Putnam Lawmakers Assert Subpoena Power

Draft measure awaits action by entire Legislature

The Putnam Legislature’s Rules Committee voted on May 20 to claim specific power to investigate all aspects of county government and compel uncooperative officials to testify or provide documents under subpoena.

The three committee members voted unanimously to send a draft resolution to the full nine-member Legislature for consideration at its Tuesday (June 1) meeting.

The draft would not create “new powers” for legislators, said Robert Firriolo, the Legislature’s attorney. The county charter authorizes the Legislature to conduct investigations “as it deems to be in the best interest of the county,” to subpoena witnesses and demand documents, and state law allows county legislative committees to take on those functions. But it would consolidate responsibility in the Rules Committee, which Firriolo called the “catch-all” panel for legislative business.

“This is allowing the Rules Committee broader jurisdiction across any matter before the Legislature,” said Firriolo. “It makes clear the delegation of authority to the Rules Committee.”

The draft states that the committee acted because “recent formal requests” by committees for information and documents “have not been complied with.” 

The draft does not name any particular county department or employee. But several legislators have clashed with Sheriff Robert Langley Jr. over overtime pay and their access to sheriff deputies’ disciplinary records, among other issues. All the legislators, except Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley, are Republicans. Montgomery and Langley are Democrats.

According to Firriolo, along with its other provisions, the measure would permit the Rules Committee or any of its individual members to launch an investigation and issue subpoenas on behalf of any legislator on a different committee. The legislature has committees that focus on health, finance, economic development, personnel, protective services and other topics.

According to the proposed resolution, witnesses who ignore a subpoena or refuse to provide documentation could be referred to the county attorney “with a request to initiate an action or special proceeding, as appropriate, in a court of appropriate jurisdiction, to compel compliance.” As one option, Firriolo suggested an Article 78 case, in which a citizen or group such as the Legislature can ask a judge for relief. 

He said the Rules Committee “is looking for a way to compel that information to be turned over, when there’s been resistance.”  

“Hopefully we never have to get to that point” where subpoenas must be used, said Legislator Neal Sullivan of Carmel-Mahopac, who chairs the committee. Legislators Carl Albano of Carmel and Joseph Castellano of Brewster joined him in backing the measure.

The proposal cites as particular concerns unidentified lawsuits filed against the county and “incidents” that could trigger litigation. It claims that recalcitrant officials’ withholding of materials have meant that “the Legislature has been prevented from performing its proper role.”

During the discussion of the resolution on May 20, Montgomery said that “it appears it will make our jobs easier” because “we will have more information readily available.” 

However, she juxtaposed the resolution against the Legislature’s previous passage of a confidentiality law and the county’s denial of her request for a numerical breakdown of drug overdoses by ZIP code.

The draft measure “seems to be giving the Rules Committee more power than the other committees or legislators,” she observed. “I’m not sure why that needs to be done.” Moreover, she asked: “How are we going to protect the privacy of our citizens in this resolution?” 

Albano dismissed her remarks. “We’re going way off-track,” he said, “and it’s sad because we’re wasting a lot of time.”

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