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Lawyer to probe Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7 amid dental insurance scandal

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In the wake of a scandal at Oceanside Sanitation District No. 7 in which former administrators were found to have abused their taxpayer-funded positions to enrich themselves through illegal insurance and dental benefits, the board unanimously voted to hire a lawyer to look into the issue.

At its Oct. 3 meeting, the Board of Commissioners voted, 4-0, to hire Manhattan-based attorney Joseph Vogel. Commissioner Matthew Horowitz was not present to cast a vote. Board Chairman Austin Graff told the Herald after the meeting that even though the board already has an attorney, John Ciampoli, its members wanted to bring in someone with no connections to past issues.

“He came recommended, and he has done independent investigations before and has some experience with investigations,” Graff said. “Our attorney has been involved in other matters with these parties, so we wanted someone completely independent.”

Graff, an attorney himself, said he has gone up against Vogel in legal matters in the past, and that he believed he would “do a good job at sorting out this issue.” The board voted to pay Vogel $250 an hour to look into the matter after its members uncovered a scandal last year. Last November, Graff revealed documents that proved that former Commissioner Joe Cibellis remained on the district’s dental plan from July 2016 through January 2017, even though he was no longer paying for those benefits. He also showed that even after the mistake was uncovered, Cibellis was put back on the plan in April 2018, despite no longer being a department employee.

Cibellis served as district commissioner from 2008 to 2016, and lost to Graff in a contentious commissioner race in July 2018, with the results coming nearly three weeks after the polls closed.

Graff said a previous investigation had uncovered the scandal, but noted that the board members believed there was more to it and another report should be completed. Vogel said he was unsure how long his probe into the district’s past would take because he was just hired, and was unaware of how much paperwork and documentation he needed to sort through.

“As I understand it, the purpose of the retention is to do an internal investigation into the circumstances that are before the board in relation to the dental benefits that went to retired employees and past commissioners,” Vogel said. “I believe I’ll be putting together an analysis for the board to consider and review.”

Last December, four of the five commissioners voted to terminate employees Dan Faust and Douglas Hernandez for “turning a blind eye to corruption,” Graff said, because they allegedly knew Cibellis was illegally receiving the benefits. After they were fired, Faust and Hernandez told the Herald that they were blindsided by the ruling, with Faust stating that “insurance is not in my job description.”

Graff said there could be other employees or administrators who have misused taxpayer dollars, so the board decided to employ Vogel. In September 2018, the commissioners voted to end the practice of providing health and dental benefits to former commissioners and supervisors, a move that Graff said was aimed at stopping employees from benefiting themselves. The chairman also cited the case of former supervisors Michael and Charles Scarlatta — who were accused of collecting more than $800,000 in illegal deferred retirement payments, according to a state comptroller report — for the board’s vote to amend the bylaws.

Joe Samoles, who defeated incumbent candidate Tom Lanning and fellow challenger Jordan Kaplan in June’s election, unsuccessfully sued the board, including Cibellis, in an attempt to recoup the funds. Graff represented him in that lawsuit before becoming commissioner, and the board has made it a point to weed out corruption and amend the district’s reputation, Graff said.

Graff said he hoped Vogel would help uncover past corruption in the district, but noted that he could not go into detail on any recent discoveries. “The previous report didn’t highlight all of the issues, and new details have come forward,” Graff said. “Vogel has no connection with Nassau County or Oceanside politics. I know he does a quality job and is above politics.”