Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a longtime advocate of campaign finance reform and candidate for governor, has gotten more than $200,000 in contributions from law firms and title companies that have received more than $7 million in county business since 2006, state and county records show.
The law firms and title companies were chosen by County Attorney Christine Malafi, a close friend and political confidante of Levy's. Since he became county executive in 2004, his administration has made changes in county procedures that have resulted in Malafi's having greater discretion in awarding millions of dollars in county business.
Levy's successful fundraising is a critical part of his appeal to Republicans since his highly publicized defection from the Democratic Party two weeks ago, when he announced his candidacy for governor. He has a $4-million campaign fund, compared with $640,000 raised as of January by his Republican challenger, former congressman Rick Lazio of Brightwaters.
Records show that three title agencies that contributed more than $73,000 to Levy secured the lion's share of county title business - nearly $1.3 million, or more than 75 percent of the county's total title business - from 2006 through 2009. One of the companies, Liberty Title, closed last year after federal authorities indicted its president, Brian H. Madden of Greenlawn, on charges of embezzling more than $4.7 million. The case is pending.
In addition to the title companies, nine law firms retained by Malafi have contributed more than $146,000 to Levy and have received more than $6 million in county business since 2006.
A 10th outside legal counsel, the Garden City firm of Berkman, Henoch, Peterson & Peddy, which has longtime Nassau Republican ties, has not contributed to Levy. It did $107,005 in county work from 2006 through 2009. Another firm, the New York firm of Putney, Twombly, Hall & Hirson, didn't contribute to Levy. It received $284,311 in legal work from the county, according to records.
Contributions reviewed by Newsday came from the law firms. These totals do not include possible contributions from individuals connected with those firms.
Levy: I don't confer on picks
In interviews, Levy said he does not confer with Malafi on selecting outside counsel, or any outside company, and rarely knows which ones are selected until after the fact. "I'm too busy for that," he said. He said there was no connection between contributions and the awarding of business.
"If a company wants to contribute, fine," he said. "If they don't, that's fine, too."
In his bid for governor, Levy has touted his reputation as a fiscal conservative and hands-on manager and has vowed to reform Albany. He relies on a close circle of advisers, among them Malafi, a longtime friend, and her husband, Democratic Suffolk County Legis. Louis D'Amaro, who is a former aide. Both Levy and Malafi said in interviews that they have never pressured anyone to contribute to Levy.
"Absolutely not. Never," Levy said.
Under state law, professional services, such as work done by law firms and title companies, are not subject to competitive bidding. While it is neither unusual nor illegal for vendors seeking municipal business to contribute to elected officials, Levy has criticized the practice and has twice proposed local laws to limit it.
In 1996, as a county legislator, he proposed banning contributions from county vendors of more than $500 to county executive candidates and more than $200 for county legislative candidates. His proposed legislation said, in part, "there exists a public perception that government contracts are often awarded on the basis of political contributions and not upon the qualifications and cost-effectiveness of the proposed contractee."
In 2006, as county executive, he proposed public financing of campaigns. Both resolutions failed.
Levy said he still supports campaign finance reform but believes it is appropriate for him to accept contributions from vendors, because "You don't unilaterally disarm." He added that he believes strongly that he is playing within the rules.
"Is Suffolk County unique where you will have lawyers contributing to countywide officials?" he said. "No. It's perfectly legal, legitimate and common throughout the state and throughout the nation."
Vendors choose not to play