Fallout continued to reverberate through Long Island a day after Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s abrupt announcement that he is dropping out of the race to seek a third term and is turning over his $4 million war chest to prosecutors amid an inquiry into campaign fundraising practices.
By all accounts, the news has drastically changed the local political landscape in the November elections as the popular two-term incumbent was expected to put up a formidable fight. But while Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota has declined to charge Levy, “the investigation will continue with respect to the conduct of others,” Spota said in a statement. Where such a scandalous story will go next is anyone’s guess.
“This was very shocking,” said Suffolk Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle, who was hoping Levy’s name on the ticket would help the GOP recapture the majority in the Suffolk County Legislature this fall. “It’s disappointing in a lot of ways.”
Levy, 51, spent the majority of his 25 years in public office as a Democrat before switching to the Republican Party in an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid last March.
Widely known for his combativeness, the revelations that Levy pulled the plug on his re-election campaign—which he had kicked off at a Feb. 17 fundraiser in Sayville—brought with it some gloating from political adversaries.
“It’s about time,” said Jeff Frayler, president of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association, among Levy’s biggest critics. Frayler had been at war with Levy over the county executive’s controversial decision to replace Suffolk County Police Highway Patrol officers with lesser-paid Suffolk County Sheriffs deputies, as well as other police cutbacks.
“He has deceived the public and played games for too long,” continued Frayler. “And I hope those who put themselves on the Levy team realized that they were backing the wrong guy.”
Those comments were relatively tame compared to advocates from within the Hispanic community, who have been at war with Levy over his stance on illegal immigration for years.
“Ding, dong the witch is dead,” exclaimed Rev. Allan Ramirez of the Brookville Reformed Church. “His legacy of hatred to this community is something that will take a long time to eradicate.”
But some Levy critics were more concerned with the effect on the county itself.
“I was shocked as anyone else,” said Suffolk Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor), the majority leader, who has frequently been at odds with Levy. “This is absolutely going to upend Suffolk County politics,” Cooper told the Press, “I think for the next decade.”
THE CURIOUS CASE OF MR. LEVY
A half hour after Levy’s spokesman e-mailed the county executive’s statement announcing his decision to call it quits on Dec. 31, Spota e-mailed a statement that similarly sparked lots of head-scratching.
“There is no question that while the investigation revealed serious issues with regard to fundraising and the manner in which it was conducted, including the use of public resources, I am confident that Mr. Levy did not personally profit,” Spota said of the 16-month probe. “I am satisfied that the actions taken by Mr. Levy resolve the investigation in the best interests of the citizens of Suffolk County.”
Levy only vaguely alluded to the investigation in his statement.
“Questions have been raised concerning fundraising through my political campaign,” he said, near its end. “Since this occurred under my watch I accept responsibility.”
Spota, who has made a career of prosecuting corrupt politicians from both major political parties in Suffolk County, offered an unusual comment in justifying his decision not to prosecute the county executive.
“Restraint is often more difficult than aggressive action but in this case I know it is more appropriate,” he said.
While the case may have been closed on the county exec, even Levy supporters said the revelations show the need for reforms.
LaValle said questionable campaign contributions are “inappropriate in any walk of life,” and called for reforms to be enacted concerning campaign finances.
In the meantime, Spota will hold on to the campaign cash until after Election Day, return funds to those who ask for their donations back and donate whatever is left to charity.
LIFE AFTER LEVY
The news broke just the field of candidates to challenge Levy—or so everyone thought—had begun to take shape.
Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone had gone on a “listening tour” last week as the presumptive Democratic nominee in the county executive race. He has reportedly raised more than $1 million.
“Yesterday’s news is indeed surprising and concerning,” Bellone said in a statement. “But the challenges and opportunities facing us are greater than any one person and I am confident Suffolk County will grow and thrive with new leadership.”
Levy was also facing possible primary challenges from fellow Republicans, including state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James), county Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, county Treaturer Angie Carpenter and Legis. Ed Romaine (R-East Moriches).
“There are a lot of very, very good potential candidates to make a run for county executive,” Carpenter said. “I certainly still am very interested in running; things certainly have changed now.”
Despite the turmoil thrust upon the GOP, its local party leader tried to stay positive.
“We’re as united as any party could be,” LaValle said. “The reality is we’re a group of individuals who have various thoughts and positions on issues but we share a common bond of fiscal responsibility… If anything, I think something like this brings us closer together.”
FROM NOW TILL NOVEMBER
Now that Levy has bailed out of the race for a third term under such troubling circumstances, he will no doubt have a tough time governing the nine months ahead.
Cooper has called for the county executive to consider resigning, although Spota said he believes Levy should finish his term.
“Be it in his role as Chief Financial Officer or as our primary negotiator with Albany in the face of massive state budget cutbacks and claw backs, every action taken by the County Executive from this point forward—rightly or wrongly—can and will be viewed through lenses tainted by scandal and alleged improprieties,” Cooper said in a statement late Friday.
Spota said he weighed the decision carefully and opted for stability amid tough economic times.
“You can be assured that if I believed that his actions compromised his ability to govern I would have sought his resignation,” Spota said.
If he were to step down, the chief deputy county executive would take over until a special election could be held in 90 days.
Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) said he is still absorbing the enormity of the revelations.
“The effects of the announcements yesterday are still kind of sinking in,” said Lindsay, who had commissioned a panel to investigate the independence of the county Ethics Commission from Levy amid earlier concerns over campaign donations.
“It certainly has changed the political landscape in Suffolk County dramatically and raises a whole bunch of questions on the county and whose running the county, and how we’re going to face the challenges … because we do have some very serious fiscal problems,” he said.
But Lindsay believes the news amounts to a political advantage for local Democrats.
“I think it’s a major hit for the [Republican party],” he said “When he switched sides he brought his piggy bank with him, and they just lost the piggy bank.”