Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy used the recently disbanded Ethics Commission to smear his critics and cover-up his own unethical behavior, according to a special grand jury report—claims that Levy is denying.
The long-awaited, 56-page document released Thursday details the grand jury’s findings and outlines how to avoid such egregious breaches of public trust in the future. But the grand jury stopped short of indicting Levy or anyone else involved after hearing the testimony of 25 witnesses and reviewing thousands of pages of documents.
“Legislators must act to make certain that future public officials can be prosecuted for behavior uncovered in this report,” District Attorney Tom Spota said of the two-year investigation. He noted the behavior exposed “was unprincipled and wrong, but not criminal.”
Among other things, the report found that county officials as well as some Ethics Commission members “destroyed” the panel’s integrity. “In less than 10 years, a small but powerful group of Suffolk County officials intentionally corrupted and undermined the Ethics Commission to a point so low it had to be disbanded,” according to the report.
Some claims in the report include:
-Levy appointed one of the Ethics Commissioners on the grounds that the appointee was a “good boy” and shared with Levy confidential proceedings within the panel.
-That an Ethics Commissioner with ties to Levy and his wife, Colleen West, “failed to recuse himself voting favorably on an ethics opinion relating specifically” to both.
-That an ethics official “acted beyond his authority” by allowing Levy to file a New York State disclosure form instead of a more detailed county form.
The grand jury was barred by New York State law from naming those discussed and quoted in the report, but many were easily identifiable since most of the disputes between Levy and county legislators were public knowledge.
“I did not tell any ethics commission member how to vote on a matter,” Levy said in a statement countering some of the claims. “Nor did I ask any intermediary to tell any board member how to vote.”
Levy, a lifelong Democrat who turned Republican in a failed 2010 gubernatorial bid, declined to seek a third term in March 2011 after turning over his $4 million campaign war chest to prosecutors to resolve a criminal investigation into his political fund raising.
Current and former legislators and Levy aides expressed a sense of validation that the report confirmed widely held suspicions that the ex-county executive had manipulated the old Ethics Commission to his advantage.
“I think this grand jury report is a complete vindication of my position that Levy’s actions were inappropriate and only fell short of criminality because another county official refused to carry out his threats,” said former Majority Leader Jon Cooper, a Democrat.
The ex-lawmaker, who was term-limited last year, was among those who claimed Levy tried to intimidate him into not voting to move forward with a committee that investigated the defunct Ethics Commission. Cooper voted for it anyway.
The Ethics Commission was tasked with reviewing annual financial disclosure statements from county officials and issuing advisory opinions on potential conflicts of interest. It was dissolved and replaced with a revamped Board of Ethics last fall.
Legis. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), one of two officials who Levy filed ethics complaints against—complaints that were dismissed years later—said he plans to file a bill next week that would strengthen the recent ethics law reforms.
Minority Leader John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said the grand jury’s recommendation to make manipulating the ethics panel a felony may require state legislation.
Levy said in his defense that if he really had sway over the ethics commission, his complaints would not have been dismissed against Romaine and former aide Paul Sabatino, a Huntington-based attorney and political strategist.
Sabatino remained optimistic that the scandal will ultimately leave the county ethically stronger, but did not lose his sense of outrage over the hypocrisy of the ethics board being corrupted for political gain.
“They’re supposed to be a shield to protect the taxpayers, it’s not supposed to be a sword to go out and discredit people,” he said.