By Rick Murphy
Though Southampton Town officials are publicly adamant that the resignation of Police Chief Bill Wilson and the return of Lieutenant James Kiernan to active duty are unrelated, there is rampant speculation the two are very much tied together.
Kiernan was reinstated after a six-month suspension. "The Kiernan disciplinary case was settled with a plea agreement that was acceptable to all parties and was approved by the Town Board," said Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst on Monday. The two sides agreed on a "fair penalty," she added. The supervisor said since the agreement is a personnel matter, it is being kept confidential.
The town board suspended Kiernan last May following a recommendation from Wilson. Kiernan, the head of the since disbanded Street Crimes Unit, stood accused of letting a rogue police officer work undercover though he had a drug problem. The officer, Eric Sickles, has since been suspended.
The repercussions of the scandal have been massive, and could result in Southampton taxpayers being on the hook for millions of dollars worth of damages.
The Suffolk County District Attorney freed two convicted felons from prison because their arrests and convictions were tainted. Both have sued the town, and the DA acknowledged more cases are likely to be dismissed.
"Personally I find it extremely disappointing," said Councilwomen Christine Scalera of Wilson's sudden resignation. "This is one of the worst times in history [for the department]. At a time like this you look to the chief for leadership."
Wilson has been a source of controversy in his own right. The town board hired him in May 2011, taking the rare step of going outside the department – Wilson was the Southampton Village Police Chief at the time. It didn't take long for the marriage to turn rocky.
Some members of the public and police force were angered the in-house candidate, Anthony Tenaglia, was passed over. Wilson was later criticized for running up overtime costs, and later for criticizing staffing levels in the department.
Rumors then leaked that the town board were talking to Wilson about retiring: Wilson said last spring he was approached about taking a retirement package on two occasions. But Councilman Chris Nuzzi told The Independent in May the opposite scenario occurred. "He made that up," Nuzzi countered. "He approached us."
Nuzzi said at the time there was no correlation between the Kiernan case and the call for Wilson to retire.
Initially Wilson was credited with asking the County DA to investigate the department shortly after he took over. The DA has since seized boxes of records and is in the midst of an investigation.
Throne-Holst said this week the town board will review "a list limited to officers with the rank of Captain or above within the Town's jurisdiction and as permitted by Civil Service law" with an eye on choosing a new chief.
Meanwhile, the town is bracing for the conclusion of the DA's investigation. Insiders expect more lawsuits from individuals who were arrested by the Street Crimes Unit, which at this point has been completely discredited.
The town is woefully unprepared to defend itself without asking taxpayers for more money – there is $450,000 in the budget for outside council, and every individual named in any suit can demand the town pay for his or her attorney.
Throne-Holst would not speculate about Wilson's reasons for leaving his post. "As far as the matter of Chief Wilson's decision to retire, I feel it is our job and duty as the elected leaders of our town to concentrate our efforts on supporting a smooth and productive transition," she said.
Scalera said Wilson never officially notified the town board of his intention to resign, "There was meaningful communication with the board. I hate to say it but I heard about it from the press."