Town declines to release report on retirement party investigation, citing invasion of privacy among concerns

The Southold Town Attorney’s office has rejected a Suffolk Times request for a copy of an outside counsel’s report on the investigation into the town police department’s handling of community complaints about a May 2020 retirement party for one of its sergeants.

In a response to the paper’s Freedom of Information request, Assistant Town Attorney Damon Hagan, who serves as Southold’s FOIL officer, wrote that the the town “will not be supplying” the requested documents because “disclosure of the information would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and are compiled for law enforcement purposes as per Public Officers Law Section 87(2)(b) and (e).” Section 2e of the law relates to active investigations and a person’s right to an impartial adjudication.

A Suffolk Times reporter had submitted the initial FOIL request Aug. 9, the same day the Town Board voted to begin the disciplinary process against five town employees and to suspend its chief of police. The request was rejected Thursday afternoon.

Working with an attorney, Times Review Media Group, publishers of The Suffolk Times filed an appeal of the denial Tuesday evening.

In The Suffolk Times appeal, attorney Jacquelyn Schell of Ballard Spahr in New York argues “the records sought by Times Review [Media Group] bear on a considerable matter of public interest — namely, an investigation into the conduct of the Southold Police Department in a high-profile case.” 

“The public has a right to know whether law enforcement officers, who have been charged with keeping the public accountable, are being held to their own standards,” she wrote. “The Town should produce the requested information without further delay.”

The appeal also notes that the town has “failed to meet its burden of justifying nondisclosure: the denial merely parrots the language of the statute, without providing any explanation.”

Recently suspended Southold Town Police Chief Martin 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 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 that week’s police blotter released to the media, 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 over public gatherings on private property between May 21 and June 7, 2020. Those calls were for residences on Stanley Road in Mattituck, Lake Drive and Soundview Avenue in Southold, 4th Avenue and Wiggins Street in Greenport, Bay Avenue in East Marion and a commercial property on New Suffolk Road in Cutchogue. In those instances police either could not locate the gathering, found no violation occurred, or issued a verbal warning to the host before filing an incident report.

Chief Flatley, who was set to earn a salary of more than $215,000 in 2022, faced criticism from the Town Board upon filing his own investigation into the department’s response in June 2020. Members of the board deemed his report insufficient. The town then hired outside counsel to conduct its own investigation and a summary of those findings were presented to the Town Board last month. Town accounting records show the investigator, attorney Justin Block, interviewed Chief Flatley in April. Records show the town has now paid Mr. Block more than $13,000 for the investigation.

It is unclear when the disciplinary hearings might be held. They would not be open to the public or the press.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said at last Tuesday’s Town Board meeting that board members would serve as judges for those disciplinary hearings.

At that same portion of the meeting, East Marion resident Jordan Silbert asked if the town would release the report generated from the investigation.

“This will be coming out as the hearings progress,” said Councilman Greg Doroski, adding that he’d like to hold the hearings as soon as possible. He later said the issue with releasing the report now relates to due process.

Acting town attorney John Burke said the report can be released “after the hearings.”

Mr. Silbert later asked the board members if they would individually commit to releasing the report to the public when appropriate, with several members saying they would. Mr. Burke added “to the extent that they can.”

Capt. James Ginas is currently serving as acting chief of the department.

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