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Police Shutter Building Department Again; Employees Sent Home

Ten months after launching an investigation into corruption at Port Chester's building department, police have shut the office down again.

In a sign that a 10-month corruption investigation may be coming to a close, Port Chester police shuttered the building department at village hall on Friday, freezing operations and sending employees home.

Details remain few. Port Chester police Lt. James Ladeairous confirmed detectives closed the office on Friday, saying the office is physically off-limits pending action by the police and village government.

Mayor Dennis Pilla also confirmed the lock-down.

"This is yet another step in the journey of rooting out corruption in Port Chester," he wrote in reply to a query from Patch.

The investigation was revealed publicly for the first time last year, when police first shut down the department and hauled away boxes of records on April 29.

Frank Ruccolo, the department's building inspector, was suspended without pay in the resulting investigation, and soon after submitted retirement papers. Although the village drafted administrative charges against Ruccolo, the disgraced former building inspector used the protection of state personnel law to bury the charges when he retired.

As a result, the details of those charges never became public, and village residents have become increasingly frustrated as other suspended former employees used the same legal strategy.

State law says the personnel files of public employees are protected, unless details in those files point to dereliction of duty or other allegations of misbehavior. Two employees have been suspended in an investigation into money stolen from Port Chester's parking meters. Estimates suggest the thefts totaled about .

On Sept. 22 of last year, former DPW General Foreman Gary Racaniello by resigning.

In a letter, Racaniello told Russo his resignation was "conditioned on" two things: "that all disciplinary charges...are hereby withdrawn" and "that all copies of disciplinary charges (pending or to be lodged), as well as other paperwork related to any other disciplinary charges will not be filed."

In January, village hall against William Oxer, a DPW employee and former chief of the Port Chester Fire Department. Those charges have not been publicly revealed, and Oxer declined to comment when reached by phone.

Oxer's name came up in the parking meter probe as early as November, but his legal troubles were not limited to the meter investigation and hint at the alleged wide-scale corruption involving building department operations–after a home he co-owned caught fire in September, for allowing illegal occupancy, conducting work on the home without permits, and renting the home without installing smoke or carbon-monoxide detectors.

In December, police served the DPW and finance department with a subpoena, marking the third time in one year that criminal authorities took records from village hall departments during corruption investigations.

The investigations and suspensions have fueled political disagreements within Port Chester, sparking heated exchanges and drawing the attention of the district attorney's Public Integrity Bureau.

Mayoral challenger Bart Didden has said the investigations signal a lack of oversight, while imcumbent Mayor Dennis Pilla says it's the staff he's hired and supervised – including Village Manager Christopher Russo and Code Enforcement Director Christopher Steers – have been the driving force behind finding and exposing corruption in the village.

In October, Trustee Sam Terenzi was called in to speak to investigators at the Public Integrity Bureau after an outburst during a public meeting in which he referred to a tipster in the parking meter probe as "a rat." Terenzi and the board's Republicans were accused of trying to fire Robert Lombardi, the assistant village manager who headed the administrative investigations in the parking meter probe.

Republican trustees, including Terenzi, Didden and Kenner, argued that eliminating Lombardi's $79,000-a-year position was a cost-cutting measure, but raised eyebrows among the public for the timing of that effort, days after Lombardi revealed charges in the meter investigation.

After months of praising Code Enforcement Director Christopher Steers for thousands of homes in Port Chester since taking over enforcement duties from the building department, mayoral candidate Bart Didden issued a campaign press release earlier this month saying those efforts were not enough.

Downtown "is an embarassment to our residents," Didden said, while criticizing the pace of code enforcement efforts ahead of Tuesday's mayoral vote.

Check back with Port Chester Patch for updates on the building department investigation.

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