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Probe into Oceanside sanitation district commissioner stalls amid insurance fight

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Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7’s insurance carrier has declined coverage to defend Commissioner Ryan Hemsley amid a district investigation into racist, homophobic and other negative posts that he allegedly made on Facebook in the past that were unearthed last October.

“The only update that I have is that the insurance company, Traveler’s, has declined to offer defense to Commissioner Hemsley for the investigation,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Austin Graff said at the April 1 meeting.

Seeking insurance coverage for his defense caused a delay in  the investigation, Graff noted.

Hemsley appeared at the meeting and claimed that Graff was organizing a “one-sided smear campaign” against him, adding that he did not understand why the insurance company would not cover his defense.

‘I’d like to know how and why the insurance carrier doesn’t feel the need to represent sitting commissioners,” he said. “This sets a precedent to any sitting or future commissioners that we are not covered by any allegations. How is that possible?”

“Right now there is no claim against you . . .” Graff told Hemsley. “Because there’s no claim against you, it’s just an investigation. There is no defense costs, there’s no defense coverage, so there’s no risk of liability to the district or yourself.”

At the meeting, Graff said that Hemsley was not provided with coverage because the insurance company insures the district and its commissioners for claims by third parties, not district investigations.

Hemsley joined the board in January 2020, after Commissioner Matthew Horowitz stepped down. Because he took over in the middle of Horowitz’s term, Hemsley had to run in the September election, in which he defeated challenger Dawn Veit, garnering more than 1,000 votes for a term that should end in June 2022. After the posts came to light, the board has repeatedly asked him to resign, but he said he would not and has accused the board of setting him up.

The commissioners said they had hoped to handle the investigation internally, but Hemsley said he did not want to be investigated by sanitation officials, whom he claims have falsely accused him.

He said he planned to dispute the insurance company’s decision against covering his defense, adding that he was upset that Graff had had conversations with Traveler’s, which, Hemsley said, potentially led the company to deny his case.

Graff said he had no problem with Hemsley asking for communications, and noted that he had a conference call with a Traveler’s representative after Hemsley made the claim because he wanted the company to be aware that Hemsley may not be covered, adding that he spoke with the district’s broker, not an official of the company itself.

The Valley Stream-based Chandler Law Firm is investigating the claims against Hemsley. Officials of the firm had not yet interviewed him as of press time, because Hemsley had said he was hoping to hire an attorney to defend him.

“Why are we wasting tax money?” Hemsley asked. “What is the outcome? The outcome never changes. I’m not leaving here.”

Graff said the board did not want to spend taxpayer money on the investigation, but Hemsley was unwilling to take part in a probe conducted by the commissioners, so the district had to turn to an outside law firm.

If Hemsley were to resign, the sanitation board could appoint a new commissioner, pending approval by the Hempstead Town Board. The new commissioner would then have to run in June to finish the final year of Hemsley’s term, and then again in June 2022 for a full five-year term.