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Ethics

Sam Miller is one new member of the town ethics board. Photo from Miller

The Huntington Town Board of Ethics & Financial Disclosure added its final two members last week, bringing the committee back to its full size after a few years of vacant seats.

Sam Miller and Sheryl Randazzo, who are both Huntington residents, joined the Ethics Board at a Feb. 10 town board meeting, and said they are eager to contribute.

“I view it as community service,” Randazzo said in a phone interview.“I’ve been involved professionally with matters of ethics my entire adult life. I’m looking forward to it.”

Randazzo is a practicing attorney with offices in Huntington and Manhattan. She is a former president of the Suffolk County Bar Association.

Miller, on the other hand, is the vice chair of the Huntington Arts Council. He also has about 30 years of experience in public service positions related to human rights, housing and community development, including a stint on the board of commissioners of the Huntington Housing Authority.

Sheryl Randazzo is one new member of the town ethics board. Photo from Lynn Spinnato
Sheryl Randazzo is one new member of the town ethics board. Photo from Lynn Spinnato

“It’s humbling,” Miller said in a phone interview, about serving on the Ethics Board. “I love the town and citizens dearly.”

At the beginning of 2015, the Ethics Board was operating with two vacancies, following the resignations of Roger Ramme and Stanley Heller. Ramme stepped down to take on the position of town assessor and Heller resigned after writing a letter to the board saying he spends most of his time in Florida. Edward William Billia filled one of the vacancies in 2015, but a third opened up when Dean Howard Glickstein resigned. The board hasn’t had five members since 2014.

Throughout the last year, the community has voiced concerns about aspects of the Ethics Board, including how often they meet and their level of transparency with the public. Changes were made as a result of those criticisms, increasing meetings to four times a year rather than once annually and comprehensively updating the code of conduct for town employees.

“I welcome these two distinguished Huntington residents to the Ethics Board and thank them for their willingness to serve,” Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) said in a press release. “I look forward to their efforts in implementing the provisions of the Town’s new ethics code.”

Randazzo believes her career path has given her a perfect foundation to serve on the Ethics Board.

“Before law school, issues pertaining to ethics have always been something that I’ve focused on,” she said. “I think the fit is that it has been at the forefront of my professional career.”

Randazzo also said she does not have any specific agenda in mind heading into her new position, and she will take the issues and challenges as they come.

According to Miller, his past professional experiences should provide him with a helpful viewpoint, despite being brand new to the job.

“I’m going in, as Clyde Frazier always says, a neophyte,” Miller said laughing, giving a nod to the colorful New York Knicks television announcer.

But Miller finds his new role to be an important one.

“I think that one of the things that we’re always looking for in a civil society is civility,” he said. “Our abilities to settle differences and to bring commonalities to people would help to resolve a lot of issues.”

Miller and Randazzo join Louis C. England, Ralph W. Crafa and Edward William Billia on the board.

Miller’s term runs until Dec. 31, 2017, and Randazzo’s ends a full year later. There is no salary for the position.

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In an attempt to promote transparency, the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics recently proposed requiring public relations consultants to register as lobbyists if they are trying to influence editorial writers.

That would mean any public relations professionals who contacts a reporter or editorial board in an attempt to get the media to advance their client’s message would be considered to be delivering a lobbying message.

Several New York public relations firms and New York Press Association members immediately spoke out against this proposal, and we side with them and share their concerns.

To force anyone to report to the government before they speak to a reporter seems dangerous, and almost medieval. It treads on freedom of speech if the government is effectively regulating newspaper content, and interfering with a newsroom staff’s ability to independently and objectively judge its sources on its own. On top of that, it is an example of government butting its nose into what are largely privately owned companies — a place it has no business giving orders.

On the surface, it seems as though JCOPE is paying the press a compliment, saying the news media are so valuable that it wants to help preserve the public watchdog’s objectivity. But, in an ironic twist, within the same stroke it would be compromising the independence of the Fourth Estate by controlling its sources.

Freedom of the press is one of the rights America was built upon and relies upon to this day, and this move would tramp on the media’s liberty to print the issues and concerns of the public without needing permission from the government. One of the main jobs of a reporter is to evaluate whether a source is credible and whether a story is newsworthy. Let’s keep this task out of the hands of the government and in the hands of the people who make these decisions every day.

As a newspaper that takes pride in serving the community before anyone else, we stand against this proposal to restrict our communication and we hope you will too.

Public hearing on code changes to take place May 5

Ethics board attorney Steven Leventhal. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Come May 5, the Huntington Town Board will hear from the public on proposed revisions to its own ethics code.

The changes to the code expand who must file a disclosure statement and what must be disclosed. The revisions also include a comprehensive code of conduct for town employees, according to a town statement. The proposal also calls for a plain-language booklet explaining the ethics code, and for the booklet to be prominently displayed on the town’s website.

Tweaks to the code are the product of work between the town’s ethics board and Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D).

“These changes have been in the works for many months, clarifying portions of the previous code and adding new features to further reassure our residents that Huntington conducts its government according to the highest ethical standards,” Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) said in a statement.

Edwards said the revisions take into consideration comments made by residents at a recent ethics board public hearing.

“This new code incorporates recent ethics changes enacted by the state, state court decisions, language from the New York State Comptroller’s model code of ethics, suggestions from ethics experts and, most importantly, public input at the recent hearing the Ethics Board conducted,” she said in the statement. “The new code also enhances the education requirements, so town officials and employees clearly know what conduct is allowed and what is not. This is a code we can be proud of, and I hope it will be well-received.”

The new version divides the code into three sections: a code of conduct; expanded disclosure requirements; and powers and duties of the Board of Ethics and Financial Disclosure. It expands the universe of people required to file financial disclosures to include policy makers and requires all public officials to disclose specific client information.

Those interested can view the proposed code at the Huntington Town Clerk’s office, and on the town’s website at huntingtonny.gov. Also, Edwards will be meeting with some who made specific recommendations for code tweaks at the ethics board hearing.

The board is expected to vote on the changes at its June 9 meeting, according to the statement.

Also at the April 21 meeting, the board appointed Edward William Billia of Huntington Station and reappointed Ralph Crafa of Northport to the ethics board. One vacancy still remains on the five-member board.

The May 5 meeting starts at 2:30 p.m.

Huntington Town Councilman Gene Cook. File photo by Rohma Abbas

The Huntington Town Board hired an outside attorney on Tuesday to investigate legal issues surrounding an East Northport rental property that Councilman Gene Cook (I) partially owns.

The board’s Democrats — Supervisor Frank Petrone, Councilwoman Susan Berland, Councilman Mark Cuthbertson and Councilwoman Tracey Edwards — voted in favor of the move. Cook recused himself from the vote.

The resolution follows recent reports in local newspapers the Observer and the Long Islander that focus on the Larkfield Road property Cook co-owns with attorney Josh Price and Huntington real estate agent Tim Cavanaugh. The property, which contains five apartment units in one structure, was written up on a town code violation late last year stemming from work that was done on the site in October.

The property is in a single-family zoning district but the owners claim the house predates Huntington Town enacting a building and zoning code in 1934, and point to a 1997 town document indicating that. The document, known as a letter in lieu of a certificate of occupancy, is issued to properties formed before the town began to issue those certificates. But the property has been on the Department of Public Safety’s radar for various issues, according to town files — most recently in October, over whether work done there had proper building permits. A town inspector told a previous owner that the occupancy document “does not designate use of the structure and that he must go to the [Zoning Board of Appeals] for the use of a five-family dwelling,” according to a town document.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Cook labeled the board’s appointing a special attorney “political payback.” He also noted the town has not issued him a summons to appear in court on any charges. Cook, the board’s minority member who caucuses with the local GOP, is seeking re-election to his seat this year.

Meanwhile, Petrone, who proposed hiring the attorney with a second from Cuthbertson, said the town needed to hire outside counsel to look into the matter.

“The intent is to resolve this.”

According to the resolution, the situation has “created a conflict which precludes the town attorney’s office from investigating further and which requires recusal of the town attorney’s office.”

Petrone said that is to be expected when an investigation involves a board member.

“If there is a violation, or anything that comes forward on a board member, we cannot really investigate the situation or even try to negotiate it out, because it’s a board member that really acts, votes on budgets and votes on the individuals that would be looked at for the solution to a problem,” he said to reporters after the meeting. “So you normally bring in someone from the outside, and that’s what this is for — bring someone in, bring them together, to hopefully resolve whatever the issue is.”

When reached on Wednesday, Price said he felt the situation was politically motivated.

“This is truly an example of a municipality using taxpayer dollars to go after its political enemy for no other reason than that they’re trying to win an election this year and it offends me to the very core,” he said.

The situation was brought up with the town’s ethics board at its annual meeting earlier this year. Northport resident Sherry Pavone read from a letter saying the town’s ethics code needs to be enhanced with regard to town board members disclosing relationships with individuals they recommend for appointments to the town’s decision-making boards. She was speaking specifically about Price, who Cook sought unsuccessfully to appoint to the town’s ZBA last year, and said Cook should have disclosed that he and Price were partners in a limited liability company that owns the multifamily home before moving to make the appointment.

The board hired attorney Edward Guardaro Jr., of the firm Kaufman, Borgeest & Ryan LLP, to look into the East Northport house case. The town is paying $200 per hour out of its operating budget.

Guardaro, who has worked with the town before, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Steven Leventhal, attorney to the ethics board, spearheads a work session this week. Photo by Rohma Abbas

Huntington Town officials took steps to strengthen the town’s ethics code by discussing various revisions during a work session Tuesday.

Mulling nearly a dozen residents’ suggestions at its annual meeting in March, Huntington Town’s Board of Ethics & Financial Disclosure discussed topics ranging from campaign finance disclosures, prices of penalties for ethics code violations and how frequently the board should meet during the year.

Training town employees and officials in the town’s ethics code and creating a “plain language” guide to the code are some suggestions board members said they are considering.

Chairman Howard Glickstein and members Lois C. England and Ralph Crafa attended the work session at Huntington Town Hall, as did Steven G. Leventhal, of Leventhal, Cursio, Mullaney & Spector, LLP — the board’s counsel.

Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) listened on in the audience.

Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) directed Edwards to spearhead ethics code revisions. She said she plans to have a proposal for town ethics code tweaks in place at the April 21 town board meeting.

Board members said they agreed that creating what Leventhal termed a “plain language” guide to ethics was a good idea. Leventhal noted that the guide, which could be distributed as a small booklet handout to town employees and officials, would have both a simple, clear explanation of what’s right and wrong under the town’s code, and would, in the back, include the actual town ethics code. Ethics board members said they liked the suggestion.

“In my view it’s a great valuable service to the town workforce, to prepare and distribute a plain language guide that helps them interpret the language of the law itself,” Leventhal said. “The plain language guide does not replace the law and must, of course, remind readers that it is the law itself that controls, but that the plain language guide was developed to assist them in interpreting the law and to encourage them to bring any questions to the board of ethics.”

Ethics training of town employees and officials also earned consensus from board members.

“I regard it really as one of the most important functions of the board of ethics,” Leventhal said.
Board members also said they’d be in favor of increasing the penalty for an ethics violation, which is currently $5,000. Residents asked the board to consider holding meetings quarterly instead of annually. Leventhal said as the board’s work increases — possibly through increased ethics training of employees and officials — the board would meet more frequently.

Tom McNally, who spoke on behalf of the Huntington Republican Committee, called for mandatory training in ethics code for all town officials and employees. He also said all ethics complaints filed with the town clerk should be made public, as well as all decisions of the ethics board, how they voted and whether any ethics board members recused themselves from a vote.

“That was very, very well put together,”  board member England reflected.

Leventhal did, however, take issue with making all ethic complaints public, noting that in the early stages of an ethics investigation it “may be premature and ultimately unjust” to publicize the complaint. Many times, complaints are not actual violations — a complainant may allege someone was rude to him or her — but while “rudeness is bad,” it’s not a violation of the code, he said.

Edwards commended the board’s work in an interview after the meeting, saying she was “really pleased with what we heard.”

Smorgasboard of suggestions at annual meeting

Tom McNally speaks at a town ethics board meeting last week. Photo by Susan Risoli

Huntington Town residents brought an assortment of suggestions to the annual public meeting of the town’s ethics board last week, where board members gathered input on improving the town’s ethics code.

The meeting room on Wednesday, March 18, was about half-full with attendees. Members of the town’s Board of Ethics & Financial Disclosure included Howard Glickstein, Louis England, Ralph Crafa and board counsel Steven Leventhal. Huntington Town Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) and Councilman Gene Cook (I) also attended the meeting.

Cook told board members that citizens have asked him “why the ethics board does not get back to them” when they make a complaint. He said he will send a letter to the board asking for an explanation, and he asked how long it would take the board to respond. Leventhal told Cook that “in all fairness,” ethics board members needed to see the letter before they could commit to a time frame for response. Cook pressed for details — “six months?” — and Leventhal said he “will undertake to help the board to respond to you in a reasonable amount of time.”

Many in the audience asked the board to hold public meetings quarterly, rather than once a year.

Robert Rockelein said he wanted to address “some noise in the streets” about the need for greater oversight of the ethics board. “Who’s watching the watchers?” he asked, and he called for increased scrutiny of the ethics board because “the current perception is that things are being swept under the table.”

Rather than relying on town employees to disclose their own finances, James Leonick said the ethics code should require employees submit supporting documents to back up their financial disclosure. He called for the information to be compared with documentation of previous years’ finances to show “any changes in assets, liabilities or income.” Leonick also said financial disclosure data should be kept on file for seven years. His request drew scattered applause and one listener murmured, “Excellent.”

Tom McNally said he spoke on behalf of the Huntington Republican Committee when he asked for mandatory training in ethics code for all town officials and employees. Such training “is done as standard operating procedure for most corporations,” he said.

He also said all ethics complaints filed with the town clerk should be made public, as well as all decisions of the ethics board, how they voted and whether any ethics board members recused themselves from a vote.

“Just looking for a little bit more transparency,” McNally said.

McNally asked the board to raise the penalty for ethics code violations, saying it should be much more than $5,000.

“We are now in the process of reviewing the code … we appreciate the thoroughness of your presentation,” Glickstein responded.

Marie Rendely took issue with Glickstein, calling him “good sir” and then pointing out that she used the term with sarcasm. “Our board of ethics is appointed by the town board,” she said. “Right there is a conflict of interest.”

Jim McGoldrick agreed, and said that when the ethics board is appointed by the town board, “it’s like the fox watching the chicken coop … it’s just not right.” Ethics board members should have no connection to the town, McGoldrick said.

Referring to recent Newsday reports of accusations of ethics violations by Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D), Gerard Seitz said, “Why is Mark Cuthbertson still sitting on the town board? Why is he still voting on the downzoning of Oheka Castle for their luxury townhomes, when we already know about his questionable receiverships from [Oheka owner] Gary Melius along with Melius’ large Political donations?” Seitz said. “This isn’t an appearance of a conflict of interest, it is a conflict of interest.”

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Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. File photo

By Elana Glowatz & Rachel Shapiro

Suffolk County officials, including former County Executive Steve Levy, “intentionally corrupted and undermined” the Ethics Commission and contributed to its disbandment, according to a special grand jury report released April 19.

Testimony in the report by unnamed county officials alleges that County Official E, who worked in the county executive’s office, attempted to influence ethics commissioners’ decisions; tried to use an ethics complaint as leverage against a legislator to influence his vote; and had not received proper authorization to file financial disclosure forms, among other offenses.

Based on previous reporting, this newspaper determined that County Official E is Levy.

Testimony in the report alleges that other county officials colluded with Levy in these actions as well as committed separate offenses. County Official H, the report said, was an Association of Municipal Employees worker who filled out his time sheets and calculated his accruals as a management employee, leading to him receiving more than $14,000 in health benefits he did not earn.

This newspaper, also based on previous reporting, has determined County Official H to be Alfred Lama, the former executive director of the Ethics Commission.

No charges have been filed against the officials, as testimony did not reveal any illegal activity. The grand jury instead made recommendations to the executive and legislative branches — including creating penalties for ethics violations such as improperly influencing the members of an ethics board or commission — and future county ethics bodies, such as enacting procedural guidelines regarding complaints, hearings and decisions.

Levy took issue with the report. It was “based in large part on testimony from political detractors of the county executive,” he said in a statement shortly after it was released Thursday.

He said seeking the commission’s opinion on a potential conflict of interest, as he did in the case of the legislator, “is not an abuse of the Ethics Commission, it’s the very reason you have one,” and that he did not tell Ethics Commission members how to vote on any issue.

The former county executive also took issue with the report saying that while, for a time, he only filed state financial disclosure forms, he was obligated to file county forms, which the report said were more thorough.

Mark Davies, a former executive director of the Temporary State Commission on Local Government Ethics who drafted state ethics law, said in written testimony to the Suffolk County Legislature in September 2010 that “on the whole, the state form is more extensive than the county form.” He argued that because the county form lacked certain categories, such as offices in political parties and organizations and agreements for future employment, it was not in compliance with state law. Legislation has since been introduced to bring the local form into compliance with state law.

Levy also said that state law mandated the county to accept the state form over the county form, something the grand jury report said “remains an open question with advocates on both sides publicly arguing their positions.” Lama advised the former county executive without a ruling from the entire Ethics Commission, saying Levy could file the state form instead of the county form.

The grand jury report also discussed the findings of an audit by the county comptroller. Lama, who was the ethics commission’s executive director from 2004 until it was abolished, was audited last year. According to the document from Comptroller Joe Sawicki’s office, the investigation was to determine whether the director’s hours worked from 2004 to 2011 had been logged correctly, and whether he was given appropriate pay and health benefits according to the hours he had worked.

The grand jury report said Lama, an AME union employee, had filled out his time sheets as if he were a management employee. It also said there was no evidence of fraud on Lama’s part.

Sawicki said in an interview that he began reviewing Lama’s time sheets and found that the director had often worked less than 50 percent of the work week. The audit states, “[Lama] worked 84 percent of the required full-time hours in 2005 and only 49 percent of the required full-time hours in 2010.” The audit states the county attorney did not change the position to part-time so the director would have the flexibility to work full-time if needed.

The comptroller’s audit found that Lama had been overpaid more than $8,000 in wages and had received more than $14,000 in health insurance coverage premiums that he did not reimburse to the county — from periods when he worked less than 50 percent of the work week and therefore, the audit stated, was not entitled to the premiums.

According to the Suffolk County AME contract, part-time employees “must work greater than 50 percent of the established work week to be entitled to benefits.” Those who fall below that mark, the contract says, may purchase health insurance on a pro rata basis.

Lama said in a phone interview Tuesday that he did not know he was a union employee, and filled out his time sheets for the 7.5-hour day of a management employee.

The grand jury report said Lama signed a “new employee orientation” document, acknowledging his “receipt of the collective bargaining agreement for his AME position and his AME enrollment card.” However, Lama said he went to an orientation when he was hired and “they handed me a piece of paper and I signed it. I wasn’t aware that they were going to put me into the union.”

He added that he always tried to be “as truthful as possible” when filling out his logs, and questioned why it took so long for someone to tell him he was filling in his time sheets incorrectly. “Don’t wait until the end of the rainbow and tell me I made a mistake,” he said.

Exit interview with former county executive summarizes gripes; targets respond

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. File photo

By Elana Glowatz & Rachel Shapiro

Former County Executive Steve Levy was under no illusions that he would make friends when he took Suffolk’s top office eight years ago.

He stood his ground in long-term battles with the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association and the Legislature and he says that paid off. When the PBA took out anti-Levy ads after the county executive shuffled police officers around to cut costs, he took it all in stride.

“You’ve got to have the backbone to stand up to that and not wilt,” Levy said in an interview. “Over time you’ll be proven correct, as we were with the highway patrol change and as we were with civilianization.”

PBA second vice president Noel DiGerolamo fired back in a phone interview Tuesday that “the only thing that was proven over time is that Steve Levy was not a person to be trusted or believed, as proven by his departure from the government … and his ongoing legal troubles with the [district attorney].” DiGerolamo was referring to Levy’s return of $4 million in campaign funds as part of an agreement with District Attorney Tom Spota, under which the county executive also agreed not to seek a third term.

Levy, 52, has declined on several occasions to discuss the details of the deal.

Other battles aside, Levy considers county Comptroller Joe Sawicki and Newsday’s editors and reporters to have played a part in trying to tarnish his reputation. In reflecting on his time as county executive, he painted a picture of the comptroller and the newspaper working to embarrass and discredit him.


Control battle with comptroller

One example he gave is Sawicki’s office performing an audit on the request for proposals process to sell the county-owned John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility, to determine whether the county had followed procedures correctly. Levy said he was interested in selling the nursing home to save the county money. When the report was completed, Levy said, the comptroller then “conveniently drops it on the table of the Legislature the same day they’re voting” on the sale, in order to sway the legislators to kill it.

But the comptroller told a different story. In an interview with Times Beacon Record Newspapers following Levy’s allegations, Sawicki said Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D-Holbrook) and legislators Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) and John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) requested the audit in November 2010, and his office was rushing to complete the report by March 2, 2011, the day of the vote. And according to Christina Capobianco, Sawicki’s chief deputy comptroller, the audit staff was “stonewalled” by the county Health Department and attorney’s office, delaying the process.

‘I think he became extremely paranoid over the years.’ — Joe Sawicki

However, Levy was not convinced. “It’s too cute to just so happen to finish your audit on the same day that the Legislature is voting on this issue,” he said. “If [Sawicki] was concerned about timing he simply could have mentioned this to the Legislature. He never did. … This was an 11th hour surprise to try to kill the deal.”

The Legislature ultimately voted to sell the nursing home, but the buyer, Kenneth Rozenberg, was no longer interested.

Levy said Sawicki had an agenda against him. He pointed to the fact that at the same time the nursing home audit was being performed, Sawicki donated money to the Nursing Home Support Fund for employees who were working to save the facility from closure, and he attended a fundraiser.

According to a New York State Board of Elections financial disclosure report, Sawicki donated $500 to that group on Jan. 10, 2011.

Levy called the act a conflict of interest and said that Sawicki was considering a run for county executive and was buying the support of the nursing home employees’ union. But the comptroller said although others had suggested it to him, he had not planned to run for county executive, and that his office’s audit and his support of keeping the nursing home open were “totally separate.”

Sawicki said his wife is a geriatric nurse at a private nursing home and that the Foley facility had a place in his heart.

“In my mind, helping the employees contribute to their legal fund to fight to stay open and keep their jobs is a lot different than an audit I was doing of the RFP process,” Sawicki said. “I would do it all over again.”

‘It’s too cute to just so happen to finish your audit on the same day that the Legislature is voting on this issue.’ — Steve Levy

In addition to Levy’s claim that Sawicki was trying to cast him in a negative light because of a potential run for county executive, Levy said there was friction because he would not approve some of the comptroller’s hires in order to save money.

Sawicki said Levy would block approval of employees hired within his department’s approved budget. Ultimately, various elected county officials called for legislation that would allow them to approve their own hires if they stayed within their budgets. The legislation passed.

Although Sawicki expressed frustration with the hiring situation, he said he never did anything to give Levy a bad name. “You can’t find anything that I did that exceeded my role as the comptroller,” Sawicki said. “I pride myself on being the chief fiscal watchdog. I like that title.”

The comptroller also said that Levy didn’t like being audited and “I think he became extremely paranoid over the years.”

Levy responded, “If I didn’t want him doing audits I would have been complaining from my first year in office.” He added, “It’s absolutely his role to do audits.”


Financial disclosure

The county executive also took issue with Newsday’s coverage of various subjects, including his financial disclosure forms and wife Colleen West-Levy’s business. In a series of articles beginning in 2010, Newsday investigated Levy’s filing of the state-mandated financial disclosure form.

Throughout some of Newsday’s stories, such as “Disclosure bill would force Levy to report to county,” published June 15, 2010, the reporter stated as a matter of fact that the county form was more thorough than the state form that Levy was filing. This statement was not attributed to any source. In at least one other story, the reporter has also cited unnamed officials for this information.

In the stories, the reporter interviewed political opponents of Levy, who are quoted as saying that the county executive was in violation of county law when he filed state forms instead of county forms.

Levy argued that the reporter left out crucial information, including three expert opinions, one from Mark Davies, that cited Levy’s requirement to file the state form and his compliance with county law.

Davies, former executive director of the Temporary State Commission on Local Government Ethics, has served on several ethics committees, including as co-chair of the Ethics Committee of the American Bar Association’s section of state and local government law. He is also an adviser to the American Law Institute’s Project on Public Integrity and an adjunct professor of law at Fordham Law School.

‘Newsday is proud of its reporters and editors who pursued this story thoroughly and fairly while withstanding repeated criticisms and even personal attacks.’ — Statement from Newsday

He said in a written testimony to the Suffolk County Legislature in September 2010, “Indeed a comparison of the state form and the Suffolk County form reveals that, on the whole, the state form is more extensive than the county form.” He gave examples of disclosure categories the county form does not include, such as offices in political parties and organizations; the nature of a filer’s business; agreements for future employment; assignments and transfers of income and interest to others for less than fair market value; securities held by a corporation for investment when the filer or his or her spouse owns or controls 50 percent or more of the corporation; gifts and reimbursements; and any information on the assets and liabilities of the filer’s dependent children.

The county form also does not ask the filer to list unpaid positions with entities that have no current business or licenses with the county, even if they had immediate past county business or have upcoming county business.

Davies argued that because the county form lacks these categories, it does not comply with state law. He recommended that the county adopt the state form, at least on an interim basis, until the county form is brought into compliance with state law.

In the past year, legislation has been introduced to bring the local form into compliance with New York State law.

Levy said he gave the reporter the information from Davies early on in the reporting to include in the story, but it was not printed.

In Newsday’s story “Levy defends financial disclosures,” published June 9, 2010, a chart compiled by the reporter highlights specific information that is required on the county form and not the state’s — but not vice versa. The chart correctly says the county form requires the filer list bank accounts, including the type of account, the nature of ownership and the name of the bank. The state form does not require this information.

With regard to real estate interests, both forms require disclosure of location, size, general nature, acquisition date, percentage of ownership and range of value of the property. The only difference between the forms is that the county’s requires the filer to name partners and the valuation date. The chart incorrectly states that the state form does not require market value. The form specifically asks for approximate market value.

The chart also incorrectly says that the state form does not ask the filer to list credit card debt. In fact, the filer must list liabilities, but the form provides many exceptions, credit card debt not being one of them. Tim Glynn, an attorney in Setauket concentrating in business law, said a credit card balance should be reported, according to the language of the form. However, if the balance was accrued by purchasing items that were exempted, the filer could leave the debt off the list.

Newsday’s chart correctly says the state form does not require disclosure of government contracts secured through competitive bidding or requests for proposals, while the county form does.

“What [the reporter] would gloss over and not put in is that I was required by law to file a state form instead of a county form,” Levy said. “Newsday tried to make it look like I was forum shopping for a particular form to file because I wanted to hide something. It’s total nonsense.”

Levy is required by state law to file the state form as a sitting member of the Pine Barrens Commission, a state agency. This fact was confirmed by the county Ethics Commission in a 2006 ruling. For his first two years in office, Levy filed both state and county forms. Following the ruling in 2006, he began filing only the state form. Similar to wording in other stories, Newsday describes the ruling in “Levy defends financial disclosures” by saying, “The county ethics commission — whose members were appointed or recommended by Levy — has allowed him to file a state disclosure form since 2006.” Levy argues that the language used makes it appear as if the commission is giving him special treatment when, in fact, it is upholding state law.

Despite this, in 2010 Levy filed county forms from the years he had missed — from 2006 to 2009. In an interview, Levy said he filed the county form for those years because he had nothing to hide.

Times Beacon Record Newspapers sat down with Newsday’s vice president of public affairs, Paul Fleishman, and presented Levy’s claims about Newsday. The paper declined to give responses to each allegation, and instead issued the following statement:

“The facts speak for themselves. Last year, following an investigation by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, then-Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy forfeited $4 million of campaign money and announced he would not run for re-election. Newsday is proud of its reporters and editors who pursued this story thoroughly and fairly while withstanding repeated criticisms and even personal attacks. Newsday has a long and respected history of straightforward and courageous investigative reporting on behalf of the people of Long Island, who depend on us to shed light on matters that are important to the public. It is a responsibility to our community that we take very seriously, approach thoughtfully and pursue with the utmost care, integrity and commitment to accuracy. We stand firmly behind our reporting and our coverage.”


Colleen West-Levy

As it probed Levy’s financial disclosure forms, Newsday also questioned the business practices of his wife, Colleen West-Levy. Specifically, Newsday listed companies that had worked with West-Levy’s firms and had also received county funds, seeking to determine if there was a connection between the two. West-Levy’s court reporting and transcription businesses, Enright and Enright Sten-Tel, had a relationship with various companies that contracted with the county, five of which were law firms that Newsday named in the July 8, 2010 article “A question of disclosure.” While the story said that three of those firms had a relationship with West-Levy’s companies before her husband took office, Levy said his wife had worked with all of them before he took office and the work was not the result of political connections.

Levy estimated that of his wife’s roughly 200 clients, only 10 to 15 of them had any connection to the county.

The article also named Stony Brook University Medical Center’s Cody Center and Good Samaritan Hospital, based in West Islip, in the investigation as to whether there could be a connection between the hospitals receiving county funds and West-Levy’s businesses working with the institutions.

A 2005 ruling from the Ethics Commission stated that West-Levy could continue her work with Stony Brook University Medical Center and with any other hospital in the county without posing a conflict of interest.

“To any objective reporter, that 2005 opinion from the county’s Ethics Commission should have ended any thought of this sensationalistic ‘gotcha’ story,” Levy said in a statement.

‘This inaccurate and irresponsible series of articles [goes] to great lengths to insinuate that Colleen built her businesses upon my becoming county executive.’ — Steve Levy

Levy takes issue with the nature of the stories about his wife. The lead of the July 8 story states, “Court reporting firms owned by Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s wife, Colleen West, have regularly received work from businesses that have been paid millions of dollars in county contracts in recent years.” In the 16th paragraph, on the second page of the story, Newsday cites Levy and his wife as saying she did not work on county business for the firms.

“This inaccurate and irresponsible series of articles [goes] to great lengths to insinuate that Colleen built her businesses upon my becoming county executive, and that she and I have somehow attempted to avoid proper disclosure,” Levy said in a July 2010 statement. In an interview, Levy called it “disgraceful reporting with numerous inaccuracies.”

In the case of a July 31 article, “Babylon lawyer to head group probing ethics commission,” Levy said it contains a “gross misrepresentation” of what is required to be listed on state financial disclosure forms. The state form requires the filer to list his or her sources of income and those of a spouse. However, the form says, “Do not list the name of individual clients, customers or patients.” The county form does not require the filer to list clients either.

In the July 31 article, the reporter writes, “Newsday reported earlier this month that court reporting firms owned by Levy’s wife, Colleen West, do business with at least seven county vendors that have received millions in payments from the county. Levy said he is not required to disclose his wife’s clients, even though the county form requires disclosing all sources of income, including those of a spouse.”

Levy takes issue with the story painting the picture that disclosing his wife’s clients and disclosing his wife’s income are one and the same. He also said, “Shockingly, Newsday failed to note that the county form likewise does not require or request a listing of individual clients,” and that this omission suggests that by filing the state form, he was attempting to hide information from the public.

In addition, in “A question of disclosure,” the Newsday reporter writes that in 2008 County Attorney Christine Malafi, at Levy’s request, wrote a letter to law firms receiving county business, making it clear that Enright was not on a list of court reporters that could be chosen for county business. Newsday said this was after the PBA raised questions about Enright doing county work. However, Levy said in an interview that it was in 2005, through Malafi, that he notified all county vendors that would use court reporting services that they were only to use the firm that was awarded the county bid, which was not Enright.

Concerned by the coverage, Levy said he presented Newsday several times with memos refuting information in various stories on several topics. Newsday did print a correction following an October 2010 story alleging Levy redacted personal financial information from his disclosure forms, when the Suffolk County Ethics Commission had actually redacted the information. But Levy said his concerns were largely limited to the letters page, instead of in further news reports or corrections.

In May 2011, the Press Club of Long Island announced Newsday’s main reporter on these stories won Outstanding Long Island Journalist. In 2009 the reporter, along with another Newsday reporter, won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for a series of articles about special government districts.


The past, present and future

Levy said he made enemies because he “made tough decisions” — reorganizing the police department to save money, selling the Foley nursing home, limiting county hires and requiring union givebacks as a way to avoid county layoffs.

A fiscal conservative, Levy prided himself on saving money where he could. He said he gave up three bodyguards, took 240 county cars out of service, which had been “doled out like political lollipops.” He said his administration developed a different mind-set for county government, requiring double sign-offs for overtime and controlling travel expenditures. The county put its health care package out to competitive bid and saved $18 million annually, Levy said.

“Despite the tough times we’re having, we’re still in better shape than [surrounding counties] are and that’s because of the foundation that we’ve laid out over these many years. But it’s certainly not going to be easygoing into the next couple of years until the national economy picks up again.”

He doesn’t regret his run for governor, rather he said he would have been kicking himself if he hadn’t tried. He doesn’t regret his party change either, although he said it made him more of a target than when he was a Democrat. Levy said his switch to the Republican Party was not an act of political opportunism, having received endorsements of the Republican and Conservative parties; he won cross-party endorsements for his second term as county executive starting January 2008, winning 96 percent of the vote. The county executive had always leaned to the right economically and on the topic of immigration.

“It wasn’t a big leap, it wasn’t such a surprise to people in Suffolk,” Levy said.

But within one year of switching parties and announcing his run for governor, Levy made a deal with DA Spota to give back the $4 million in campaign funds and not seek re-election for a third term — ending his tenure under what many have called a cloud of suspicion.

Although he was forthcoming about other controversial issues, the county executive was tight-lipped about his agreement with Spota. He simply said, “We’ll have that conversation at another time.”

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