The Suffolk County Legislature Tuesday granted limited subpoena power to a special committee investigating the Suffolk Ethics Commission, setting up a possible showdown over records that could reach the courts.
In a 14-4 vote, the legislature approved subpoena power for commission records, but not for witnesses. The committee could ask for broader subpoena power later, and for now will ask witnesses to appear voluntarily, said Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook).
County Executive Steve Levy has been critical of the committee's investigation of the commission. Yesterday after the vote, his assistant, Ben Zwirn, said that Levy's office agreed with the legislature's action. "We support it," he said.
The vote followed weeks of negotiations over records between the committee's special counsel, Joseph Conway, and the commission's outside counsel, Steven Leventhal. In a letter to Conway released yesterday, Leventhal told Conway that the commission might "seek judicial guidance" in deciding what to turn over under a subpoena.
Conway told legislators he understood that to mean Leventhal might try to quash a subpoena. Leventhal did not return calls for comment.
Ethics opinions are confidential by law, although the county charter allows them to be published if names are redacted. Conway said he had requested redacted records, but the commission turned him down.
Zwirn said in an interview after the vote that County Attorney Christine Malafi had contacted District Attorney Thomas Spota about the commission getting waivers from people who are cited in records as a way of avoiding prosecution of the commission for violating confidentiality strictures. Spota could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Lindsay formed the committee after Newsday reported that Levy had been filing a state disclosure form in place of the county form, which seeks more detailed financial information. Levy has since filed the county forms, but the ethics commission has redacted some personal financial information such as specific dollar amounts.
Leventhal did not appear at yesterday's meeting. Last week, Suffolk County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki stopped paying his bills and demanded repayment of about $5,000.
CORRECTION (Oct. 13, 2010): The Suffolk County Ethics Commission redacted personal financial information such as specific dollar amounts from county disclosure forms filed by County Executive Steve Levy. The action was incorrectly attributed to Levy in an earlier version of the story.