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January 31, 2020

Seeking a court order limiting the scope of a public official's inquiry

The Nassau County Comptroller' issued a press release announcing the audit of the "finances and operation" of the Town of Hempstead's  animal shelter. The press release indicated that the audit was "precipitated after receiving alarming complaints" alleging "animal neglect, unnecessary deaths, unsanitary conditions, and unqualified staff."

In a proceeding pursuant to CPLR Article 78 characterized as being in the "nature of prohibition,"* the Town's counsel had argued that "any authority of the County Comptroller to audit the Town or its departments was limited to an examination of financial affairs." The County Comptroller, on the other hand, contended that he was authorized to undertake not only financial audits, but also "performance audits" as well.

Supreme Court's ruling prohibited the Comptroller him from "acting in excess of his jurisdiction" and quashed certain subpoenas issued by him served on the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter.

Finding that the County Comptroller's authority to audit the Animal Shelter was limited to "a fiscal examination only," and that the subpoenas, to the extent they sought information beyond "an examination of [the animal shelter's] balance sheets/budget evidencing its income and expenditures," fell outside the scope of his authority, ruled that the County Comptroller's authority to audit the animal shelter was limited to "a fiscal examination only" and quashed the subpoenas that sought information beyond "an examination of [the animal shelter's] balance sheets/budget evidencing its income and expenditures."

The Comptroller appealed and the Appellate Division said that it disagreed with the Supreme Court's conclusion that certain of the materials which were the subject of the subpoenas fell outside of the County Comptroller's subpoena and audit authority.

The court explained that the Nassau County Charter provides that the County Comptroller shall "examine and audit of his own motion or when directed to do so by resolution of the County Legislature, the accounts and records of any town or special district and make reports from time to time when requested by the County Executive or County Legislature on the financial condition of the county or any [and] all of its political subdivisions."

Further, the Appellate Division noted that the Charter provided that several County officials, including the County Comptroller, "shall have the power to . . . compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of books and papers." Notwithstanding the Town's contentions to the contrary, the Appellate Division said that "under the plain language of the Charter, the County Comptroller's general authority to "examine and audit . . . accounts and records," citing Charter §402[6], "which may be exercised sua sponte, is not restricted by the subsequently stated authority to make reports on financial conditions upon request."

The court opined that "the broad language of the Charter" signifies that the powers and duties conferred upon the County Comptroller "go beyond the verification of financial records and internal controls" and, citing McCall v Barrios-Paoli, 93 NY2d 99, concluded that the Town "failed to demonstrate that the County Comptroller was proceeding in excess of his authority or jurisdiction."

* The writ of prohibition is one of number of the ancient “common law” writs and is issued by a higher tribunal to a lower tribunal to "prohibit" the adjudication of a matter then pending before the lower tribunal on the grounds that the lower tribunal "lacked jurisdiction."  Other such ancients writs include the writ of injunction - a judicial order preventing a public official from performing an act; the writ of mandamus, granted by a court to compel an official to perform "acts that officials are duty-bound to perform; "the writ of "certiorari," compelling a lower court to send its record of a case to the higher tribunal for review by the higher tribunal; and the writ of “quo warranto” [by what authority]. The Civil Practice Law and Rules sets out the modern equivalents of the surviving ancient writs.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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