Town sends retirement party report to Suffolk DA’s office

The acting Southold Town attorney has forwarded the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office an investigator’s report into the town police department’s handling of community complaints about a May 2020 retirement party for one of its sergeants, he confirmed Wednesday.

Acting town attorney John Burke said he spoke with a prosecutor from the District Attorney’s office Wednesday morning after learning the DA had formally closed a criminal investigation in January.

“That was news to me,” Mr. Burke said. “I am now in the process of sending them the report. Whatever they do with it is up to them.”

The latest development in the controversy that led to the suspension of the town’s chief of police follows a denial letter sent Friday from Southold Town Clerk Denis Noncarrow to an attorney handling a freedom of information request by The Suffolk Times. In the letter, Mr. Noncarrow told attorney Jacquelyn Schell of Ballard Spahr in New York that one reason the report cannot be released to the newspaper is “the Town Attorney’s office has been coordinating their efforts in this investigation with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office to ascertain if the conduct alleged would result in criminal charges.”

“Those investigations are still ongoing,” he wrote. “Any judicial proceedings that may or may nor result from that investigation would further be tainted by a release of the Attorney’s police retirement party report at this time.”

In a statement, however, District Attorney Ray Tierney told The Suffolk Times Monday that the criminal investigation was closed earlier this year.

“The prior administration conducted an investigation, but never formally closed [it],” Mr. Tierney said. “In January 2022, we closed the investigation.”

After learning of Mr. Tierney’s comment, Mr. Burke, who has served as acting town attorney since last November, told The Suffolk Times he has since asked prosecutors to review the report submitted by attorney Justin Block, who was hired by the Southold Town Board to investigate the police response to the party. The report led to the suspension last month of Police Chief Martin Flatley and anticipated disciplinary hearings for him and four other town employees, including three officers. 

Through a spokesperson, Mr. Tierney declined to comment further on Wednesday, saying his prior comment stands.

The “ongoing criminal investigation” was one of several reasons given by the town to deny the release of the report to The Suffolk Times. Other reasons include attorney-client privilege, invasion of personal privacy and a municipal employee’s right to a fair and impartial hearing.

“Given the rural nature of our community and the small size of our police staff, a redacted version would not serve to maintain the anonymity of any municipal employee charged and impact the ability of those facing disciplinary hearings to have an impartial adjudication of their charges prior to the hearing,” Mr. Noncarrow wrote, adding that as of last week only attorneys working for the town had viewed it.

The Suffolk Times has until Dec. 26 to consider a lawsuit against the town challenging its decision not to release the report, according to Ms. Schell, who assisted the paper with its appeal of the town’s denial of an initial FOIL request.

Chief Martin Flatley at a press conference in Greenport’s Mitchell Park in March 2020. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Chief Flatley faced criticism soon after the May 29, 2020, retirement party for Sgt. Steven Zuhoski when he told a reporter the following day that he was unaware the party had taken place and that the department received no related complaints. The party was held at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when social gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited.

While no police report was generated for the incident and it was not included in the police blotter released to the media for that week, four town residents told The Suffolk Times they had contacted police about the party. Their calls were verified through cell phone call histories. Witnesses interviewed by a reporter at the time estimated that upwards of 150 people attended the event, which included bagpipers and a professional fireworks show. One photo viewed by The Suffolk Times showed a patrol car at the party.

An analysis of police records from around the time of the party showed Southold police filed incident reports on seven other constituent complaints about public gatherings on private property between May 21 and June 7, 2020. 

Chief Flatley, who was set to earn a salary of more than $215,000 in 2022, conducted his own investigation into the department’s response in June 2020, but members of the board deemed his report insufficient. The town then hired outside counsel to undertake a separate investigation and a summary of those findings was presented to the Town Board last month. 

The town has not said when the disciplinary hearings, which would be closed to the public, might be held. Town Board members will serve as judges during those hearings.

Editor’s Note: The headline and first paragraph of this story were changed after Mr. Burke called to stress that he did not “ask the DA’s office to review the report.” Rather, he sent it to them to honor a previous agreement.