Steve Levy response to grand jury ethics report

A file photo of former Suffolk County Executive

A file photo of former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy at a news conference in Hauppauge. (Aug. 16, 2011) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy issued the following response to the grand jury report on the Suffolk County ethics commission:

I sought an ethics opinion when a legislator introduced legislation to hamper the closing of the nursing home while his wife worked there, and another over a former deputy who contracted with the union to sue the county. This is not an abuse of the ethics commission, it's the very reason you have one.

The report was based in large part on testimony from political detractors of the county executive.

I did not tell any ethics commission member how to vote on a matter. Nor did I ask any intermediary to tell any board member how to vote.

The grand jury incorrectly concludes that my bringing of a request for an opinion regarding my former Chief Deputy Paul Sabatino and County Legislator Ed Romaine were politically motivated and improperly used the commission. To the contrary, a request for an opinion in these two circumstances was the proper course of action to take in order to halt what my office perceived to be conduct detrimental to the taxpayer.

Legis. Ed Romaine introduced legislation to hamper the county's ability to sell or close the county nursing home while his wife was employed there. We perceived this to be a gross conflict of interest and sought an ethics ruling only after Mr. Romaine rejected repeated requests, both verbal and in writing, to cease this conflicted behavior.

Just months after leaving his position as chief deputy county executive, Paul Sabatino was hired by the county's largest union to help them in their battles against county management. For instance, he was one of a few who knew how much was reserved for union salary increases. Sabatino even worked on the lawsuit on behalf of county employees suing Suffolk County after having overseen much of the nursing home issue as chief deputy county executive. Sabatino was armed with confidential inside information that, if disclosed, would hurt the taxpayers' interest. Seeking redress to stop this activity was not an abuse of the system, but was the very reason the commission was established.

The grand jury heard testimony from Sabatino and his attorney, Anton Boravina, both of whom had a clear motive to discredit the ethics commission through their testimony.

The ethics commission, which normally may take a few weeks or possibly months to render an opinion, was taking years. While members of the administration expressed frustration over this long delay on the cases of both Sabatino and Romaine, there was never an attempt to tell or pressure commissioners how to opine on these matters.

The ultimate irony is, were there such control over the ethics commission, as implied by this report, the administration would have received favorable rulings within a very short turnaround. This did not happen.

The report implies that an ethics official who had done business with my wife's company had voted on the opinion, which concluded that no conflict would exist were she to enter into a contractual relationship with a third party that might coincidentally have a contract with the county. This official was not yet on the board when that decision was rendered. What was not mentioned in the report was that a majority of the board that rendered this decision were appointed not by me, but by my predecessor.

It must be stated emphatically that my wife's company never received a county contract, and was actually barred from doing so by the policy that my administration put in place.

At no point did I ever minimize my marital status regarding my wife.

It is possible that the individual making such a claim was confused over the fact that my wife and I were once legally separated. In fact my wife appeared before that commission to make herself available for any questions the commission deemed proper.

The grand jury concluded that Judge Lama was not entitled to health benefits. The county's director of labor relations concluded that the county was required to pays these benefits based upon the hours worked by Judge Lama. It had been inaccurately reported in the media that Lama received a full-time salary for part-time work. While approximately $80,000 was budgeted for this position, only approximately $40,000 was paid to Judge Lama for his hours worked.

It was stated that Lama was given an advantage with his time sheets and that it was "directly attributable to the executive branch of government." I had no dealings with Judge Lama's time sheets over this time. In fact it was the ethics commission, with no involvement of my office, that granted him the authority to work less than full-time.

The grand jury also inaccurately claimed that Judge Lama allowed me to file a state form, instead of a county form. As noted by the pre-eminent ethics scholar in the state, Mark Davies, director of the New York City Ethics Board and drafter of the New York State ethics law, neither Judge Lama nor any ethics board member had any discretion over this matter. They were mandated by state law to accept the more extensive state form in lieu of the county form. Davies disputes the conclusion by the grand jury that the county form is more extensive. The county form asks so fewer questions that Davies considered it noncompliant with state law. Indeed, this is what prompted the county legislature to have to amend the county form this past year.

The report contains contradictions and at one point concludes that Judge Lama's remuneration was dictated by the executive branch, and then says "there is no evidence of a connection between the two." It also says that Lama acted beyond his authority by authorizing the filing of a New York State disclosure form. This is not only factually and legally incorrect, but contradicts an earlier concession by the grand jury that, at the very least, the question of which filing was pre-eminent was a matter of legal debate.

The report also inaccurately applied the County of Suffolk vs. Neppell case, which involved a situation where Mr. Neppell did not file any financial disclosure form. In this case, I always filed a financial disclosure form.

Much was made over my wife getting clearance to serve on the board of a not-for-profit agency that received passthrough funds from the state. What was not mentioned was that she received no business from this entity, nor any compensation. She has given thousands of dollars in charitable donations and is loved by disability advocates across Long Island for her volunteerism.

Much is also made over the allegation that freedom of information requests were made of various officials by the executive branch. There is nothing illegal or improper by members of the legislature, the media, or even the executive branch seeking information that is public by nature. Nor is there anything improper were a third party to obtain this public information and share it with a branch of government.

When legislators were considering doing an investigation of the ethics board regarding the financial disclosure issue, my office indeed sought to show legislators that we were correct on the law. We also believed that there were potential conflicts by some legislators voting on matters regarding the ethics commission while there were simultaneously pending claims against them within that body.

 

Response from the office of District Attorney Thomas Spota:

The special grand jury's thorough findings were based upon the sworn testimony of 25 witnesses and thousands of pages of evidence which corroborated their testimony. It was the Special Grand Jury's role to assess the credibility of witnesses that did testify and a judge's responsibility to make sure their conclusions were supported by the evidence. After this independent judicial review, the judge authorized the report for filing as a public record. We stand by the Grand Jury's report.

Thomas J. Spota, Suffolk County district attorney

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