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Suffolk’s plan to clean its waterways could cost about $20,000 per household — and that’s just one hurdle

Suffolk County has launched an ambitious plan to clean the region’s waters by getting homeowners to abandon cesspools and septic systems in favor of advanced and more costly treatment technology, but the effort is hitting technical and political hurdles, a review by Newsday/News 12 has found.

County-ordered tests show that only one of the four advanced systems approved by Suffolk in 2016 and 2017 has routinely met the threshold county officials set for reducing nitrogen, a key contributor to the polluting of Long Island’s waterways.

A fifth system, approved this year, also met the standard, although in a single round of the ongoing testing, county officials said.

Additionally, county officials have encountered resistance from legislators who say they fear a voter backlash over the increased per-household cost of improving wastewater treatment.

“Alternative on-site wastewater treatment” systems — in essence, mini sewage-treatment plants that would be placed in thousands of yards across Suffolk County — are more effective than traditional cesspools and septics but, at an average of just under $20,000, are also at least twice as costly and require more maintenance.

“Clearly we want to see the whole universe of these performing better,” Walter Dawydiak, Suffolk’s director of the Division of Environmental Quality, said during a February conference call with environmentalists, builders, officials and others involved in the effort.

But he emphasized that the results were still encouraging

“Even the worst of these systems is showing 50 percent removal [of nitrogen],” he said later.

Most homes and businesses in the counties surrounding New York City, including Nassau, are connected to sewer systems. Nearly 75 percent of Suffolk homes, though, do not have sewer service. Suffolk officials estimated that some 252,000 cesspools — holding tanks that eventually leech untreated waste directly into the ground — are in place in the county. An additional 108,000 properties are served by traditional septic systems, which offer better overall treatment but do little to reduce nitrogen.

That decades-long legacy of nitrogen-rich waste moving from homes largely unfiltered to the ecosystem has in part led to harmful algal blooms, loss of shellfish stocks, degraded wetlands and lower oxygen levels in Long Island’s surface waters, including its bays, rivers and Long Island Sound.

Individual systems

Nearly 75 percent of Suffolk County relies on cesspools and septic systems to treat its waste. Officials say the nitrogen from those systems is degrading water quality. Here’s a look at what is in use now and the advanced technology the county is pushing. Dollar figures are the initial costs of each system.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone labeled nitrogen as “public water enemy No. 1” in 2015 and released a wide-ranging water-resources management plan to reverse declining water quality, which included the advanced systems. That same year, the county started a pilot demonstration program to test some of these systems, selecting homeowners via lottery to get equipment installed at no cost.

In 2016 Bellone and the legislature amended the county sanitary code, outlining how the advanced systems would be tested, and setting rules for the average amount of nitrogen the new technology could release before being approved for widespread use.

Suffolk officials settled on 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter, limits also used in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where officials have been battling for more than 20 years to reduce nitrogen levels in wastewater. That level of nitrogen is less than a third of what is usually found in raw sewage, but also nearly twice the state’s standard for what can be released by a large municipal sewage-treatment plant — the type to which sewer pipes are connected.

Supporters hailed the change, saying it had been a long time coming and necessary. They noted that for more than 50 years it’s been known that disposing of waste into groundwater is not wise for the environmental and economic well-being of an island where tourism and recreation are big business.

“This is as big or bigger than any other major policy issue that the Island has confronted,” said Kevin McDonald, conservation project director for public lands at The Nature Conservancy on Long Island. “Any of these systems on their worst day can’t be worse than what we have now,” he added. “Even if they only perform at 50 percent that’s better than what we’re doing now.”

Bellone declined to be interviewed, instead referring questions about the Newsday/News 12 review to Deputy County Executive Peter Scully.

The county’s so-called water czar, Scully said manufacturers will be given a chance to make adjustments to make their systems more effective, but over the long-term, if they can’t meet the standard they won’t be approved for general use in Suffolk County.

“It’s very early in the process and the dataset is small but the county is forcing the manufacturers to meet a standard that is very difficult to meet,” he said. “But the standard is in place for a reason.”

As the county studies how the technologies perform, five systems that made it through the first round of testing are provisionally approved for sale. Read the rest of the story.

Where is the money for these systems coming from? Grants and loan programs are available to help with the added expense, but that money is limited.

Expense is a major concern when it comes to the advanced wastewater treatment systems that are a big part of Suffolk County’s program to reduce nitrogen heading from homes to waterways and drinking aquifers.

The units cost two to four times more than a conventional wastewater system to install and hundreds of dollars extra each year to operate and maintain.

County and state governments have set up grants to offset about half the initial costs, and made loans available to cover the other half. East End towns, funded by town-approved taxes on real estate transactions, have their own grant programs.

That money is limited, though, and additional funding sources will have to be found; the money set aside so far will cover only a couple thousand of the systems in a county where an estimated 252,000 properties still rely on low-tech cesspools.

The added costs

Suffolk County officials say average installation costs of the innovative and advanced systems run $19,200. Builders, installers and engineers said the price tag can be as high as $25,000 to $30,000 for some houses where soil composition and other site conditions might make the work difficult.

That’s compared to about $5,000 to $10,000 to install a traditional septic tank and cesspool, installers said, and as little as $2,000 for a cesspool alone.

In addition to upfront costs and maintenance, the advanced systems also have electrical components that add to utility bills.

In general, the first three years of maintenance costs are included by manufacturers in the installation price. But after that, residents will be required to have an annual contract that will cost between $250 to $300 a year, according to the county.

“If you want to optimize your performance you have to take care of it,” said Justin Jobin, environmental projects coordinator in the Suffolk County health department.

Operators in other states where the systems are already in place say costs can run significant higher.

Annual maintenance contracts range between $500 and $2,000 at Cape Cod, Massachusetts-based Bennett Environmental Associates Inc., according to Samantha Farrenkopf, wastewater program manager for the company, which maintains systems for homeowners and files necessary compliance documents. Joe Martins, owner of Accu Sepcheck in Cape Cod, said contracts are between $500 and $1,800 a year.

The pumps, blowers, air compressors and other equipment use electricity — from $57 to $266 per year, depending on the model, the system manufacturers have told Suffolk officials.

Those parts can also break, and replacements can cost from $11 for a Fiberglas air blower to thousands of dollars for some components, according to out-of-state operators.

Homeowners can kill off the microorganisms that play a key role in nitrogen reduction in the systems by using excessive bleach or flushing chemotherapy drugs, for example. Jobin said systems typically rebound on their own and pumpouts aren’t normally needed.

Under the rules established by county officials, once the systems receive final approval, they will have to be tested every three years for water quality, which will cost about $200, according to local installers. Suffolk officials said that they believed the price for testing, which they said was closer to $100, is included in the price of the operations and maintenance agreement.

Not all systems have the same demands, maintenance needs or costs. A Fuji Clean USA system, which was approved by the county in January, has barely any moving parts and uses technology developed in Japan in the 1960s.

Where is the money coming from?

For installation, purchase and other upfront costs, the county will provide $10,000 to $11,000 for about 1,000 homeowners who receive grants — up to $10 million over five years.

New York State has also allocated $10 million to help the county expand its grant program and pay for up to half the costs of a system. East Hampton, Southampton and Shelter Island are also offering grants of up to $16,000 for residents who qualify based on need, funded from town-approved taxes on real estate transactions.

Mitchell Pally, CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute, a home-builders industry group, said given the increased costs of the advanced systems, homeowners — especially those of modest means — will need help.

“You need the subsidy to make it palatable to people, especially if you’re going to require them to do it,” he said.

How to fund that subsidy in a sustained way is likely to be the subject of policy debates among officials leery of adding to the burden of property owners.

County Executive Steve Bellone in 2016 proposed asking voters to institute a fee on water usage, which would have cost an average family between $73 and $126 a year, to help fund water-improvement projects including advanced systems and sewers. The idea was quashed when state lawmakers in both parties worried the money could be diverted and said they weren’t consulted until shortly before the executive’s administration announced its plan.

County officials, environmental advocates and business groups are discussing the creation of a Suffolk-wide district to administer and fund water-quality programs, including advanced systems and sewers. How it would collect money is to be determined, Scully said.

Proponents of the systems say they expect the costs per unit to go down as more of the units get approved for sale in the county, more installers get certified and engineers get accustomed to putting them in the ground.

“Why wouldn’t this market behave like any other market, that went from emerging to infant to very mature?” said Kevin McDonald, policy and finance adviser to the Long Island branch of The Nature Conservancy, an environmental conservation group.

The East End is already embracing the new septic technology. Local officials say the move shows the county and residents that clean water is a priority.

Officials on Long Island’s East End are moving aggressively to require the installation of advanced nitrogen-reducing septic systems, even as Suffolk County assesses the effectiveness of the technology in cleaning the region’s surface waters.

The Town of East Hampton began in January of this year mandating that advanced systems be installed in all new residential and commercial construction sites or where an existing structure is undergoing an expansion of at least 50 percent.

Southampton is requiring them to be installed in new residential construction or expansions of existing homes in designated areas near bays and streams. Farther to the west, Brookhaven Town has a similar rule, although one limited solely to new construction.

The Shelter Island Town board in May will discuss a proposal to require the advanced systems in construction of all new homes larger than 1,500 square feet.

Advanced on-site wastewater treatment systems are key to Suffolk County’s ambitious plan to reduce the nitrogen pollution that leads to harmful algal blooms, loss of shellfish stocks, degraded wetlands and lower oxygen levels in Long Island’s bays, rivers and Long Island Sound.

But rather than requiring their installation, the county has so far relied on government grants and other financial incentives to persuade homeowners to abandon the cesspools and septic systems that predominate in the region. The advanced systems have an average price of nearly $20,000, at least twice the cost of traditional waste-disposal systems, which do little to limit nitrogen.

The local officials say that their support for a mandate is as much about pushing the county to act as it is about getting residents to participate in programs to restore the environment. Read the rest of the story.

How did a place like Suffolk County end up with such a subpar septic system? Cost overruns, a scandal and a murder, for starters.

Suffolk County officials had plans half a century ago for sewers throughout much of the county, from Smithtown and Huntington to Southold and East Hampton.

The reality today is that nearly 75 percent of homes in Suffolk County — some 360,000 residences — are not connected to sewers and rely instead on septic tanks and/or cesspools, through which wastewater flows into the ground and Long Island’s bays, rivers and the sound.

What happened? How does Suffolk — an upscale suburban area just outside one of the world’s major cities — find itself struggling with a problem the rest of the region handled decades ago?

The answer lies in the history of the Southwest Sewer District project of the 1970s, one of Long Island’s biggest scandals. It was supposed to be a first step in establishing the county’s sewer infrastructure, but the program was so plagued by cost overruns, mismanagement and corruption that until 10 years ago, all proposed sewer projects had become politically toxic, observers said.

And by the time elected leaders started discussing the topic again, the federal government, which along with the state paid for 87.5 percent of the costs of the Southwest Sewer District, stopped regularly funding sewer projects.

“The Southwest Sewer District scandals hit and shortly thereafter, the federal funding went away. You had the one-two punch right there,” said Dennis Kelleher, senior vice president with Melville-based engineering firm H2M Water.

An ambitious 1967 plan had sewers crossing from the South Shore of western Suffolk to Huntington, Smithtown and Commack. Voters rejected it 6 to 1.

Two years later, officials put forward a scaled-down version and ran an aggressive campaign warning that residents would otherwise essentially be drinking from their toilets.

“Long Island is the outstanding example in the world where a major population discharges sewage in groundwaters. Even people in underdeveloped countries tell me they can’t understand it,” said Dwight Metzler, New York State’s deputy health commissioner for environmental services, in a Sept. 26, 1969, Newsday article.

Voters narrowly approved it, creating the Southwest Sewer District, covering Babylon and parts of Islip.

The project was originally estimated to cost $291 million, but within four years the price was $588 million. Ultimately, the Southwest Sewer District would cost more than $1 billion and take 14 years before the first flush went through the system.

Keep reading about the history of the failed Suffolk sewer project, including the “natural-born master criminal” who was leading the project and the county official who was murdered just after he promised to reveal all the project’s secrets. Read the rest of the story.

Edward Walsh investigation: Brushes with the law

Edward Walsh, the Conservative Party’s Suffolk County chairman and a county correction lieutenant, has risen to positions of power and influence despite incidents that could have derailed his career.

Civil service and sheriff’s records from Walsh’s background check show in 1988 he tested positive for the barbiturate phenobarbital in a failed bid to work for the NYPD and was arrested in 1984 as a University of Maryland student and sentenced to 12 months’ probation for a misdemeanor sex offense. Walsh did not disclose the Maryland arrest on his application, as is required.

Walsh was arrested again on a felony criminal mischief charge in 1989, less than a year before he applied to work for the sheriff’s office. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a violation, according to the documents.

Two years ago, Suffolk County law enforcement officials raided a Medford business and discovered illegal gambling, drugs and more than two dozen people, including Walsh. Although he was not among those arrested, Walsh’s presence amid illegal activity sparked an investigation, the results of which have never been made public.

Now, Walsh, 48, is among the targets of a sheriff’s investigation into whether correction department employees stole wages by padding their salaries with hours they never worked.

In interviews with Newsday over the past six weeks, Walsh denied he had done anything wrong and blamed political enemies for trying to undermine the positive work he does for Long Island and the Conservative Party.

“It is what it is, and there’s nothing I can do about that,” Walsh said. “I go to work every day. I do my job. I’m passionate. I try to help my community. I try to make a difference in the world. That’s what I do by being in the Conservative Party.”

The Smithtown News in December 2011 first reported about Walsh’s Maryland sex offense charge and the challenge he faced later in applying to the sheriff’s office. The story was based on documents widely circulated by Lawrence Gray, a former state prosecutor and frequent Walsh critic, who called on Walsh to register as a sex offender.

Newsday obtained those same documents and is writing about them for the first time.

Walsh emerged from the roughly yearlong vetting process with an offer to join the sheriff’s office, despite its initial objection to his eligibility because of the information uncovered during his background check. The reason for reversing Walsh’s planned removal from the applicant pool is not indicated in the documents.

Walsh — whose father, Ed Walsh Sr., served as a committeeman alongside fellow Islip Conservative Michael Mahoney, the brother of then-Sheriff Patrick Mahoney — has worked for the sheriff’s office for the past 23 years. He made more than $200,000 in 2013, according to payroll records, and at least another $62,000 as the county’s Conservative Party chairman, a position that has made him an influential political figure in Suffolk County.

Michael D. O’Donohoe, a longtime Suffolk County Conservative Party committeeman, former county legislator and Suffolk’s current commissioner of jurors, said high salaries inside the sheriff’s office and allegations of stolen time have “tainted” the Conservative line. O’Donohoe supported the investigation into Walsh and other employees by Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, who, like Walsh and O’Donohoe, is a member of the Conservative Party.

“He has to square this up,” O’Donohoe said of DeMarco. “This isn’t going down well with Joe Six-Pack.”

DeMarco declined to discuss the specifics of the probe but confirmed that Walsh had been officially notified about two weeks ago that he is the target of an ongoing internal affairs investigation.

Asked whether he would have hired Walsh given his past issues, DeMarco said: “We have sought to have people disqualified for less.”

Maryland arrest

Mary Salins said she didn’t need to call the police the night she was attacked outside a University of Maryland dorm. They came running to her.

“I screamed, and that’s what alerted the security police,” Salins said.

A December 1984 police report from the incident shows that cops arrested 18-year-old Edward Walsh, a former star athlete at East Islip High who was then a 6-foot-6, 250-pound freshman on a Maryland football scholarship. Salins said she had been walking on campus when Walsh suddenly knocked her boyfriend down and then groped her between her legs.

As frightening as that was, Salins said what stays with her to this day is going to court to testify and seeing Walsh, flanked by several of his football buddies, making fun of her and directing a vulgar comment her way.

Court records show Walsh was charged with a misdemeanor fourth-degree sex offense and that the disposition of the case was 12 months’ probation before judgment. Years later, after Walsh applied to join the Suffolk County sheriff’s office, a Maryland judge granted his request to have the records expunged.

Walsh did not respond directly to questions about the Maryland case. His attorney, Frank Tinari of Central Islip, said Walsh denies that he committed a sex offense and says that the charge against him had been dismissed.

John Kudel, a criminal defense attorney and the immediate past president of the Maryland State Bar Association, said probation before judgment does not mean a charge has been dismissed.

Kudel, who was not involved in Walsh’s case, said probation before judgment indicates the defendant pleaded guilty or no contest or was found guilty at trial. Either way, “the judge finds that person guilty,” Kudel said.

William Welch, a Maryland criminal defense attorney who has been practicing law for 21 years, agreed that a “finding of guilt” precedes probation before judgment.

“You get a conviction,” said Welch, who also was not involved in Walsh’s case. But the conviction is temporary, and once the defendant agrees to waive his right to appeal, “the court strikes the conviction,” Welch said.

Salins, whose last name was Hughes at the time, had not spoken to the media about her encounter with Walsh until she was contacted by a Newsday reporter. She said she didn’t know Walsh before the incident and was unaware that he had gone on to become a Suffolk County political figure and law enforcement officer. Salins does not live in New York.

Tinari said that the way the Maryland case ended suggests that Salins’ credibility was in question.

“I want you to consider the fact that maybe the prosecutor in Maryland, after the prosecutor interviewed this woman or this person who made these allegations, didn’t believe the person or didn’t feel that the person’s allegations made any sense or were believable in any shape or form,” Tinari said.

The disposition of Walsh’s case does not indicate doubt by the prosecutor, Kudel said.

“The prosecutor may very well be opposed to a probation before judgment, but the judge granted it anyway,” Kudel said.

Background check

Besides records related to the Maryland case, the documents Gray circulated from Walsh’s background check included letters between sheriff’s investigators and the Suffolk County Department of Civil Service.

According to an October 1990 letter from Frederick Brotschul, the commanding officer of the sheriff’s personnel investigations unit, Walsh did not mention his Maryland arrest on his candidate questionnaire.

“Mr. Walsh denied that he has been arrested until certain specifics of the arrest were brought to his attention,” Brotschul wrote.

Another letter, from Administrative Lt. Frank Jenkins, states that in 1988 the New York City Police Department found Walsh “not qualified due to an unauthorized substance in his system during his health examination.”

The drug for which Walsh tested positive, phenobarbital, is a central nervous system depressant with a potential for abuse, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

I can’t tell you how disturbing this is and how upset I am to see something like this.” — Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning, on Walsh’s 1984 sex offense arrest

Walsh said in an interview that he doesn’t use recreational drugs and had been prescribed the phenobarbital but couldn’t remember why.

Jenkins wrote in his letter that Walsh had “the opportunity to submit a valid prescription to overturn his disqualification” for the NYPD job but was “unable to produce one.”

Walsh said he missed the deadline to submit his prescription.

“I have chronic sinus infections and to this day, when I go to the doctor, I’m always on Claritin and everything else,” Walsh said. “It had to be something like that, and when I sent the appeal back I was too late. I was an idiot kid.”

Joseph Nathan, an associate professor of pharmacy with Long Island University, said the FDA approves of the use of phenobarbital as a sedative and for the management of seizures. He could not find any information suggesting it could treat chronic sinus infections.

“Although medications are commonly used for non-FDA-approved uses, I am not aware of such a use for phenobarbital,” Nathan said.

Walsh: Spota cleared me

Jenkins also wrote that Walsh “attempted to mislead the investigation process by supplying deceptive information which contradicted the factual information supplied by other governmental agencies.”

In an October letter to Walsh, Alan Schneider, the county’s Civil Service chief, wrote: “The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department has submitted a formal challenge to your eligibility to remain” on the list of candidates. Walsh was given nine days to offer an explanation and submit facts to help his cause but never did, according to a source involved in vetting his candidacy.

Still, the sheriff’s office dropped its challenge to Walsh’s eligibility before the nine days expired and then-Sheriff Mahoney hired Walsh two months later. Mahoney did not respond to a call for comment.

After the Smithtown News wrote about Walsh’s background investigation, Suffolk County Legis. Kate M. Browning (WF-Shirley) announced during a February 2012 meeting of the Public Safety Committee she chairs that she thought an independent, state investigation into Walsh’s hiring might be appropriate.

“I can’t tell you how disturbing this is and how upset I am to see something like this,” Browning said to sheriff’s office Chief of Staff Mike Sharkey. “Again, if you lie on a Civil Service application, you don’t get the job. And I want to know how this person got the job, if, in fact, any of this is true.”

Sharkey told Browning that Sheriff DeMarco and Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office were already investigating the matter.

Before Browning ever raised the issue, Spota had already concluded his review and informed Walsh in a letter that the Maryland case ended “without a finding of verdict, or, in other words no conviction for a criminal or noncriminal offense was entered.”

Therefore, Walsh did not need to register as a sex offender, as Gray had suggested, according to Spota’s letter.

“Since you have never been convicted, no registration under the Sex Offender Registry Act is contemplated or required in this State or another. A plain reading of the Sex Offender Registry Act makes that abundantly clear,” the letter states.

Browning said Tuesday she doesn’t believe that her request for an investigation was handled adequately. She said she wants state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to investigate whether Walsh lied on his civil service application and determine if he should have been “eligible for the job.”

“I think the attorney general needs to step in,” Browning said. “I think that’s where it should go.”

Walsh said that Spota’s letter exonerated him of wrongdoing.

“I did nothing wrong,” Walsh said. “I’m telling you that that cut-and-paste stuff and all that other junk is garbage. Just talk to the district attorney. They don’t give anybody a free ride.”

Robert Clifford, Spota’s spokesman, wrote in an email Wednesday: “This office did not exonerate any person. We simply recited the fact that after review, Mr. Walsh does not have a criminal conviction.”

Gambling raid

Four months after Browning’s call for an investigation into Walsh, the Suffolk County Police Department raided an illegal gambling operation in Medford. Court records show about 30 people were present at the June 12, 2012, event.

Though he is not named in the court papers, Walsh acknowledged to Newsday that he was there to play cards.

Police arrested at least three people on illegal gambling charges, according to court records. Two of them have been convicted of promoting gambling in the second degree, a misdemeanor. The case for a third defendant is ongoing.

Walsh said police did not handcuff him or arrest him. He said after a period of time they told him, “OK, Mr. Walsh, have a good day” and sent him on his way.

“It’s absolutely not illegal to play cards,” Walsh said. “If you want to write a story that says Eddie Walsh plays cards, he definitely does.”

Browning sent a letter to DeMarco 10 days after the raid asking whether Walsh had been drug-tested or suspended pending an investigation.

“It is the duty of a law enforcement officer to report any crime in progress if it is observed by that officer regardless if they are on duty or not,” Browning’s letter states.

Walsh’s presence at the illegal card game led to an investigation by the Suffolk Police Department and District Attorney Spota, according to a source informed of the investigations.

I play cards. I own up to that. Politics is the biggest card game I play.” — Edward Walsh
On May 5, Newsday filed requests with the police department and Spota’s office for records related to the investigation into Walsh.

The police department acknowledged the request on May 9, within the five-day deadline required by law, but has yet to produce any records. Spota’s office has not responded to the records request at all, a violation of the state’s public records law.

Suffolk DA spokesman Clifford wrote in an email Wednesday that his office had responded and that there was “clearly a failure on the part of Newsday to properly sort and deliver mail.” Clifford refused Newsday’s request Wednesday to provide the communication he said his office had sent.

DeMarco said the Suffolk County Police Department informed his office that Walsh had been present at the card game and that his office requested all pertinent records. No records were provided, DeMarco said.

“We were told by them that he was there and we said, ‘OK, can you send us a copy of the report, incident report or a field report?’ ” DeMarco said. “And we never got one, and we still don’t have a report.”

Walsh said he did nothing wrong that night in Medford.

“If I’m guilty of anything, I’m guilty of playing cards,” Walsh said. “I play cards. I own up to that. Politics is the biggest card game I play.”

Minor party, major influence

Walsh took over the leadership of Islip’s Conservative Party after Michael Mahoney died in 2002.

Walsh’s father, a longtime Conservative Party activist and committeeman, served four years in the 1970s as chairman of the Islip Town Conservative Party. Michael Mahoney later assumed the same position shortly after his brother hired the junior Walsh to work for him at the sheriff’s office.

Walsh became the Conservatives’ Suffolk County leader in 2006 with a promise to end the party’s infighting and a vision to assert the party’s power in political races beyond the judiciary.

O’Donohoe said at the time he had high hopes for Walsh.

“He’s looking to re-establish the party’s credibility and show we’re not just for sale,” O’Donohoe said, according to a September 2006 Newsday story.

With more than 21,000 registered Conservatives in Suffolk County, Walsh chairs the party’s largest constituency in the state.

As party chairman, Walsh can allow candidates not registered with his party to run on the Conservative line. That can be worth 8 percent to 15 percent of the vote, said Suffolk Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer, who has made endorsement deals with Walsh.

“In many elections they have the ability to determine who gets elected,” Schaffer said. “The Conservative Party’s influence is much larger than the raw number of registrants in the county.”

Republicans believe they can’t win without the Conservative line, and a Democrat who also holds the Conservative line is viewed as unbeatable, said Nassau County Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs.

Republicans “are desperate for it,” said Jacobs, who has negotiated with Walsh on judgeships. “If they don’t have the Conservative line, they’re not going to win.”

‘His word has been good’

Both allies and critics describe Walsh as a brash negotiator who uses his influence to secure for his supporters well-paid patronage positions and elected slots during cross-endorsement deals with other political party leaders.

For example, he negotiated a top position at the Suffolk County Board of Elections for Michael Torres, the Islip Conservative chairman, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations. And Walsh pushed Republican County leadership to have Islip Town Councilman Anthony Senft, a Conservative, be the Republican nominee for the competitive open State Senate seat in the 3rd District, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.

Walsh is also surrounded in the Suffolk County sheriff’s office by those linked to the Conservative Party. The top eight paid employees in the sheriff’s office — and 17 of the top 30 — are all either Conservative town committeemen or have contributed to Conservative candidates or committees since 2009. Their contributions total more than $52,000 since 2009, including a $25,000 contribution Walsh made to his own committee, the Suffolk County Conservative Chairman’s Club, according to campaign finance records.

But much of Walsh’s focus has been on the judiciary, where he has bargained with party leaders in Nassau and Suffolk to pick judges and law clerks.

Newsday found that at least nine of the 27 Suffolk Supreme Court justices have Conservative law clerks or senior staff members, positions that are often a stepping-stone to judicial jobs.

Newsday has previously reported that Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello punched a locker and broke a finger during a telephone argument with Walsh over 2012 judicial cross-endorsements.

Mondello declined to comment for this story. Suffolk GOP leader John Jay LaValle did not respond to requests for comment.

Jacobs said Walsh has “always been straight up” in negotiations with him.

“I only have good things to say about him,” Jacobs said. “Whenever he has dealt with me, his word has been good.”

O’Donohoe, the Conservative committeeman, spoke of Walsh in less favorable terms.

He said he supported Walsh’s rise to chairman in 2006 but was unaware of the sex offense charge, and that could have changed his mind.

If Walsh wants his support again in September, he needs to answer questions about his past, O’Donohoe said.

O’Donohoe said there’s a growing frustration among the party members who believe in conservative principles, and he’s concerned they will abandon the county party if it’s known for bloated salaries and political connections.

“We’re supposed to be the party of less government,” O’Donohoe said.

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