Legislators OK $125,000 settlement with former D.A.
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Although they voiced frustration, Putnam County’s legislators voted unanimously on June 22 to pay $125,000 to former District Attorney Adam Levy to settle a defamation suit he brought against Sheriff Don Smith. The sheriff will pay an additional $25,000.
They justified the expenditure as necessary to avoid the costs of further litigation, including those that would arise if Smith sued the county to force it to pay the bulk of the settlement.
In an apology issued June 13, Smith admitted that four years ago he made false statements about Levy, who was then D.A. His admission ended a civil trial over the matter two days after it began. Levy had asked for $5 million but settled for $150,000 and the public apology.
Although Levy sued Smith “individually and not in his capacity as an employee of the County of Putnam,” the county, which employed both men at the time of the 2013 filing, became enmeshed.
The legislators, who voted 8-0 to approve the payment (with one absent) “fully acknowledge that using taxpayer monies to settle this case is troublesome to us, as it is to every taxpayer,” said Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson), who chairs the body. While the case “shatters trust in elected officials,” she said, “we are not here to judge, but to make a sound decision.”
“This is a matter of saving the taxpayer money,” said Dini LoBue (R-Mahopac Falls), adding that she was “very upset” and “disgusted at what happened.”
The money will come from the county’s contingency fund.
Nacerino said that had the Levy case continued, the county risked a courtroom loss, appeals, and higher legal costs.
Responding to a question from The Current, Smith on June 29 said he did not pay the entire $150,000 himself because “under state law, municipalities are required to pay for the defense of their officials and employees in litigation relating to their official duties. In this case, I personally paid a portion of the settlement amount to facilitate closure of the case.”
Statement from Sheriff Smith
Under state law, municipalities are required to pay for the defense of their officials and employees in litigation relating to their official duties. In this case, I personally paid a portion of the settlement amount to facilitate closure of the case.
This was a civil matter that I am glad has been resolved, so that I can focus all of my energies on the important issues facing Putnam County, especially the war on drugs.
I truly appreciate all of the strong support and heartwarming encouragement that I have been receiving from the great people of Putnam County.
I will continue to do my very best for all the people of Putnam County in working with our entire public safety team to keep Putnam County a great and safe place to live, work and raise a family.
A separate, related lawsuit still looms. Both lawsuits stem from Smith’s handling of a criminal case against Alexandru Hossu, a fitness coach who occasionally stayed in Levy’s home in Southeast before moving to Brewster. In 2013, he was accused of raping a girlfriend’s teenage daughter. Recusing himself, Levy provided Hossu with a lawyer and paid more than $100,000 of his legal expenses. Hossu spent more than a year in jail before being acquitted. He subsequently sued Smith and Putnam County for $45 million.
When the Sheriff’s Department arrested Hossu in 2013, Smith issued news releases falsely stating that Hossu lived at Levy’s address; that Levy had interfered in the proceedings; and that Levy had harbored an “illegal alien” (Hossu is Romanian). In his June 13 apology, the sheriff retracted the releases, stating that they “were untrue and I should not have made them.”
Barbara Scuccimarra (R-Philipstown) said she once “had a lot of faith” in the sheriff but, like her colleagues, considers his conduct “disappointing.” Nonetheless, she said she regarded the $125,000 payment as “the way to proceed.”
Asked whether Smith had threatened to sue Putnam County if it did not make the $125,000 payment to Levy, Nacerino said he had not, to her knowledge. “But this doesn’t mean that’s not a possibility,” she said.
Ann Fanizzi, a former Cold Spring resident who now lives in Southeast, told the legislators she was “appalled that this Legislature would even think of supporting an elected official that held himself out as a paragon of patriotism and honesty but instead betrayed the public trust by misusing his office to defame a political opponent. Mr. Smith’s wrongdoing should not be foisted on the backs of taxpayers.”