Five town employees face disciplinary charges following retirement party investigation, one suspended indefinitely

The Southold Town Board took disciplinary action against five town employees Tuesday evening, suspending one of them indefinitely without pay as all five await hearings.

The actions follow an investigation into the town police department’s response to community complaints about a May 2020 retirement party for one of its officers.

The employees were identified only by their employee numbers in resolutions appointing a hearing officer under the procedures of civil service law. The resolutions do not say what disciplinary charges the employees face.

A search of Southold Town records shows that three of the employees facing disciplinary charges are officers John Hinton, Daniel Mackey and Sgt. Steven Witzke, each of whom was previously interviewed by the attorney hired to conduct the investigation, according to invoices filed by attorney Justin Block.

The remaining two employees facing discipline are not listed on town police union records. Non-PBA members working at police headquarters include senior leadership such as the chief of police or captain and dispatchers.

During Tuesday’s meeting, East Marion resident Jordan Silbert pressed the Town Board for more information on the police investigation.

Multiple council members emphasized that, as judges for the disciplinary procedures, they are prohibited from providing more details. When asked by Mr. Silbert, board members refused to confirm the identity of suspended employee No. 2350.

The board also did not commit to releasing the investigative report. Councilman Greg Doroski said more information would come out as the hearings progress over the next several months, though those hearings would be private.

Reached by telephone prior to Tuesday night’s meeting, both Supervisor Scott Russell and Police Chief Martin Flatley declined comment to reporters.

Mr. Block, a past president of the Suffolk County Bar Association, was hired as an independent investigator in a split vote of the Town Board in June 2020. The retirement party, held just weeks earlier on May 29, 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 on Oregon Road in Cutchogue, despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order limiting gatherings to just 10 individuals during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four town residents later told The Suffolk Times that they had contacted police about the party. Their calls were verified through cellphone call histories, though no official police report was ever generated by the police department. Witnesses interviewed by a reporter at the time 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. 

Mr. Block was hired after a preliminary investigation into the response by Chief Flatley was deemed insufficient by Mr. Russell and other board members. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office had also launched an investigation, records show.