A Long Island lawmaker conceded Thursday he went on TV to discuss aspects of an internal police investigation that led to the settlement of a $7.7 million civil rights lawsuit, but insisted he did not violate the spirit of a federal judge’s gag order not to discuss the case.
Peter Schmitt, the presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, is facing a possible fine or jail time if the judge rules Schmitt was in contempt. U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt reserved decision after hearing testimony from Schmitt and a county police official who investigated the department’s actions that led to the murder of a woman in a domestic violence case.
The woman’s family, which claimed police gave preferential treatment to the man later convicted in the killing, settled a lawsuit with Nassau County for $7.7 million. Schmitt, as head of the legislature, was briefed on the internal police investigation before voting to authorize the payment to the slain woman’s family.
Some of Thursday’s testimony was held in a closed courtroom, despite an appeal from The Associated Press and Newsday to keep the proceedings open. U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt denied a request to adjourn the hearing until attorneys for the news organizations could argue their case.
The testimony came from the former head of the police department’s internal affairs unit, who investigated police procedures in the case of Joanna Bird. She was murdered in 2009 by her former boyfriend. Her family later claimed that police failed to arrest the man later convicted of the murders when he violated orders of protection on several occasions before the killing.
The killer, Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, was reportedly a drug informant for the police. He is serving life without parole.
After voting in January to approve the payment, Schmitt told Long Island cable TV station News12 that police had provided Cruz with a cellphone while he was in jail on a prior unrelated arrest. Cruz, according to Schmitt, made 35-40 harassing telephone calls to Bird from his jail cell.
Schmitt testified Thursday that after he gave the interview, “I didn’t think I violated the order,” but conceded he “thought it might have been prudent not to say it.”
The Nassau County Patrolman’s Benevolent filed a motion seeking sanctions against Schmitt. The PBA contends that revealing details of an internal police report could have a negative impact on the careers of the police officers involved in the case. Schmitt indicated in the TV interview that 22 officers had been cited in the report, but that figure has not been confirmed because of the judge’s gag order.
Schmitt, a Republican, has a long history as a fiscal conservative in a county government that has struggled for more than a decade with budget deficits. The county is currently under the control of a state-imposed fiscal watchdog agency.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.