MINEOLA, N.Y. — There may be a reason a prosecutor's office says it never received nine reports of suspicious deaths of developmentally disabled people in state care over the past three years: A state oversight agency acknowledged Friday it sent them to an assistant prosecutor's personal email, an account that apparently had been abandoned.
This new explanation for the handling of the nine death cases has prompted the agency, the Justice Center, to update its email list and to institute a policy of only sending such reports directly to each county's top prosecutor, plus a designee, followed with a phone call to confirm.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that none of the nine death cases, all in Long Island's Suffolk County, led to any criminal charges.
Suffolk County's district attorney's office said the Justice Center, the state's central clearinghouse for collecting such cases, never told the office of the cases, as required by law. The Justice Center disputed that and provided the AP with notification documents showing they were sent to the address it was given by the Suffolk DA's office three years ago: a private, non-governmental email with the domain optonline.net.
Suffolk district attorney's office spokesman Robert Clifford said that private email was identified by the office as "a dormant, private email address of an assistant district attorney."
"Its use is decidedly not in compliance with the customary transmission of official business or information," Clifford said.
There was no response when the AP tried the address several times this week.
Clifford refused to identify the prosecutor or say how long the account was believed to have been abandoned. He said he didn't know how the Justice Center got that address.
Additionally, Clifford said that nobody from the Justice Center called to follow up on its notifications and that a search of the DA's office records produced no sign of any "regular mail" follow-up either. The Justice Center did not respond to queries asking if it made any attempts to follow up on its notifications to Suffolk County.
An advocate for the disabled, Michael Carey, first obtained the list of nine deaths from an open-records request. He said he has queried the prosecutors and medical examiners in all New York's 62 counties and received responses acknowledging only 24 suspicious deaths reported to four counties among 15,000 people in state care who died in the past three years.
"I believe what has surfaced in Suffolk County is only the tip of the iceberg," Carey said.
Under state law, the Justice Center must immediately notify the local district attorney and medical examiner of deaths involving allegations of abuse and neglect, even while the center conducts its own investigation.
Carey only learned of the nine Suffolk County cases from the county's medical examiner's office, which received them from the Justice Center. The email address the center had for the medical examiner's office was a governmental email address.
New York state information technology directives say government employees must not use personal email accounts to conduct state business unless explicitly authorized.
Justice Center spokesman William Reynolds said the center has now updated the Suffolk County email address and has checked the others it uses and established the new protocol for double-checking them. Asked whether other wrong addresses were found, he didn't immediately reply.
While none of the nine Suffolk County deaths between 2013 and 2016 has led to criminal prosecutions, county police say they are now taking another look at one case.
The Justice Center was created in 2013 with a mandate to probe all allegations of wrongdoing by caretakers, with the power to refer cases to local prosecutors or bring criminal charges itself. But an AP analysis last year found it rarely uses that power, with just 2.5 percent of the more than 7,000 substantiated cases of abuse or neglect resulting in criminal charges.
Attorney Robert Santoriella represents a family whose sister is one of the nine people who died following what it believes to be weeks of medical mistreatment by caregivers. He said the Justice Center is not fulfilling its mandate to investigate such cases and put protections in place.
Instead, he said, "it's a black hole."
Virtanen reported from Albany.