Riverhead Town’s 2015 local elections have not even been held and already this year is one for the history books.
For starters, the November general election will be the first three-way race for town supervisor in two decades.
Money, however, is the real story of this campaign season. The amount of money that will be spent to elect a new town board this year will far exceed the outlay in any prior local election. It quite possibly already has. A definitive conclusion can’t be drawn due to incomplete campaign financial disclosure filings, and campaign disclosure laws that make it difficult to assess the spending of so-called super PACs. It’s unchartered territory, especially on such a local level.
The infusion of cash it took for a police union super PAC to wage a campaign of attack ads by direct mail, radio, internet and phone calls on the Republican primary campaign for supervisor was enormous, by Riverhead standards. Add those sums to the expenditures that will have been made by traditional candidate, party and political action committees and the cost of this election will top hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For perspective, the combined outlay of both major-party supervisor candidates in recent elections, from start to finish, was less than $100,000. And the supervisor candidates’ expenditures have always exceeded the council candidates’ expenditures.
At this point, it’s impossible to know how much was actually spent on the hotly contested Republican primary race for town supervisor. Campaign finance disclosure reports show the campaign committee for incumbent Supervisor Sean Walter spent $52,470 through mid-September, while Councilwoman Jodi Giglio’s committees spent $61,278. The Riverhead Republican Committee spent $74,259.
But the disclosure reports filed by the county police union super PAC that campaigned against Walter are short on details.
The Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation, a super PAC created by the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association — the labor union representing the Suffolk County Police Department’s more than 2,700 police officers — paid for the mailers, ads and phone calls, Suffolk PBA and super PAC president Noel DiGerolamo acknowledges.
But how much the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation super PAC spent on the Riverhead supervisor campaign remains a mystery.
Its most recent campaign finance disclosure report, the 10-day post primary report, was required to be filed on Sept. 21 for the period covering Sept. 1-17. The group reported zero expenditures for that period.
In its prior period report, the 11-day pre-primary report, the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation reported spending $5,000 — legal fees paid to a Manhattan law firm.
It filed a “no activity” statement in lieu of a 32-day pre-primary report.
Its July periodic statement, due July 15, showed expenditures of $53,425, including a $37,200 “deposit for advertising” on June 8. There was no “expense allocation” schedule filed indicating to which candidates the expenses were allocated.
DiGerolamo said in an interview yesterday the group’s expenditures “will be posted when we have all the tallies.”
He declined to directly answer a reporter’s question about how much the PAC spent on the Riverhead primary election, but he said the amount is “nowhere near” the $125,000 Walter says he estimates the group spent.
DiGerolamo said yesterday his group may continue to spend money on the Riverhead general election.
“My level of participation will only be based on what I believe the level of public education that needs to be put out there,” he said.
New campaign finance laws allow a super PAC — technically an independent expenditure-only committee — to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals and spend unlimited funds to advocate for or against political candidates. Unlike traditional PACs, super PACs are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates.
The embattled incumbent supervisor, who lost the Sept. 10 party primary by 40 votes to a sitting councilwoman who ran with the backing of the Republican party, blames his loss squarely on the super PAC’s negative campaign.
Walter characterizes the campaign against him as a play by the county police union for the town police department. He accuses his rival, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, of having “sold her soul” to Hauppauge and the Suffolk police, arguing that if elected, she will work to orchestrate a takeover of the local police force by the county.
Giglio vigorously denies the allegation and says she’s never had any discussions with the county PBA about merging the town department with the county.
“That discussion isn’t on the table, nor will it ever be,” she said in an Aug. 31 interview.
DiGerolamo is just as vigorous in his denials that the county police department is looking to take over the town force and he says the supervisor has no one to blame but himself for his loss to Giglio.
The L.I. Law Enforcement Foundation PAC, which since its establishment in August 2011 has been funded by the Suffolk PBA to the tune of nearly $2.3 million, is merely attempting to “educate” local residents about how bad the incumbent supervisor is for police and law enforcement, DiGerolamo said.
“Most of the ads we put out were simply exposing how he failed in his inability to lead this town,” DiGerolamo said. “He failed the men and women who put on a police uniform every day.” DiGerolamo points to the supervisor’s effort to bring the Guardian Angels to Riverhead as an example of his failure. “He raised taxes by millions of dollars. His bond rating was downgraded. He wants to blame everyone else, but he should really just take a good, long look in the mirror.”
Walter says its ludicrous to believe county PBA officials, who run the super PAC, decided to spend so much money in Riverhead for no reason. The supervisor claims DiGerolamo “threatened” him two years ago if he refused to put a ballot referendum up authorizing the merger.
“He told me then, ‘we’ll come after you,’ and that’s exactly what he’s done,” Walter said.
DiGerolamo says the supervisor is lying and engaging in “scare tactics.”
“I endorse in all kinds of races, including other supervisor races,” DiGerolamo said yesterday. “I participate in elections all over Long Island, not just in the [county] police district,” he said.
“Right now, there’s a war on police. It’s bordering anarchy. There are calls for police to be slain in the streets. I’m not going to sit by and watch anyone like Sean or anyone else who denigrate the police,” DiGerolamo said.
Walter grows angry at those accusations. “During my tenure, we became an accredited agency. We have a full force. There have been no cuts. We’ve updated the computer systems. We’re replacing old vehicles. We got the officers new sidearms and we’re working on getting all patrol officers tasers,” he said.
“DiGerolamo should really be concentrating on his own membership. They are 400 officers down. He should really be going after Steve Bellone, not Sean Walter,” he said.
“The residents of this town really need to wake up and smell the coffee about what is going on here,” Walter said of the county police union’s support for his opponent.
He argues that a merger of the town police with county force would benefit veteran members of the town department, not the taxpayers and not public safety.
“Riverhead would likely become part of the Seventh Precinct. We’d see fewer patrol officers and slower response times. We’d lose a local police force that really knows our town and our communities,” Walter said.
The county police contract provides better benefits for retired officers, with 100-percent funding of family health insurance premiums for life. Riverhead retirees get full cost of the employee’s coverage but only half the family premium.
That’s “probably the biggest advantage,” according to Riverhead PBA president Dixon Palmer.
“There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s not an easy thing,” Palmer said in an interview earlier this month. “There are disadvantages too. In the county’s last contract, it’s a two-tier thing, the younger guys max out for les than what our guys are getting,” he said. “Their dues are higher too.”
Palmer acknowledged having had “conversations” with county PBA officials, though DiGerolamo disavowed any interest in a takeover.
“This is still in the beginning stages,” Palmer said, “and a long ways away —
if it ever happens at all.”
The next step would be to poll the union’s members and if they voted to approve it, “we’d go to the town board,” Palmer said. “It would be up to the town board to put it up for a vote.”
Palmer said he believes his membership is split “about 50-50” on the issue.
Giglio’s running mates are retired Riverhead police officers, James Wooten, a two-term incumbent and Tim Hubbard, who retired earlier this year. A third retired cop, John Dunleavy, is in the middle of his third four-year term.
In the Sept. 10 primary Hubbard and Wooten bested a fourth retired cop looking to be elected as a councilman, Bob Peeker, an ex-lieutenant who retired late last year.
Democratic supervisor candidate Anthony Coates said he’s troubled by what’s happening in this campaign and by the Republican party’s asking voters to elect a board of retired police officers.
The Suffolk PBA president’s assertions that the county is not making a “blatant power grab” for Riverhead is “disingenuous phony baloney,” Coates said. “What — these guys woke up one morning, stretched, looked at the alarm clock and said, ‘You know, I think I’ll go bring good government to the Town of Riverhead today’? Sure.”
“The most troubling thing in this discussion is that a would-be police commissioner would allow herself and the people of Riverhead to be used like this,” he said.
“This election is supposed to be about what benefits the people of Riverhead, not improving the medical benefits of the police department,” he said. “But let’s say this is a brilliant idea. What kind of negotiating position are we in when the supervisor owes her election to the county police union?”
“Why should this town make a decision of that gravity under the bayonet point of campaign contributions? We can’t have a legitimate conversation about the issue clouded by that amount of campaign cash.”
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