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Suffolk County’s Bloodless Coup

Suffolk County Republican Chairman John Jay Lavalle (left) and his Democratic counterpart, Suffolk County Chairman Rich Schaffer, both had to redo their political calculations when the County Executive announced he wouldn’t run for re-election.

A Public Service

The Suffolk GOP chairman admits that the situation Levy, his former political ally, finds himself in has left LaValle feeling bewildered.


“[Levy]’s asserted to me repeatedly that he’s done absolutely nothing wrong,” LaValle insists.

But Levy’s long-time political adversary, Jeff Frayler, president of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association, doesn’t buy it: He thinks Levy’s guilty before he’s proven innocent.

“I think Levy has lied to the public all along,” says Frayler. “Clearly he did something wrong. Whatever it was he did was corrupt at best and criminal at worst.”

A long-time Levy supporter and major donor, Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius, begs to differ.

“I know that Tommy Spota’s a tough guy,” says Melius, who has contributed to Levy’s campaigns throughout the years. “I liked what [Levy] stood for. I thought he spoke for a lot of us in the middle…. The insiders didn’t like him because he didn’t do any favors, but I think the general public was a fan.”

Melius, a prominent backer of the Independence Party, is on the list of those who contributed to the Friends of Steve Levy campaign after Jan. 1, 2006, and, according to Spota’s rules for reimbursement, are entitled to their money back—if they can find their cancelled checks. The cut-off date pertains to the scope of the district attorney’s fundraising inquiry, a county source confirmed. Melius is hoping to get back $60,000.

“When it’s in my hand, I’ll believe it,” he says.

Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer praised Spota’s action because he believes it had nothing to do with politics.

“He’s demonstrated over the past 10 years that he’s not partisan,” Schaffer says. The district attorney “will prosecute Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, Independents, no matter what their political persuasion. I trust his judgment.”

Schaffer, who was personally betrayed when Levy left the Democratic Party last year, believes that the public in Suffolk has been well-served by the present arrangement between Spota and Levy because the “county government has continued to run in a very difficult time.” And, he adds, “I think the voters are getting a great chance to select a new county executive in a very spirited race—and they’ll have their say on Election Day.”

Being deprived of the opportunity to re-elect the incumbent didn’t raise a red flag for Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies Executive Director Lawrence Levy (no relation to the county executive), either.

“I don’t know that the voters are being cheated here,” he says. “They’re not being deprived of information that they need to make a decision about Steve Levy. That decision’s been made, and he’s going off, whether it’s forever or for a time remains to be seen.”

Asked about the secrecy of the deal, Levy says, “The public is always better served the more it knows, but I don’t see how the public is damaged by this…. There’s no decision they have to make that would be affected by the information that’s been withheld…. Eventually most or all of what he allegedly did will come out. It always does.”

Going further, Levy insists that the county executive acted wisely in accepting Spota’s terms because, as the adage goes, even a ham sandwich can get indicted by a grand jury.

“Now [Levy] cuts a deal so he remains county executive, he’s only 51 years old, and he can raise as much money as he needs to run for anything he wants, at least at the local level,” he says. “He maintains his viability and has shifted the focus of everybody’s interest and wrath from him to Spota. Now the story is Spota: What did Spota do or not do? I think that it was brilliant on Levy’s part.”

Yet others, such as Lisa Tyson, executive director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, say that Spota’s willingness to keep the details sealed hampers any serious efforts to reform the political system.

“If we don’t know what happened,” she says, “we can’t fix it in the future. It’s very disappointing that this is being kept hidden. Spota does not have to prosecute Levy but he could still release information.”

To a good-government reformer, the Spota-Levy deal puts the spotlight squarely on campaign fundraising.

“Our pay-to-play political system in which elected officials have to raise cash from wealthy special interests that want a return on their investment is just an invitation for corruption,” says Adam Smith of Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that supports publicly financed elections. “It’s the perfect example of why we need a political system that makes elected officials accountable to voters instead of wealthy donors.”

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