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Water alert causes firing on Fire Island

Newsday Investigations Team

July 26, 2006, 12:03 AM EDT

The false alarm about tainted water that had Fire Island residents drinking bottled water for three days earlier this month was caused by bad samples taken by a field operator with a troubled work history, Suffolk County Water Authority records show.

Patrick Vecchio Jr., 41, son of Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio,
was fired last night by a unanimous vote of the authority's five-member board of directors. Officials said the fallout from the false alarm cost the authority $100,000 in overtime, bottled water, ice and other costs.

According to testimony at a July 17 authority inquiry into the incident, Vecchio was rushing to leave work an hour early and may have been sloppy in collecting the samples. Eight of the 10 samples he took contained E. Coli bacteria, which is often associated with human or animal waste.

Officials said Tuesday they believe that Vecchio, while juggling a testing tube, kit and umbrella, accidentally placed his finger in a tube, a violation of protocol.

Vecchio declined to comment Tuesday. At the inquiry, he said he had not made mistakes in taking the sample. "I know I didn't go to the bathroom and not wash my hands, or I didn't do anything that day. I got a job done," he testified.

He suggested, however, that he might have picked up deer feces during an inspection and said there was no place to wash his hands. He also said he had to leave an hour early that day to pick up his son.

As a field operator, Vecchio's job was to test the drinking water in 10 Fire Island communities, among them Kismet, Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove. Records indicate he recorded samples in each community every 10 minutes -- "virtually full-throttle running," according to his supervisor, Michael Janovsky.

"Some of the times don't add up with me," Janovsky said at the inquiry. "It is actually impossible ... "

Based on those samples, Suffolk County Water Authority officials issued a warning on July 8 to residents to boil their water. After re-testing the water, officials determined there had nev er been any danger, according to chief executive Stephen Jones.

"This is a very serious matter," he said. "We are dead serious about the drinking-water supply."

The water authority, which has no civil service rules, has long been a source of patronage jobs for both Republicans and Democrats. Vecchio was hired in 1993 and makes $61,568, according to authority records. Vecchio's references on his job application included Gene Cannataro, a Smithtown councilman at the time, and Frank Esposito, then a director of the Suffolk Off-Track Betting Corp. Vecchio has an extensive history of problems on the job, according to records obtained by Newsday under the Freedom of Information Act. He's had six accidents in authority vehicles, has received five warnings related to his work performance and has been suspended three times.

That was not enough to cause him to be fired. "Over the years, he enjoyed a lot of union protections that he would not have enjoyed if he was in the management ranks," Jones said.

Records show that Vecchio has been suspended for failing to follow safety rules, sleeping on the job and leaving work early. He also has been warned about unacceptable job performance, excessive absenteeism and operating a Polaris beach vehicle at an unsafe rate of speed. From June 1996 through December 1998, Vecchio had five accidents in his authority utility vehicle. Two were determined to have been preventable, the cause of one was undetermined and two were not resolved because Vecchio gave conflicting accounts of how the accidents happened.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc