Suffolk County legislative Majority Leader Jon Cooper yesterday proposed a bill that would compel County Executive Steve Levy to file county financial disclosure forms even as Levy said he was not required to do so because he has filled out a state form.
Each year, roughly 650 county employees file the county disclosure form, as set forth in county law. Levy and one other county employee, whom officials would not name, have filed the state form instead, which is less extensive than the county form. In addition, the county form is a sworn statement, while the state form is not. Cooper's bill would require both Levy and the second county employee to fill out the forms, as would be required of all county employees.
Levy has maintained since last week, when the Suffolk district attorney's office subpoenaed records relating to the county disclosure form, that he met all legal requirements of the current law by filling out the state form. His decision was backed by the Suffolk Ethics Commission, and a local legal expert agrees with that ruling. Several former Suffolk politicians familiar with the local law and a number of legal experts say they disagree.
Cooper said he believes all employees are required to follow the local law. "I wish we didn't have to introduce a law to require people to obey the law, but in this case, I think it's come to that," said Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor).
Levy declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement Monday from Deputy County Executive Edward Dumas, who said other ethics boards have relied on state law to rule "that where a county employee is required to file a state form as the county executive is, such filing satisfies the local requirement. Any suggestions to the contrary by politically motivated legislators are absurd."
Levy, a lifelong Democrat, switched to the Republican Party in March in a bid to run for governor. That bid fell short when he failed to win a spot in a Republican primary, but he said he is considering running on a third-party line.
Since last week, when Newsday reported that Levy had filled out the state disclosure form since 2006, Levy and his aides have argued that the Suffolk Ethics Commission was following the same practice approved by New York City.
Lawrence Raful, Touro Law School dean and a member of the Islip ethics committee, challenged the argument. He said that unless state law specifically pre-empts local law, "customary usage cannot overturn local law."
Cooper's bill, laid on the table Monday, argues that the county Ethics Commission did not have the authority to waive the requirement for Levy and that it is "manifestly unfair to allow certain county officials to shield financial information while hundreds of other employees fully comply with the law's disclosure requirements."
Ethics Commission director Alfred Lama did not return calls. Levy appointed or recommended all three commission members.
Cooper's proposal followed last week's news that Suffolk DA Thomas Spota had subpoenaed records related to county financial disclosures. Levy then said he would file the 2009 form and review information for previous years. His spokesman, Dan Aug, confirmed that Monday.
Steven Leventhal, who is counsel to the Nassau Board of Ethics and special counsel to the Suffolk Ethics Commission, said in an interview Monday that he agrees with Levy's position. He said state law does not require employees to file "duplicative" annual financial disclosure statements. Although he acknowledged that the forms were not identical, he said they would be considered duplicative because the objective was the same.
George Nolan, counsel to the Suffolk Legislature who helped draft the county ethics law, disagreed. "It's a very strained argument that I don't think holds up."
Former County Executive Patrick Halpin, who was in office when the county disclosure law was revamped in 1988, said the point of the law was clear. "The intent of it was to have the most rigorous financial disclosure law in the state of New York because the state's requirements were inadequate."