Legislators take aim at special interests

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy during the opening

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy during the opening of a new community outreach center in Huntington Station. (Aug. 19, 2010) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

In response to the controversy surrounding Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's campaign fundraising, two county legislators are proposing bills aimed at reducing the influence of special interests on county elections.

Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) wants to restrict the amount that corporations, individuals and others with large county contracts may contribute to political candidates.

Legislative Majority Leader Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) would move the county toward a public financing system. Under his proposal, candidates could opt to receive public dollars if they agree to restrict the amount they raise in private donations.

"It is time to pass sweeping reform to prevent those with a financial interest in county business from buying undue influence," Schneiderman said last week.

Discussion of the measures followed Levy's announcement on March 24 that he will not seek re-election. He said "questions" had been raised about his fundraising and that he had agreed to turn over his $4.3 million campaign war chest to the office of District Attorney Thomas Spota.

Thursday, Newsday reported that contractors, their employees and trade unions working on the new $156-million jail in Yaphank contributed a total of $924,746 to Levy's campaign fund. Levy spokesman Dan Aug said the contributions were not illegal or unethical, and that Levy had fought a state mandate to build the jail.

Cooper called the contributions from those with an interest in the jail "the tip of the iceberg," in terms of special-interest donations in Suffolk.

However, Cooper said his proposal faces a number of questions, including what taxes or surcharges the county would have to institute to generate public campaign money.

Legislative presiding officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) said the public finance system Suffolk voters approved in 1998 has been a failure because the voluntary checkoff on property tax bills produced little in donations.

Legis. Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) agreed the current system "isn't working." He said that limiting the amount candidates can raise would be ineffective if Cooper's proposal does not also limit special interest donations to political parties, which often fund their own ads for and against candidates.

Mark Smith, a spokesman for Levy, said Levy proposals in 2006 and 2010 to create a publicly funded system through a surcharge on government contracts failed to attract enough legislative support. Smith blamed the failure on Levy's proposal to restrict the ability of unions, which often support Democrats, to contribute to candidates.

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