A Long Island lawmaker who admitted revealing portions of an internal investigation about police failures in a domestic violence case that led a woman’s death was found in contempt and fined $2,500 by a federal judge on Friday.
U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt said Peter Schmitt, the presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, violated a confidentiality order during a February TV interview. Schmitt said at a press conference that he intended to appeal the ruling.
Schmitt and the Legislature had just voted in February to approve a $7.7 million settlement in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of Jo’Anna Bird when he spoke to a reporter from News12 Long Island.
Bird was murdered in 2009 by her former boyfriend. Her family later claimed in a lawsuit that police failed to arrest the man later convicted of the murders when he violated orders of protection on several occasions before the killing. An internal affairs investigation also cited failures by the department to properly investigate domestic violence incidents preceding the murder, though the full text of the 700-page report was ordered sealed.
With Spatt’s approval, the Legislature was briefed on the report before voting to settle the lawsuit.
In the interview Schmitt said: “There are 22 police officers in this county who were mentioned in that confidential internal affairs report who ought to be ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror every morning when they get up to shave, much less be wearing the badge.
“Orders of protection were ignored. … Mandatory arrests were called for and not performed, giving a cellphone to the prisoner when he was behind bars and allowing him to call the victim 35, 40 times, and on and on and on.”
The police union sought sanctions against Schmitt for speaking about the report, claiming details involved confidential personnel issues. Police Benevolent Association President James Carver said the union was pleased with the judge’s decision. “This shows that no one is above the law, including Peter Schmitt,” Carver said.
Schmitt told reporters later Friday that his attorneys would appeal the judge’s decision. He also said he would seek a ruling to have the confidential internal affairs report released, “so that the public could learn exactly what went wrong with the investigation.”
“We are not talking about a secret plot by Al Qaeda to blow up Nassau County, we are talking about a number of police officers who failed to carry out their duties,” he said in a statement.
During a hearing last week in federal court Schmitt insisted he did not violate the spirit of the judge’s gag order and that much of what he said had been previously reported by other media sources.
In his ruling, Spatt conceded Schmitt didn’t reveal the officers’ names.
“Thus, the magnitude of the harm may appear relatively minor. On the other hand, he spoke to the media in a very public manner, which was communicated to the public in great numbers, and this increases the magnitude of the harm. Such a publication can be extremely damaging,” Spatt said.
Spatt found that although Schmitt didn’t act willfully, a fine was necessary to “ensure future compliance by Presiding Officer Schmitt and by other legislators.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.