Special counsel chosen for Suffolk ethics probe

Attorney Joseph Conway testifies Tuesday before the Suffolk Attorney Joseph Conway testifies Tuesday before the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was later approved as special counsel to investigate the actions of the county's Ethics Commission. (Aug. 17, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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The Suffolk County Legislature voted Tuesday to hire a former federal prosecutor as special counsel to oversee its investigation of how the county's Ethics Commission determined that County Executive Steve Levy could file a state rather than a county financial disclosure form.

The legislature voted 13-5 to pick former federal prosecutor Joseph Conway, a Queens resident who has a law practice in Mineola. Aides to Levy sharply criticized the vote. "The hiring of an attorney is not only wasteful and unnecessary, it is a slap at the integrity of Ethics Commission members without a scintilla of evidence that they have been anything but honorable," said Levy spokesman Dan Aug.

Two legislators said the vote was preceded by what they characterized as intense lobbying from Levy against naming a special counsel. Before the vote, Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) alleged that Levy had threatened to reveal information from the legislator's own disclosure form if he voted for the counsel measure.

The presiding officer, Legis. William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), said he had referred unspecified lobbying efforts against the special counsel vote to the district attorney's office. It could not be learned last night what, if anything, the district attorney's office is doing with Lindsay's allegations.

Aides to Levy said the county executive had done nothing improper in his lobbying. Edward Dumas, a chief deputy county executive, said Levy had called Cooper to lobby against the vote. "There were no threats issued to Legislator Cooper or any other legislator. The county executive communicated that, if the legislature intended to have a fair and evenhanded review, it should include the financial disclosure forms of all the legislators."

Some legislators said they had been caught by surprise when Lindsay revealed shortly after 3 p.m. that a special committee of the legislature looking into the Ethics Commission wanted to hire Conway. "That's investigation by ambush," said Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), one of the five who voted against hiring a special counsel. He added, "I just don't see the need to rush into this special counsel investigation." Earlier this month, Lindsay said the committee had chosen attorney Anton Borovina for the position.

Legislators questioned Conway, who was present at the meeting, about how he intended to proceed. "To me, I look at this as another investigation," he said.

Lindsay formed the special committee last month after Newsday stories about Levy's filing of a state disclosure form instead of the more extensive county form that some 650 county employees file annually. The Ethics Commission said Levy could file the state form in place of the county form.

The vote came shortly before 6 p.m. Before the vote, Cooper described what he alleged were threats made by Levy in a telephone conversation Sunday night. "The county executive has personally issued threats against me and has told me he has information to use against all of my legislative colleagues, as well as the county comptroller, and the county treasurer for that matter," Cooper said.

Cooper said Levy charged that he had failed to reveal on his financial disclosure that his then-domestic partner, and now husband, had served in an unpaid position on the board of the nonprofit Family Service League, which receives county funding. Cooper's husband has since left the position.

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