Editorial

Questions swirl around Levy deal with DA

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and District Attorney

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and District Attorney Thomas J. Spota. (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein, 2009)

The stunning deal that derailed Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's political career yesterday answers one question: Will Levy seek re-election? But it leaves others unanswered: What would Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota have been able to prove if a case had gone to trial? Why would Levy decline a shot at re-election, if evidence against him was weak? Can he govern or will the lingering questions force him to resign before his term ends on Dec. 31?

Disappointingly, Levy's statement gave almost no details, beyond a disingenuous wish "to tackle other challenges," an acknowledgment of questions about his fundraising and an acceptance of responsibility. "In order to resolve these questions I will be turning over my campaign funds to the Suffolk County District Attorney."

Spota's almost equally fact-free statement said that this ends what he called a 16-month investigation of Levy's campaign finances, that Levy "did not personally profit," but that "the investigation revealed serious issues with regard to fundraising." The irony is that Levy's downfall is the $4-million fund that made him a strong contender for the Republican nomination for governor last year and a formidable candidate for a third term as county executive in November.

Despite his history of supporting campaign finance reform, Levy was known for aggressive pursuit of contributions. A Newsday story last April showed that he had received more than $200,000 in contributions from law firms and title companies that have won more than $7 million in county business since 2006.

Earlier this year, Newsday reported that Levy had directed $85,000 in county title work to a firm including a friend -- Ethan Ellner, a Plainview lawyer now disbarred -- despite Ellner's shady history, including a tax evasion conviction. At the insurance fraud trial of former legislator George Guldi in January, Ellner admitted making campaign contributions to get county work. The judge kept the name of the recipient from being mentioned, but Newsday's reporting showed a paper trail strongly suggesting the official was Levy.

This episode has been a personal tragedy for Levy. He has spent almost his entire adult life in public office, but that career has taken a devastating blow. It also posed a problem for Spota, a Republican-turned-Democrat, investigating Levy, a Democrat-turned-Republican. Though he says his investigation started before Levy switched parties, Spota was likely concerned he might face the accusation that this was a politically motivated prosecution by a Democratic district attorney of a Republican executive.

Still, Spota's statement that he is allowing Levy to complete his term in office because of "the need for stability in government in these difficult economic times while affording a smooth transition after the 2011 elections," is too vague. County taxpayers, whose dollars might have been ill spent as a result of any pay-for-play arrangements, might wonder if this deal is really the best outcome for the public. That said, we are satisfied that this was not a political prosecution and that Spota acted in what he saw as the best interests of the county.

As to whether Levy can govern effectively, given the energy it will take to fend off the swirling unanswered questions, that's unclear. If he wants to keep governing until year's end, his best strategy is to answer those questions quickly and candidly.

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