward; they have an open investigation but are on hold pending JMB Investigation,” reads a note on the invoice, referring to Justin M. Block, the attorney leading the investigation for SK&M. The invoice is publicly available on the town’s website.
The Town Board hired Mr. Block to conduct an independent review of how police handled public complaints about the May 29 party, which featured more than 100 guests, in violation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order barring gatherings of more than 10 people during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Block declined to comment on his investigation. A spokesperson for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, which rarely if ever publicly discusses active investigations, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The Town Board voted June 30 to hire outside counsel to conduct the inquiry following an internal police department review of the events surrounding the party, which Town Board members said did not reach a satisfying conclusion.
The invoice on file with the town shows it was billed $385 for a little more than an hour’s work, which included preparation to begin the investigation. No other invoices have been made publicly available since that time.
In seeking an update on the investigation, The Suffolk Times contacted several town residents who had previously provided documentation that they called police in response to the party. The two callers who responded to a reporter’s messages said that since the investigation was launched they had not been contacted by anyone from the outside law firm. Instead, they both said, they received phone calls July 3 from an assistant town attorney looking to speak with the person who took a photo of the party that was published in the newspaper. They have not been contacted by anyone since that date in connection with the party.
Asked for comment on the investigation last week, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell wrote in an email that he was “unsure of why the investigation is taking this long.”
“However, I am unfamiliar with what the timetables are for these types of investigations,” he continued. “It is frustrating and I am sure we all want to see it completed quickly. I am more focused on having one completed that is objective and thorough.”
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 Cut-ch-ogue tree farm despite the governor’s executive order limiting the size of large gatherings.
Four town residents later told The Suffolk Times that they contacted police about the party, calls that were verified through cellphone call histories, though no incident reports were 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.
Police Chief Martin 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, town officials have said.