A Closer Look At Comptroller Nepotism Accusations

TOWN OF HUNTINGTON, New York, October 23

BY: Andrew Wroblewski

Last week, Suffolk County Comptroller candidate James Gaughran – an attorney from Eaton’s Neck who serves as the county water authority chairman – accused his opponent, John M. Kennedy, Jr. (R-Nesconset), of violating some of the very laws he would be tasked with upholding as comptroller.

John M. Kennedy Jr., left, and James Gaughran
John M. Kennedy Jr., left, and James Gaughran

Nepotism, Gaughran said, was an issue that needs to be addressed in light of the fact that Kennedy had hired his wife, Leslie Kennedy, as a legislative aide in 2007. The hire – which was approved by the legislature in a form of resolution No. 1184-2007 – has come into question because Kennedy fulfilled only one part of the county code dealing with the hiring of an official’s relative.

Legislative approval is required, according to the code, but a “verified statement” must also be filed on Jan. 31 of every year that details the hiring of any relative hired or promoted the year prior. In 2008, the year after Leslie was hired, Kennedy failed to file such a statement with the Clerk of the County Legislature and the Suffolk County Ethics Commission.

“I think that is absolutely wrong,” Gaughran, 57, said of his opponent on Oct. 14. “If he becomes comptroller, I assume he’ll waive the law and that means no one has to file documents when they hire a relative.”

Kennedy said that he is not currently violating any law. While he admitted that he did not file the necessary statement in 2008, he filed it “six years later.”

“As soon as I became aware [that an affidavit] should be filed I did so,” Kennedy, 58, said. “It has no purpose; it’s one of those items that just appears to be there… in essence saying that the hiring was permitted.”

While Kennedy has said that his failure to file the necessary disclosure form was an oversight, Matt Jennings, executive director of the Suffolk County Democratic Committee, said in a press release that in 2005 a vote occurred to amend the nepotism law, with debates running through the Suffolk Ways & Means Committee, of which Kennedy then served on as vice chairman.

Another cause of concern cited in automated telephone calls and mailings released by the Gaughran campaign has been Leslie Kennedy’s subsequent increase in salary.

According to Suffolk County payroll figures, in 2008 – her first full year as an aide – Leslie earned $32,678. In 2009 her hours were increased, and then, in 2011, she made the transition from a part-time to full-time employee with a salary of $58,188.12. In the most recent Suffolk records, Leslie earned a salary of $79,864.65 in 2013.

Kennedy said that this increase was not deemed a promotion, but instead an increase in hours – and therefore approval for change by the legislature was not necessary.

“It’s the nature of the positon quite frankly… The presiding officer takes control over when aides go from part-time to full-time,” Kennedy said. “It’s not uncommon for payroll to go up, despite what my opponent has been saying.”

However, in a letter addressed to current Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, Jr., Legislator Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) pointed out case law in which an increase in hours was deemed a promotion – which would, in turn, require legislative approval according to county code.

“There are numerous examples in New York State where this issue has been specifically reviewed and it has been determined that increasing hours from part-time to full-time does in fact constitute a promotion,” she wrote.

An example, Martinez said, can be seen in the case of Nielson v. United Parcel Service. where the defendant employer was claimed to have violated New York Executive Law § 296 – the refusal to promote to a full-time position based on past legal incidents. The claim stemmed from the employee’s denial of a transfer from a part-time driver’s position to a full-time driver’s position which the court determined to be a “failure to promote” – a violation of the company’s seniority based promotion policy.

“You can see that an increase in salary does in fact constitute a promotion,” Martinez wrote. “You can see stepping from part-time to full-time positions also constitutes a promotion. In the case of Legislator Kennedy, the law and reasonable standards should apply.”

Originally published: Long Islander News: The Record
(Thursday, October 23, 2014;  A7)

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