Suffolk County: Come Clean on the Coup

This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

This week I find myself freed from the self-imposed undertaking of reporting weekly on the Occupy Wall Street protest that has blossomed into a global fascination, spawning chapters around the globe and gracing the pages and screens of nearly every news media outlet. Since the beginning of the occupation in New York, I have been committed to covering what I believe to be one of the single most important political developments in my lifetime. Yet because our cover story this week dives deep into the machinations of the movement and our staff is fully engaged, I am able to return to a Long Island story of great political importance.

This story, however, is not entirely unrelated to the discussions in Zuccotti Park. In fact, it has much in common with the reasons behind the growing unrest among Americans. It is a story of hubris and duplicity right here on Long Island that is symptomatic of a political system completely out of touch with the needs and rights of those it is designed to represent.

On Sept. 22, the Long Island Press published a cover story titled “Suffolk County’s Bloodless Coup,” which recalled Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s shocking announcement that he would step down at the end of his term. This decision came as the result of an arrangement between Levy and District Attorney Tom Spota, who was investigating irregularities in Levy’s campaign fundraising. In a backroom deal, which has not been made public, Levy agreed to hand over his campaign funds to Spota and forgo running for re-election. In return, it seems Levy has been allowed to simply go quietly into the night.

This agreement, which made an end-run around the electorate, has the tacit approval of party leaders Rich Schaffer and John J. LaValle, the county’s Democratic and Republican chairmen, respectively, who both claim to have been caught totally by surprise. Suffolk legislators shrugged off the news of Levy’s unceremonious demise as if to say “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The incredible indifference on display from people who often found themselves on the receiving end of a Steve Levy tirade only furthers speculation that something is rotten in Hauppauge.

One persistent theory is that Levy’s quiet removal paves the way for several pieces to come together on Suffolk’s political chessboard. (Warning: Serious “inside-baseball” alert.) Let’s start with the obvious. With the pugnacious Levy out of the picture and politically castrated upon the liquidation of his war chest, a significant obstacle has been removed from Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone’s quest to become the next Suffolk County executive. Suffolk GOP infighting over the choice of County Treasurer Angie Carpenter to run on the Republican ticket may have further cleared the way for a Bellone victory, although no one apparently told Carpenter, who is running full bore against her opponent despite being out-financed rather handily. Quite a remarkable turn of events for a GOP committee that at the beginning of the year thought they would have a popular candidate with more than $4 million in the bank at the top of their ticket.

As far as the GOP is concerned, neither the Carpenter nor LaValle camp has erased the animus between them. At times it seems as though they’re running completely separate campaigns. For his part, Suffolk County Democratic leader Rich Schaffer has vowed not to repeat the mistakes of former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who sat on his war chest, and as result was banished to the private sector after failing to fully grasp the discontent of the electorate.

Enter the crux of Suffolk’s political conspiracy theory; it’s a doozy. (Takes a deep breath, and…)

A newly minted County Executive Bellone taps Spota to replace Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. After all, with a serial killer on the loose, who better to replace the unpopular commissioner than Suffolk’s superstar top cop, Tom Spota? Given his resume, the public would probably favor this move and, quite frankly, Spota would likely do a terrific job. Next to Dormer, of course, this is like saying you’re the smartest kid in the remedial class; but it would be well received, regardless.

A vacancy in the district attorney’s office would give Gov. Andrew Cuomo the ability to appoint Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko, former federal prosecutor and bright light in the Democratic Party, to the position. Lesko, who many say is frustrated by the cronyism and the acrimony in Brookhaven politics, would likely welcome the chance to shine as district attorney. Naturally, this transfer would give John Jay LaValle and his mentor John Powell a chance to reclaim the supervisor’s office, a position both men covet.

Undoubtedly, the people mentioned above will publicly deny this scenario and dismiss it as unfounded sedition. Or perhaps they will all remain as taciturn, and therefore complicit, with respect to this scheme as they were during Steve Levy’s fall from grace. Either way, should all or part of it come to pass, perhaps then Suffolk County residents will finally wake up and realize that they were robbed of their right to know the circumstances behind Levy’s demise.

Irrespective of whether this theory holds any water, our public officials— and the leaders they answer to—fail to understand that it is this impertinent attitude toward constitutionality and disdain of our citizenry that has people around the globe filling parks, flooding streets and occupying public squares. This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

If the Suffolk County district attorney can unilaterally decide the fate of a sitting county executive and administer a political punishment without fear of reprisal from citizens, his example illustrates on the smallest level why the upper political echelon of the republic have likewise engaged in even more dangerous, egregious and undemocratic behavior. Therefore, for the very same reasons the public has a right to know why more than 1,000 people have been locked up for protesting corporate greed while those responsible for corrupt banking practices that are bringing our economic system to its knees aren’t also subject to the same treatment, so too is it our right to know the real story behind the bloodless coup in Suffolk County. The latter may pale in scope and degree, but the seed of this argument bears the same fruit.

This is just one small example of the indignities we suffer at the hands of our elected officials whose spiteful disregard of transparency and democratic principles has reached an insufferable zenith.

No Third Term For Steve Levy

The LI Press Cover Image of Levy's Nightmares... Guess they came true.

Yowza! Suffolk County truly is the Wild, Wild East. Today’s astonishing announcement from County Executive Steve Levy that he will not run for a third term has sent shockwaves through Long Island.

When reached by Spencer Rumsey at the Long Island Press today, Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Richard Schaffer simply said he was “shocked.”

Rich Schaffer knows a thing or two about Steve Levy. Their relationship during Schaffer’s tenure as democratic leader (Levy – never one to be led) was tempestuous at best. When Levy announced last year that he was switching party affiliations and moving to the GOP it gave instant credibility to the newly minted Suffolk Republican leader John Jay Lavalle, former Brookhaven Town Supervisor, and allowed Schaffer to shuffle the deck among his own ranks.

The stage was set for quite the race this season between the two Steves. In one corner, Steve Levy the battle-tested fighter in his prime with $4million in the bank. In the other corner, Steve Bellone the pride of Babylon with Kennedy-style good looks, a loyal constituency and Schaffer’s winning record at his back. Despite numerous recent setbacks from his failed gubernatorial bid and accusations of fundraising impropriety from former friends and colleagues to unpopular moves like the planned sale and privatization of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility, Levy was by all accounts a formidable incumbent. Bellone, who has not yet officially announced his bid for County Executive (though clearly a fait accompli) is also a strong candidate with high “likeability” and the capacity to raise serious money. With Levy out of the way, LaValle and the Republicans will be scrambling to fill the void and Bellone will surely be considered the front-runner.

This is largely due to how Levy’s sudden announcement played out with the District Attorney’s office. The real shocker here is that Levy didn’t just announce his intention to leave office after his term, but he’s parting with his sizable political campaign fund. In his statement he succinctly states:

“Questions have been raised concerning fundraising through my political campaign. Since this occurred under my watch I accept responsibility. In order to resolve these questions I will be turning over my campaign funds to the Suffolk County District Attorney.”

This isn’t a couple hundred thousand dollars, mind you. This is in excess of $4 million dollars. Steve Levy was nothing if not a prolific fundraiser. Somewhere along the way, however, limits and boundaries were pushed. Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota followed up with his own statement, which was far more blunt and enlightening:

“The decision to allow Mr. Levy to complete his term was carefully considered and involved weighing his conduct, the need for stability in government in these difficult economic times while affording a smooth transition after the 2011 elections. You can be assured that if I believed that his actions compromised his ability to govern I would have sought his resignation.”

This thing had clearly spun so far out of Steve Levy’s control it was irretrievable. The details of the investigation will clearly have to wait, because while Levy’s punishment is exile, it looks as though others may fry. D.A. Spota teases this proposition in the conclusion of his statement:

“Restraint is often more difficult than aggressive action but in this case I know it is more appropriate. This outcome ends the inquiry into Mr. Levy’s conduct. The investigation will continue with respect to the conduct of others.”

Steve Levy earned the respect of nearly everyone he dealt with on one issue – fiscal management. Criticism of his ability to be fiscally austere, particularly in difficult financial times such as these, is rare. One needs to look no further than Nassau County to appreciate the tight-fistedness of his administration. But along the way, Steve Levy racked up an impressive and powerful cadre of enemies. For every person who grudgingly paid Levy respect for his budgetary prowess there seemed to be ten more people in line with an ax to grind; every one was met with defiance.

When the dust settles, it will be interesting to see what Levy’s ultimate undoing really was; to find out where he pushed too far and went past the point of no return. In the meantime, he has formally entered lame duck territory and silly season in the Wild, Wild East has officially begun.

Shut Up And Vote

My family moved to the United States from Canada when I was 4 years old. Growing up, I can vividly recall a small plaque with the Pledge of Allegiance on the wall of my father’s office. Every day for months before my 10th birthday, I read it aloud and tried to memorize it. Finally the day came when I would speak these words aloud to someone other than my parents.

My parents, my brother and I shuffled into a busy courtroom filled with faces from all over the globe. I can remember straining to hear all of the different languages being spoken around me and staring at the solemn, stoic faces so different from my own. My family was here to seize the American Dream but whenever I think of that day I wonder how many of the people there were seeking refuge from persecution and tyranny. Did the “mighty woman with a torch” light their way as she did ours? Coming from a stable, progressive country like Canada will never compare to the journey most immigrants take; even still it stands as one of the most significant days in my life.

When it was our turn to stand and speak, I pledged my allegiance to the American flag in the loudest voice I could muster, as though any reticence would thwart my chances at citizenship. As an American I continue to speak loudly through this column and with my vote, and I was as thrilled on Tuesday to participate in our local elections as I was to be in that courtroom 26 years ago.

Unfortunately for Long Island, this past Tuesday, less than a third of us cared enough to weigh in.

Low voter turnout was no surprise and all parties recognized this as a benefit to the Republicans. Election results were upside-down from North Hempstead to East Hampton and everywhere in between. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Nassau County Conservative Party, whose members were clearly ill informed about county executive candidate and potential spoiler Steve Hansen. The ones who bothered to show up moved steadily down the row without realizing that Hansen and Nassau County Conservative Chairman Roger Bogsted work directly for Suozzi’s administration, the one person who knew better than anyone just how close this race would be. Now, less than 300 votes separate Tom Suozzi and Ed Mangano for Nassau County Executive.

Armchair pundits all over Nassau County are wide-eyed, already retiring Suozzi’s jersey and raising it to the rafters. Win or lose, they consider him the Democratic reincarnation of Tom Gulotta. Either way, Suozzi’s undoing in this election was in pushing through the energy tax instead of simply raising property taxes. The electorate clearly felt “back doored” on this levy and the Republicans used it as the primary wedge in the campaign. The only thing more egregious to voters than high taxes is trying to hide them. When every dollar counts in a household, there is no hiding additional taxes and fees, particularly when there is no offsetting service being provided.

There were several lessons learned—or at least reinforced—on election night. Linda Kabot illustrated that while the President of the United States can be caught with his pants down, you can’t (allegedly) drive drunk on the roads you’re in charge of. Character matters more when it’s close to home. John Jay LaValle proved that timing is everything. He timed his departure and return impeccably. And we were reminded that by nature Democrats and Republicans are fire and ice, respectively. Democrats need a fire lit beneath them to get out the vote, whereas Republicans and Conservatives are predictably obsequious.

The most unfortunate lesson is that neither fire nor ice was enough to motivate nearly 72 percent of the eligible voters on Long Island. My guess is that those who stood with the 10-year-old boy, 26 years ago, and the thousands who stood there before and after that day, exercised their right.