Putnam Sheriff Settles Defamation Case

County will pay $125K; $45 million suit looms 

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

After apologizing for making false statements about then-District Attorney Adam Levy, Putnam County Sheriff Donald Smith on June 13 agreed to settle a defamation suit brought against him by Levy. The sheriff will pay Levy $25,000 and the county, as Smith’s employer, will pay $125,000.

The settlement occurred on the second day of a trial in Putnam County Supreme Court. In May, Smith dropped a countersuit, filed in 2014, after Levy called him “clearly delusional” and “absolutely paranoid.”

Adam Levy and Don Smith (photos provided)

A separate, $45 million lawsuit against Putnam County, Smith and three officers continues in federal court, where a judge on May 22 rejected a motion by the county to dismiss it. She ruled the plaintiff, Alexandru Hossu, had a plausible claim of malicious prosecution.

Smith, first elected sheriff in 2001, seeks his fifth term this fall.

Both lawsuits stemmed from his handling of a criminal case against Hossu, a personal trainer who occasionally stayed in the guest quarters of Levy’s home in Southeast and who in 2013 was accused of rape by the teenage daughter of Hossu’s girlfriend. Levy recused himself, bringing in Westchester County prosecutors, but assisted Hossu by providing a lawyer — Levy’s brother-in-law — and paying more than $100,000 of his legal expenses.

Sheriff Smith Apologizes

In March 2013, I issued two press releases which stated that Alexandru Hossu resided at your home, that you had interfered with the investigation into the claim that Hossu raped a young woman and that further suggested that you valued loyalty to Mr. Hossu over law enforcement objectives and should be investigated for knowingly harboring an illegal alien. These press releases, which I approved, received considerable attention and caused you embarrassment.

Today, I retract these releases unequivocally and apologize for the statements contained therein. These statements were untrue and I should not have made them. Mr. Hossu did not then reside at your home. He was arrested at another location where he then lived. I know that you did not interfere with the investigation of Mr. Hossu. Nor is there any evidence that you had any knowledge of Mr. Hossu’s immigration status or were intentionally harboring an illegal alien. And, finally, throughout your career, you prosecuted all manner of cases and I apologize for conveying anything, to the contrary.

I recognize that my statements spawned substantial litigation. As you know, before making this apology and retraction, I dismissed with prejudice the case I initiated against you and trust we can put this chapter behind us.

My best wishes for the future.

Yours sincerely,

Don Smith

After being arrested at his Brewster residence, Hossu spent more than a year in jail before being acquitted of all charges by a jury, whose members wondered why he had been arrested and said they doubted the credibility of the accuser.

A Romanian citizen, Hossu met Levy in 2006 and became his trainer. Two years later, Levy was elected district attorney.

Levy accused Smith, a fellow Republican, of arresting Hossu as payback for Levy’s effort to clean up corruption in the county and break up the “old-boys network.” In his lawsuit, he said Smith, “motivated by malice and political gamesmanship, orchestrated a public smear campaign” against him.

Then-DA Adam Levy (right) and his attorney, Michael Sussman, during a 2013 press conference in Carmel to discuss his $5 million defamation lawsuit against the sheriff. (Photo by Holly Crocco)

At a press conference on June 13 after the case was settled, Levy said Smith’s “barrage of false and misleading media accounts” contributed to Levy’s loss in the DA’s race in 2015 to Robert Tendy. “Clearly his actions had an impact on the voters of this county,” Levy said.

Levy said county residents should talk to the sheriff about the $125,000 the county must pony up.

“The monies that I sought in order to settle this case I expected to come from Mr. Smith,” he said. “However, Smith made it clear that he was not prepared to pay the entire amount, and instead would go to the Putnam County taxpayers to pay the largest portion, despite the fact that it was based upon his misconduct.”

Hossu’s arrest in spring 2013 — nearly two-and-a-half years after the alleged rape — occurred as Smith faced a re-election challenge from one of Levy’s assistant district attorneys. Ultimately, the assistant DA did not run. But Smith and one of his top officers, Capt. William McNamara, issued two news releases erroneously stating that, when arrested, Hossu lived in Levy’s home; that Levy had interfered in the Hossu proceedings, and that Levy warranted investigation for harboring an “illegal alien.”

“I retract these releases unequivocally and apologize for the statements contained therein,” wrote Smith in a statement posted June 13 on the Sheriff’s Department website. “These statements were untrue and I should not have made them.” He acknowledged that the releases embarrassed Levy and “spawned substantial litigation.”

That litigation includes Hossu’s federal suit, filed in June 2016, naming Smith, McNamara and investigators Stephen Tricinelli and Patrick Castaldo.

Hossu, who is asking for $30 million in punitive damages, $15 million in compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees, alleges that:

  • Smith and McNamara brought proceedings against him “for an improper purpose, political advantage.”
  • Smith, McNamara, Castaldo and Tricinelli falsely arrested him, “though they knew they lacked probable cause.”
  • The officers fabricated reports, presented “a wholly slanted view of incomplete information” and failed “to conduct a good investigation” and thus “maliciously prosecuted” him.

In a brief filed on June 5, the county and four officers responded that:

  • They “had probable cause to arrest” Hossu.
  • They had “not violated any rights … under the Constitution or laws of the United States,” or state or municipal laws.
  • Anything Hossu suffered “resulted from [his] own culpable or negligent conduct,” or that of others, not from their actions.
  • Hossu “is not entitled to punitive damages.”

In declining to dismiss the case, Judge Cathy Seibel, of U.S. Court for the Southern District of New York, read a 54-page statement, declaring that Hossu “plausibly alleged that the county defendants should have had doubts as to the [teenager’s] reliability or veracity” regarding the rape accusations and that he likewise “plausibly alleged that no probable cause existed to initiate his prosecution.” Furthermore, the judge said, “because actual malice can be inferred from lack of probable cause,” Hossu met necessary legal criteria for “his malicious prosecution claim, and it will stand.”

The lawyers must complete pre-trial paperwork by Feb. 6.

Holly Crocco contributed reporting.

4 Responses to "Putnam Sheriff Settles Defamation Case"

  1. Bob McCabe
    Bob McCabe   June 16, 2017 at 9:42 am

    Smith appears to be the kind of “sheriff” you see in movies where the rich are happy and the townspeople are afraid. His press releases about his drug war laughable — busting some guy in his car, parked in a parking lot, for smoking a cigarette. Where’s the probable cause in that? Big deal press release.

  2. Anthony Merante   June 20, 2017 at 9:36 am

    Of course, the Republican way. Stick it to the taxpayer, then talk as though they are the big saviors of the little guy. This out-of-control sheriff (how much has he enlarged the budget since he took office?) stepped way over the line and now is sticking it to the taxpayers for his bad temper. He should have taken his military pension and gone fishin’. He had no qualification for law enforcement, regardless of how many stars on his shoulders, and continues to prove it.

    Let him pay Levy! How much has it already cost the taxpayers for his defense? If his employer is picking up the heavy part of the award, then his employer should be changed, a la County Executive MaryEllen Odell, et al.

  3. William Harris   June 22, 2017 at 9:12 pm

    It seems like years since the defamation lawsuit has been reported or referred to. I was impressed with the clear and concise account by Liz Armstrong.

    These two sad tales of misfortunate plotting would be a big draw on stage or screen. Whoever said that nothing exciting ever happens in Putnam County?

  4. David Gelber   June 29, 2017 at 11:50 pm

    So the chief law enforcement officer of Putnam County admits he made false and defamatory statements about a political opponent. And, to avoid a jury verdict, he left us taxpayers on the hook for $125,000, roughly equivalent to the annual tourist budget for Putnam County. Worst of all, he helped put an innocent man behind bars for 12 months to advance his political agenda. Why hasn’t he resigned? Shouldn’t we at least demand that?