Suffolk lawmakers say they're eager to act on a grand jury's recommendations to stiffen penalties for officials who exploit the county ethics commission for their own benefit, but they'll need state help -- and some patience -- in the process.
A special grand jury report, issued Thursday by District Attorney Thomas Spota, said former County Executive Steve Levy long used the ethics commission as a "political sword" on his enemies. It recommended 21 reforms, notably that the legislature make the detailed behavior punishable as a felony.
Local lawmakers, however, don't control penal law. That falls to the state, and in the coming days legislators from both parties plan on lobbying State Senate and Assembly members to provide more teeth to county ethics rules.
Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who was targeted by Levy with an ethics complaint, said he was preparing a letter to Albany's Long Island delegation as he drafts a local law to handle the other report recommendations -- such as setting better procedural guidelines for the process -- that the county can control. Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) said he also would introduce legislation shortly.
Support for reforms
Newsday contacted all 18 county legislators for their comments on the report's recommendations; nearly all who had reviewed them said they largely supported their adoption. Many noted that some of the recommendations, such as revamping the board to add more members, have already been done.
"We don't want to overstep our jurisdictional bounds, but we want to ensure there's not an atmosphere for this kind of behavior to repeat itself," said County Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Brentwood). "We obviously have to penalize this."
The creation of any new felonies must go through the State Assembly codes committee. A spokeswoman for its chairman, Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), said the Suffolk grand jury report is under careful review, and that despite calls for swift, precise action, the issue would be considered "across the board."
"We don't want to only do it for Suffolk County, if we do it," said the spokeswoman, Amy Cleary. "We don't want Suffolk County to have these amazingly strict ethics procedures, whereas Putnam County or Kings County, for example, or whatever other county you want to mention, doesn't."
The grand jury report, the culmination of a two-year probe, said the actions of Levy, his administration and the commission "completely destroyed the ethics infrastructure" in Suffolk. It cited, among many instances over a several-year period, a commissioner's promise to divulge confidential business to Levy, the commission director's improper collection of benefits and Levy pressuring an aide to file ethics complaints against enemies.In a four-page rebuttal, Levy said the report was based largely on testimony from his "political detractors," and said the complaints he filed simply sought to expose conduct detrimental to taxpayers.
"Legislators, I'm sure as we speak, are putting in bills on these recommendations, but that's to save face," said Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip), the lone lawmaker to publicly defend Levy. "The grand jury was directed to do something, but couldn't. No crimes were committed here."
Experts warn of risks
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said he supported the report's recommendations and looked forward to implementing the ones under his control.
Last October, lawmakers abolished the existing three-member ethics commission and replaced it with a five-member ethics board; three members have been named so far. Before that, Montano sponsored a law that removed the county attorney's office from representing the ethics commission.
Besides those measures -- and the suggested penalty enhancements -- the grand jury said ethics appointments should be made on merit, not political favor, meetings should be held more than monthly, and that complaints shouldn't be prepared by appointees on an applicant's behalf.
But experts warn no matter what reforms are brought, such bodies, made up of political appointees, remain at risk of taint.
"The No. 1 most important thing is to have the ethics commission not selected by anyone under the jurisdiction that could potentially be investigated by the group," said Robert Wechsler, research director for City Ethics, a government ethics nonprofit group.
He suggested having nonpartisan community groups, such as a local bar association, select members. Another expert said that any measure is only as good as the officials who are supposed to abide by them.
"At the end of the day it really does come down to the quality of the people," said Karl Sleight, a former prosecutor and director of the now-disbanded New York State Ethics Commission. "If it was all about tougher laws, you would pass a murder statute and nobody would get killed."
'Held to a higher level'
Despite misgivings of ethics experts, the majority leader of Suffolk's legislature wants the state to act on the grand jury's recommendations for felony penalties against those officials who use the ethics process for their political gain.
"I think the ethics commission is to be held to a higher level of integrity and trust, and when that has been violated there should be repercussions," said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), adding that stricter consequences could deter questionable actors from assuming positions of responsibility in the first place.
Romaine -- who said he hopes his local law proposal can be introduced as soon as this week -- foresees little controversy in the legislature's ultimate support of stricter ethics measures.
"I will work closely with our presiding officer and both sides of the aisle," he said. "This goes to the heart of democratic government. We can have our partisan battles, but the body as whole wants government to operate ethically."
With Randi Marshall and Ted Phillips