Gary Melius, Oheka Castle owner, downplays political influence
Gary Melius, the prominent developer whose phone call to Nassau police Commissioner Thomas Dale triggered the events that led to the top cop's recent ouster, has spent years building a near-peerless network of political contacts.
His Oheka Castle in Huntington -- an old estate turned high-end hotel and catering hall -- has long been a site for lavish fundraisers for Long Island's most powerful officials.
At the same time, Melius, 69, who lives in the castle, has frequently opened his own wallet for political candidates of all parties. In the past decade, he and his wife, Pam, have donated more than $700,000 to local and state committees and, since the late 1990s, about $170,000 to federal campaigns, according to elections board records.
But when asked to assess his political influence, the grade-school dropout from Queens, who rose from plumber's helper to own one of the most prestigious Gold Coast properties, answered succinctly.
"Minimal," Melius said. "That's what I think I have."
Others, from close friends to those who have clashed with him, say Melius has had a significant impact on local government, even if he's more of a social than political animal.
"I think Gary has a great deal of respect among political people, and from that standpoint, he's very influential," said Frank MacKay, chairman of the state and Suffolk Independence Party, while noting that the money Melius gives to charities far outweighs his political contributions. "He's raised millions of charitable dollars, and doesn't seek attention for it."
Melius, who employs the Nassau Independence Party's executive director at Oheka Castle, may be best known for the cigar-smoke-filled poker games he hosts there. They feature a bipartisan roll of players culled from some 6,000 names in his address book, including former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and Steve Schlesinger, a Garden City attorney who represents Nassau Democrats in many matters.
"Al and I vie for his soul," Schlesinger joked of Melius.
Though he fought for Democrats in trying to discredit the third-party Nassau County executive campaign of Melius' friend this fall -- a campaign that ultimately prompted the call Melius made to Dale -- Schlesinger still considers the Oheka owner a good friend.
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs, however, contends that Melius' ties to GOP County Executive Edward Mangano's administration led him to think he could ask Dale to arrest a witness in a politically charged elections case.
"Gary has made it his business to ingratiate himself with the top members of the administration," Jacobs said of Mangano's aides, while acknowledging Melius also gives to Democrats. "He hosts them at his castle regularly, he boasts about it, and he's entitled to -- but you can't shy away from it now."
Mangano, who backed Nassau's 2012 purchase of land from Melius, said the developer has had no influence on his administration. "I have known Gary for over 20 years and he is a good friend," he said.
In the Oct. 4 call, Melius told Dale that the third-party county executive campaign of ex-Freeport Mayor Andrew Hardwick, a friend, wanted to file a perjury charge against Randy White, a witness in a lawsuit challenging many Hardwick ballot petition signatures.
Police never charged White with perjury, but when a misdemeanor warrant for White was discovered, Dale ordered that he be arrested, according to an investigation by Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, a Democrat. Shortly after, an off-duty county police sergeant served White with a civil subpoena, drafted by Hardwick's lawyer, while White was in custody. Rice called it "a deeply troubling aspect of this case."
Mangano forced Dale out on Dec. 11, citing Rice's findings of Dale's involvement in locating White while on a county bus.
Democrats attacked Hardwick's campaign -- Melius was its sole donor, giving $23,139 -- as meant to siphon votes from former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who ran an unsuccessful rematch against Mangano this fall. Melius, after backing Suozzi in 2009, supported Mangano this year.
Melius says he did nothing wrong in contacting Dale on behalf of Hardwick's campaign, calling Jacobs' complaints those of a "sore loser."
He added, however, that he was "deeply sorry" for causing trouble for Dale, whom he said he has known for years, and whom he recommended to Mangano when Dale was being considered for commissioner.
"If I was Tom Dale, I'd be mad at me," Melius said.
Melius has been a prominent figure since purchasing Oheka Castle, financier Otto Kahn's 127-room French chateau, for $1.5 million in 1984. The 120,000-square-foot gated estate, completed in 1921, once was Long Island's largest single-family home.
He came from more modest roots. Born in Jackson Heights, Queens, the truck driver's son moved to West Hempstead as a boy, and as a young man worked odd jobs including plumber's helper, tree trimmer and bowling alley pin setter.
"I'm pretty much a guy from the streets," Melius said in an interview last week from inside Oheka Castle's posh, Charlie Chaplin-themed bar.
His childhood, including dealing with an abusive father, Melius said, made him angry, leading to several brushes with the law. In 1963, an 18-year-old Melius was among a group arrested for robbery after a street mugging in West Hempstead. He was convicted of mischief as a youthful offender.
In 1971, Melius was arrested along with a Nassau police officer who tried to shake down a drug runner, and then again for his part in a scheme to steal and sell heavy equipment. He was charged with grand larceny in both cases, but pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors.
Throughout the 1970s, Melius was close with Richard Hartman, a well-known lawyer who wielded much influence with police unions in New York City and Long Island. In 1988, Hartman gave up his law practice after admitting misusing escrow funds to pay his personal gambling debts.
"We used to say that we would have done better with the bad guys," Melius said of his ties to figures like Hartman.
It was his career in real estate, Melius said, that helped straighten him out during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and led him to buy Oheka Castle.
"You know what I had?" Melius said. "God."
Building back Oheka
Melius bought his first building from Hartman in 1975, but has said that his career took off after he borrowed $10,000 in 1979, just before Long Island's real estate boom, to build a Great Neck office complex.
"I started with a dollar-fifty," Melius told Newsday in 1990.
His company at one point owned more than a million square feet of buildings, but hit hard times in the early 1990s, when Melius recalled "rolling quarters" just to pay bills.
Oheka was in disrepair when Melius first got it. He sold it to a Japanese businessman for $22 million in 1988 and began leasing it back in 1993, reclaiming full ownership a decade later.
The Town of Huntington ultimately gave Melius the zoning change he needed to turn the venue into a full service event hall. He estimates that he has put $40 million into the property, allowing it to attract guests from around the world and host weddings for celebrities such as one of the Jonas Brothers, and politicians including former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
At that 2010 ceremony, President Bill Clinton officiated.
Between frequent weddings and charity events, Oheka is also known for being a hangout for local power brokers. Besides the poker games, Melius has annual Super Bowl parties that blend his working-class roots with the luxuries of affluence: top-shelf liquor alongside White Castle hamburgers.
"I once asked him why he would buy this huge place and call it your home, and he'd always respond that it was just fun," said former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat turned Republican who received more than $60,000 in contributions from Melius, more than any other candidate, state records show.
"He's a very affable guy, a fella who came up from nothing and made himself quite a success," Levy said. "He likes to share that with people."
Melius said his campaign donations aren't meant to gain influence with local politicians.
"I like to think I try to [donate] for good government and do what's right," he said. "I'm not stuck with a party line."
He noted that his only active project is a 190-unit condominium development on the Oheka site in Huntington, which would be hooked up to the Nassau County sewage system, rather than local septic tanks.
But Melius has done business with Nassau before. In 2012, the county paid him $6 million for the former Brooklyn Water Works property in Freeport, intending to preserve it as open space. Melius had bought it from Nassau for $1.4 million in 1986, but never realized plans to develop it either as condos or a nursing home.
Mangano, who supported the county's purchase of the Water Works parcel, has had fundraisers at Oheka and received $16,500 from Melius since his 2009 election as county executive. Melius had backed Suozzi during his two terms from 2002 to 2009, holding fundraisers for him and donating $15,000 in 2008 and 2009.
Mangano recalled asking for Melius' support in his first race against Suozzi, "and I'll never forget his answer. It was 'no.' "
State records show that Melius typically gives to officials in power at the time, regardless of party. He gave Levy $60,100 during his two terms as Suffolk County executive, from 2004-2011. This year, Melius gave Levy's successor, Democrat Steve Bellone, $25,000.
On the federal level, Melius and his wife have given Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) $22,800; Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) $18,200 and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) $14,700 since 2003.
"You'll have a hard time making me a partisan," Melius said.
'A real mover and shaker'
Jon Cooper, the Suffolk legislature's former majority leader, represented the district where Oheka Castle is located for 12 years, but said Melius was always a friend, not someone who sought political favors.
"I don't think I ever spoke to Gary about a political issue," said Cooper, a Lloyd Harbor Democrat who left the legislature in 2011. "But I know that there were probably a lot of elected officials who courted his support and his endorsement and financial backing."
Cooper called Melius a "genuinely nice guy with a great sense of humor -- and loyal." He recalled the Oheka Castle owner engineering a surprise 50th birthday for him about eight years ago, managing to hide the presence -- and vehicles -- of nearly 200 guests.
"Obviously, he's a real mover and shaker, and often portrayed as the power behind the scenes," Cooper said. "But I just consider him a friend."
One person who knows Melius and many Long Island political figures called Melius "a networker on steroids." The person, who didn't want to be identified in order to speak frankly, said Melius' influence comes most from his outgoing nature.
"He doesn't do it with money," the person said. "He does it with relationships."
During the interview, Melius noted that he had 6,300 names in his address book, and as he spoke, his iPhone rang a half-dozen times in an hour.
His role criticized
Jacobs, Nassau's Democratic Party leader, criticized Melius' involvement in the Randy White case that led to police commissioner Dale's ouster, but said he didn't actually fault Melius for developing relationships with public officials.
"That's not a crime; he's entitled to that," Jacobs said. "You can be someone who is influential and you can be someone who is engaged in the process.
"The limit is, you cannot abuse that authority."
Melius said everything he does comes from a desire to help people, whether it's calling Dale on behalf of Hardwick, or hosting regular fundraisers for the youth charities that he said he supports with his own upbringing in mind.
A therapist, Melius recalled, once suggested that he write a book about his life, with the cover showing Melius standing in front of Oheka Castle, under the title, "In Spite of Myself."
"I have no good reason to be here," Melius said from inside that castle, "other than that somebody looked out for me."
With Joye Brown