Town of Hempstead Republicans practically swelled with pride on April 16, after the Town Board unanimously passed a revamped ethics code.
Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney vowed that officials could now provide services to taxpayers with “honesty and integrity” — because those taxpayers “deserve nothing less.”
At first glance, the rules appear to be an improvement. Conflicts of interest — or the appearance of them — are to be scrutinized more closely. The town’s ethics board appears set to be transformed from a nebulous body of dubious relevance to a five-member oversight committee, with no more than two members of any one party.
Aside from Republicans on the board taking a curiously hard stance against considering in-laws to be relatives, the ethics code basically sailed to passage. The veneer of cooperation verged on convincing — and lasted for about 30 minutes.
Then it was back to business as usual for the Hempstead GOP machine.
First up was the appointment of Republican Thomas Muscarella to former Republican Councilman Ed Ambrosino’s seat. Ambrosino resigned this month after a tax-fraud conviction in federal court.
The game of appointments in Hempstead is long documented, and past election results bolster the claim that granting incumbency to a chosen son or daughter all but guarantees a successful election in November. It’s how all of the current Republican members of the board won their seats.
Muscarella’s appointment was unprecedented, however, because he is the GOP candidate for Ambrosino’s seat. He has an opponent — Tom Tweedy, a Republican running on the Democratic ticket — who will now run against an incumbent, with Muscarella’s name on official mailings that essentially double as campaign materials.
In a video posted by Newsday, Muscarella was asked if he believed his appointment gave him an unfair advantage, to which he responded, “When it comes to Muscarellas, we like to be elected officials.”
Muscarella’s brothers, Vincent and Joseph, are a Nassau County legislator and an Oyster Bay Town councilman, respectively. Joseph was appointed to the Oyster Bay Town Council in April 1995 — and then elected as an incumbent.
A number of taxpayers decried Thomas Muscarella’s appointment, including Tweedy. Republicans on the board had little to say about the appointment — they passed a rule last year preventing Town Supervisor Laura Gillen from raising the issue of appointments vs. special elections, even for debate.
Republican Councilman Anthony D’Esposito responded to Tweedy’s complaint with “whataboutism” — telling Tweedy that since he had been appointed to the Floral Park village board in 2001, his outrage was “completely hypocritical.”
Following Muscarella’s appointment, Republican council members turned to rewarding the loyal with taxpayer-funded raises and promotions. This is also par for the course in Hempstead. Last week’s round was notable only because it took place while Town Board members were reviewing revised ethics legislation.
Republican Bruce Blakeman elevated Debbie Pugliese, the executive leader of the Baldwin Republican Club, to deputy commissioner of the town’s Department of Senior Enrichment — with a salary of $81,000. Gillen pointed out that the department already had one deputy commissioner, and that the new position — and Pugliese’s $16,000 raise — were not budgeted for.
Blakeman “set the stage” for Pugliese’s promotion with a heartfelt story lauding his assistant for her dedication and years of service. Pugliese “had a lifelong dream” to work with seniors, Blakeman said, and “people who excel here at the Town of Hempstead should be able to go after their dreams.”
Blakeman did not say that Pugliese runs a local Republican club, and works to re-elect people like him.
According to Gillen, the same day, the board awarded raises to the Seaford Republican Club’s leader and the Floral Park/Bellerose GOP’s leader. The son of Bobby Kumar Kalotee — a former Nassau GOP vice chair — also received a $10,000 raise.
It’s unclear at this point where the majority of Hempstead taxpayers stand with these kinds of games, with their tax dollars going toward ensconcing Republicans in positions of power, with little debate. The town GOP shows no respect when members throw taxpayers’ hard-earned money around in a public session to reward the people who campaign to keep them in power — and then turn around and insist that holding a special election to replace Ambrosino would be too expensive, and instead place one of their own in the seat for which he should rightly campaign.
The people should demand more than stories excusing $16,000 raises. They did in 2017, when they ejected GOP loyalist Tony Santino, the former supervisor, and elected Gillen, a Democrat.