Sources: Suffolk IDA chief Paul Tonna to step down

Paul J. Tonna, of Huntington, a former legislative

Paul J. Tonna, of Huntington, a former legislative chief in Suffolk County, was elected unanimously by the county's Industrial Development Agency to be its chairman. (Credit: Newsday, 2008 / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Paul Tonna may set the record this week for the shortest tenure of any chairman ever elected to head Suffolk's Industrial Development Agency.

After attending only half a dozen IDA meetings since starting in February, the Suffolk Legislature's former presiding officer expects to decide by Thursday whether to step down as the unpaid chairman of the agency that awards tax abatements to keep and expand local businesses. Knowledgeable sources say Tonna already has decided to go.

Tonna, a Huntington business consultant with wide-ranging connections, first raised the idea of leaving at the June 29 meeting, noting that he had recused himself from voting a half-dozen times because of the possible appearance of conflicts of interest.

"I feel like I'm not doing my job as chairman because I've had to recuse myself on 50 percent of the votes we've taken," he told board members.

What made Tonna's appointment to the board highly unusual in the first place was that County Executive Steve Bellone had pushed the county legislature, which names IDA members, to install him. Bellone also lobbied to make Tonna board chairman, saying his connections could spark new economic development efforts.

Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) questioned why the recusal issue is surfacing now. Unions, for instance, cited Tonna's potential conflict as a consultant to Jerry Wolkoff, developer of the proposed Heartland Town Square in Brentwood, when they tried to block Tonna's confirmation to the IDA. "Why was this not something apparent to everyone before his name was put forward by the Bellone administration?" Kennedy asked.

Tonna raised the recusal issue only after a confidential memo of his to village officials surfaced in May. Tonna panned Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's then-pending LIPA takeover deal as "all BS" and took a swipe at Cuomo's father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

"I honestly believe he is just another governor, along with his father and [former Gov. George] Pataki, politically motivated to provide a short term 'fix' that will ultimately result in even higher rates," Tonna wrote. "I guess what I am saying is I DON'T TRUST THE MAN, THE PROPOSAL AND THE PROMISED RESULTS."

Tonna said neither Bellone, Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer nor any state official ever raised the memo with him, and that it has nothing to do with his decision about the IDA. But several county sources say Cuomo administration officials made no secret of their displeasure. "Why did he have to be so very personal?" asked one county source who asked not to be identified.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said: "This is a local issue and we have no knowledge of it."

Suffolk officials are still waiting for Cuomo to sign a crucial bill allowing the sale-leaseback of the H. Lee Dennison Building to provide a $70 million cash infusion, already budgeted for this year.

Desmond Ryan, a veteran Republican business lobbyist, called it understandable that Tonna may be considering leaving the IDA. "He has a lot of business interests since leaving office which have only expanded," Ryan said. "He may be at a crossroads and didn't want even an inkling of a conflict of interest."

If Tonna goes, one question is whether Bellone will try to influence the next IDA choice -- and how lawmakers will react, given the upcoming race for a new presiding officer, in which contenders may need to show independence from the executive.

Kennedy said lawmakers should not "forfeit their right" to name a successor and will begin weighing potential replacements if Tonna resigns.

Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), a presiding officer hopeful, said he wouldn't see Bellone's involvement as a "power play. The legislature has the power to appoint, but everyone deserves fair consideration."

With James T. Madore

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