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The Putnam Examiner – September 9, 2009

Sparks Fly at Feisty Putnam Sheriff’s Debate By Neal Rentz

The two challengers vying for the Republican nomination for Putnam County sheriff attacked Sheriff Don Smith’s handling of a rape investigation and questioned his fitness for the job during a spirited debate last Thursday night in Southeast.
But Smith, completing his second four-year term, defended his record, saying the county was the second safest in New York State.
Smith is being challenged by former New York City Police Capt. Andrew DeStefano and former Southeast Town Justice and ex-assistant district attorney Jim Borkowski.

Last week’s debate, which was conducted at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 38 Union Hall, was moderated by The Putnam Examiner. GOHUD, a multi-candidate political action committee in the region helped coordinate the event. Funding for the videotaping of the debate was provided by the local group 9/11 Families For A Secure America.

The most emotional moments of the 105-minute forum occurred when DeStefano forcefully raised his voice when stating that Smith was investigated by the state for “a rape investigation of a 12-year-old Putnam County girl that was intentionally botched for a friend. That’s a fact. And I have a seven-year-old daughter and if it sounds like I’m angry it’s because I’m angry.”

Smith vehemently denied any favoritism. He said DeStefano “didn’t want to tell you when this incident happened. This incident happened to a little girl. I’m a grandfather and I was bothered. It happened on Feb. 7, 2001, when I was the deputy county executive. “On May 20, 2003, two years and three months later, this was reported to the sheriff’s office,” Smith continued. “A sexual assault case is one of the toughest cases to investigate if you get it the day after it happens.”

Borkowski chided DeStefano for his startlingly emotional criticism of Smith. “Anger has no part in professional law enforcement,” Borkowski said. “The sheriff must be able to have a respectful dialogue, whoever that sheriff might be, with others, whether they are a county executive or the legislature or various constituencies. Yes, you can have that righteous indignation. You can be ticked off. But you’ve got channel that into effective action. A sheriff must have the right temperament to work with other people.”

Borkowski said in the state’s report about the rape case “that the sheriff should be more involved in direct supervision of cases being handled by the investigators in his department, especially highly sensitive or high priority cases.”

DeStefano said that the rape case investigation began in 2003 and lasted about 18 months. “At no time did this sheriff know the investigation was going on,” DeStefano said, adding the investigator handling the case was never told by the sheriff to provide a progress report. “He was allowed to botch the case because there was no supervision,” DeStefano said.

In addressing another hot topic, Borkowski said the sheriff’s department must do more to deal with “criminal illegal aliens.”
“People do not feel as safe as they used to. Statistics don’t matter,” he said. Another key issue repeatedly raised by residents is the increase in drunk driving, he said. “(It is) an epidemic. Not enough is being done.”

DeStefano been a supporter of Smith during the sheriff’s 2001 campaign, but has serious doubts about the incumbent today.
“Like a lot of other people in this county, I have completely lost faith in this sheriff to get the job done,” DeStefano said. “For the past year and a half, this man has attacked me and attacked me. He has attacked my character. He has attacked my family. He has attacked my integrity. So tonight we’re going to talk about integrity. DeStefano charged that domestic violence cases have been “covered up for political friends” and that Smith has accepted inappropriate campaign contributions. (See related story).

For his part, Smith said the elected sheriff “is accountable to the people.” Smith said he was proud of his record during his nearly eight years in office. He also pointed to his experience as a graduate of West Point and his long and distinguished career in the U.S. Army where he commanded at every level up through brigadier general. “In 2001 there was a need for change in the sheriff’s office. And many of the citizens asked me to respond to the call of duty. I have done that,” Smith said. “Someone said tonight statistics don’t matter. Well, they’ve been thrown out during this campaign by all of my opponents so they must matter. And I can just tell you that Putnam County, under my leadership, is absolutely, by far, the safest county in the Hudson Valley. It is the second safest county in the entire State of New York.”

On the question of experience, DeStefano said while Smith “has a very impressive military resume” he did not have the proper background to command a police department.“In 2009, there are very, very specific crime control models not being used,” DeStefano said. “The job is not getting done. This is my experience. This is what I have done for a career. This is not a steppingstone to a higher office. This is a continuation of everything that I have done in my career and I’m very proud of my career.” “Army generals have been heads of state police organizations,” replied Smith, who acknowledged that he was originally reluctant to run in 2001. “They’ve been presidents of the United States. West Point graduates attend that military academy for a lifetime of service to the nation.” While Smith said he respected DeStefano’s career in the New York City Police Department, he now has nearly eight years of law enforcement experience on top of his military background.

Borkowski said he has been a assistant district attorney in Nassau and Putnam counties, a special prosecutor and judge who was approached by many members of the sheriff’s department and the law enforcement community to run. Borkowski said he was told by his supporters that he had “360 degree experience in the entire criminal justice system. You have a well-rounded background.”  Borkowski has received the support of 57 police organizations, including the state police, he noted.

The Republican primary is scheduled for Sept. 15, with the winner to face Democrat Kevin McConville in the Nov. 3 general election.