By Danny Schrafel
Legislation designed to prevent “fraudulent veterans” from using town facilities to scam the public sparked a war of words Tuesday night between Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone and Councilwoman Susan Berland.
The most intense battle was over how the legislation came to be.
During a town board meeting Tuesday night, Petrone accused Berland of “grandstanding” on the issue – a charge Berland vehemently denied.
The barbs flew after Northport American Legion Post 694 members, led by Commander John Cooney, supported a proposal by Berland, which did not appear on the agenda, which would require those speaking and/or raising money for themselves or another organization on town property to provide proof of service through military documents, or sign a document certifying that the person and the organization they represent will not violate the county’s recently enacted Stolen Valor Act, which prohibits organizations and people from falsely claiming military service to raise money.
Cooney cited the example of a U.S. Marine Corps infantry sergeant who had appeared at Veterans Plaza April 10, 2014 and spoke during the kickoff of the buildup to the second Cow Harbor Warriors weekend. “According to United States Marine Corps documents, he is a fraud,” Cooney said.
It’s the second time in recent years that the town has been snookered, Cooney added, and until a fix is in place, a moratorium on veteran-related items should be imposed, he said. He included those comments in a letter sent to Petrone May 21.
“When I saw this, I was going to put together a resolution to address the issue,” Berland said of the May 21 letter.
“Without calling me, who the letter was addressed to,” Petrone snapped back.
Berland maintains she played by the rules by showing Petrone a draft and making amendments based on his feedback.
“I am certainly entitled to – and I should – be drafting resolutions,” Berland said.
However, Petrone shot back that Berland oversimplified the issue to get a resolution passed quickly.
“This could have waited for another month, until we met with Mr. Cooney, until we could have gotten everything worked out,” Petrone said. “But you jumped it. You said nothing to me, and you submitted that. It is grandstanding.”
“Not true. Just because you don’t want to do it doesn’t mean it’s grandstanding,” Berland shot back.
Berland ultimately backed off a threat to introduce the legislation as a late-starter, instead agreeing to meet with Petrone and American Legion leaders.
As the dust settled, Petrone said he didn’t want legislation to discourage legitimate veterans from participating in town affairs, and said he wanted to take a more comprehensive approach to squelching charity fraud.
Councilwoman Tracey Edwards added that, in the example Cooney cited, the person who fooled the town could have done so even if he was required to submit paperwork; Councilman Mark Cuthbertson added it’s impossible to stop someone from getting a permit legitimately and then making false claims on town property.
But Cooney said the added attention to veterans seeking fundraising permission is appropriate. Just asking for proof, he said, can be enough to scare off a fraudster.
“We are talking about an individual who is seeking the limelight to solicit funds for themselves or an organization,” Cooney said. “They’re putting themselves out there.”