“I’d likely run for re-election and it would be as a Republican,” asserts Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy.
It’s a sunny Tuesday in mid-June, 2010, and the newly minted-recently-failed GOP gubernatorial hopeful is sitting at the head of a long oval table in the executive conference room on the top floor of the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. He’s invited two Press reporters here to help expose what he deems a “Gotcha!” conspiracy against him from LI’s lone daily newspaper, share some dirt on a prominent local environmentalist, and answer questions regarding his political future. By “re-election,” Levy’s referring to a near shoo-in bid for the county executive suite, which lies just beyond a nearby doorway.
Levy has had an extremely eventful month; and it is only June 15. At the Republican convention in Manhattan on June 2, he’d fallen short of getting on the primary ballot. State party chairman Ed Cox, President Richard Nixon’s son-in-law, and Suffolk party chairman John Jay Lavalle were definitely in his corner, but he couldn’t muster the blessing from Nassau GOP chairman Joe Mondello, who was backing Rick Lazio, the former Long Island congressman-turned-Wall Street businessman. The day we meet Levy’s still toying with the idea of running as an independent himself and is being coy about withholding his endorsement of Lazio. It is a week after the Suffolk County district attorney has subpoenaed his financial disclosure records (which will later irrevocably alter his career). The idea that his future in politics will essentially be over in less than a year is the furthest thing from his mind.
Levy has just given an interview to a camera crew from the local cable station, who wanted his reaction to the announcement that the Obama administration had approved the Shinnecocks’ petition for federal recognition, ending the East End tribe’s 32-year court battle and sparking intense speculation about where on Long Island they’d build a casino—and which county might rake in some much-needed tax dollars. Suffolk has also just found out that a taxpayer’s typo has cost the county $5 million in lost sales-tax revenue, reducing its first-quarter tax receipts by almost half.
“I think it’s remarkable that given the fact that just 75 days ago I was a Democrat, I went into that Republican Convention and I came out with 43 percent of that convention saying that this guy should be placed on the ballot,” he says, his cadence ranging from monotone, authoritative statements to passionate declarations; it’s the emphatic declarations that will win the day through the course of a several-hour visit. “Now imagine that there was a Republican two months ago who said, ‘I’m turning into a Democrat and I’m going to go into the Democratic Convention against Andrew Cuomo and I expect to come out of that convention with 43 percent of the vote.’ You’d say he’s crazy! With a few more months I think we could have pulled it off. Now Rick Lazio had a year to court those county chairs.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, he fell flat,’ but look how far I got!” he remarks, grinning.
“Some people might think I’m easy pickings,” he says, the conversation switching back to his potential run for a third term as county executive and his monster war chest that would fund it. “But by the time I run again, I might have $5 million. And it’s nice to be able to respond to the lies about your record, and it definitely does help to bring in legislators who would help promote your particular policies.”
Levy sporadically punctuates some of these words with a rushed chuckle in a raised tone that possesses an air of dismissiveness about it. It’s during these moments wherein he breaks his typical lock-eyed stare and looks straight ahead at no one, or periodically down at a stack of papers before him, as if he’s speaking to his naysayers instead of two reporters, as if he’s telling somebody off, or convincing himself. He polishes these moments off with a smirking smile.
[All this money he’s boasting about in 2010 would be returned to Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota’s Office to resolve what Spota described on March 24, 2011, as a “16-month investigation conducted by the Government Corruption Bureau which began in the summer of 2009.” In his own announcement on March 24, Levy only briefly mentioned the probe, referring to “Questions…raised concerning fundraising through my political campaign.” Spota said Levy had been cooperating with his office for some time.]
His fixation this June afternoon is certainly elsewhere.
“There’s certainly been a shift in Newsday’s coverage since I changed parties,” he tells us. “It’s been a definite gotcha mode. They’re running commercials right now with one of their reporters gloating about the fact that she, her whole goal is to play gotcha! Playing gotcha when you distort the facts at the same time, it’s just not proper journalism. What these articles have done to me regarding financial disclosure is disgusting. This reporter sought to make it appear that I did not want to file… that I am seeking to hide information from the county and sought to get a personal exemption from an ethics committee that I control. It’s outrageously false.”
[Levy’s referring to Newsday’s prize-winning investigative reporter Sandra Peddie, who’d been appearing in a recent spate of Cablevision ads plugging the newspaper with her saying almost as a throwaway line, “Gotcha!”]
“All you need are 10 percent of these articles to be false, and distortive, and they can wreck your reputation,” he says, his dark eyes burning with intensity.
“They wrote this long expose about people who were donating to my campaign like it was a dirty thing!” his voice shouts with indignation. “So there are law firms contributing to County Executive Levy’s coffers. So? Is this a revelation that there were law firms? Welcome to the real world! Where is the front-page article about [Nassau District Attorney] Kathleen Rice, who was their golden girl? All of a sudden I flip over into a Republican and it is big news.
“[Peddie] spent all of her waking hours just trying to disparage me one way after the other,” he explains, waving his hands in the air. “It started with that ridiculous contribution story, where she was implying that there was something wrong. But through that whole story she could not find a single instance where there was a contract where we got overpaid or got substandard performance from the contractor. So where’s the story here? An elected official got a donation? What a surprise! You know, I’m not a self-financed billionaire that can pay for my own campaign, and we don’t have public financing, so you have to get private donations to be competitive.”
An aide enters with a draft of a letter the county executive intends to send Newsday complaining about this week’s stories.
“Oh, we have to get this out,” Levy tells him, turning to us and smiling. “You’re gonna love this. Got to share this!”
Peddie had previously reported that, unlike hundreds of other Suffolk County employees, Levy had filed a state financial disclosure form that was far less detailed than the county’s. Levy insists that the county’s Ethics Commission had let him do it because he was also a member of the state’s Pine Barrens Commission, and that state law backed him up.
He shows Press reporters an e-mail his office had gotten from her seeking to clarify Levy’s communications with the county’s ethics commission.
“She puts in writing that we are putting out conflicting statements because one minute we said ‘inquired’ and the next minute we said ‘asked.’ Are you out of your mind, woman? Give me a break!”
Levy, his spokesman Dan Aug—who’s present for much of our visit—and the aide, laugh in unison.
“This is what we’re dealing with,” he chides, proceeding to read aloud the letter he intends to send to the paper. “‘The reporter’s gotcha approach continues to produce stories that are a complete disservice not only to the facts in this case but to the county executive’s unquestioned personal integrity. We call on the editors of Newsday to put an end to this shameful farce by removing this reporter from the assignment or by stepping in to put a halt to this biased variety of questions that appear at all costs to put the administration in as negative a light as possible.’”
When one of us demurs about his demand the paper remove Peddie from her beat, Levy quickly nods and directs the aide, “I don’t think we should call for her to be reassigned. I just think we call on the editors to put an end to this shameful, shameful farce. And, you know, place some objectivity into this story.”
Levy says his relationship with the paper isn’t very good.
“I’m a guy who’s against illegal immigration,” he says. “I’m a guy who believes in keeping taxes under control as opposed to their liberal spending ways. I’m not going to be someone’s easy prey for them to make a name for themselves through gotcha.”
Explains Levy, the newspaper’s bias against him became obvious in 2003 when he was running for county executive in the Democratic primary against William Cunningham, then a protégé of Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. Its coverage of the 2008 beating death of Ecuadoran immigrant Marcelo Lucero really irks him, too.
“I’ll give you a whole dossier we did on the distortions by Newsday on the immigration story. It’s about a quarter of an inch thick. It really is. I’ll show you everything.”
Levy says he keeps files on journalists and other adversaries, such as Long Island Pine Barrens Executive Director Richard Amper, who he curtly refers to as an “environmental terrorist” before correcting himself: “Let me rephrase that. He’s a charlatan. In that everything he does is orchestrated to instill fear in the public so that he can make himself and his organization relevant to get donations to survive.”
Levy promises to give us an affidavit from a Hispanic man that Newsday had reported was made homeless by Levy’s closing an illegal apartment house. A photo with the original story showed the man beside a cardboard box in the woods. He claims a local cop identified the man as never being homeless and confronted him, insisting the photo was staged.
“The guy admitted it, and put it down in a statement,” Levy stresses emphatically.
[Following repeated requests from the Press since last June, Levy’s office has still not produced the affidavit to this day.]
“You can’t let the bastards win,” he tells us, once again grinning. “That is what it comes down to. They want to grind you down.”