Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
For the first time since his conviction in a political corruption probe in 2003, ex-Suffolk Legis. Fred Towle last week visited County Executive Steve Bellone's office. Towle's role was unofficial, as an adviser to the new leadership of Suffolk's biggest union, the 6,500-member Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees.
He and union executive vice president-elect Michael Finland met for nearly an hour with Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider and Paul Margiotta, Bellone's top labor aide.
Towle, 45, a Shirley Republican who first was elected to the legislature in 1995, resigned in 2003 and pleaded guilty to bribe-taking and misspending campaign funds. His visit to Bellone's office marked his biggest step yet in what has been a gradual, quiet return to the political arena. He has remained mostly out of the spotlight, except when Mastic Beach Village hired him as a $1,500-a-month public relations consultant in February.
Towle did not return several calls for comment.
SCAME president Cheryl Felice, who was defeated earlier this month by president-elect Dan Farrell and his slate, said she was "quite shocked" that Towle was involved in such a high-level meeting. But she said she was not surprised, saying she understood that he served as the Farrell slate's campaign manager.
Towle worked as an informal, unpaid campaign adviser, Farrell said, adding that he is considering hiring Towle as a paid consultant when he becomes president on July 1. Farrell touted Towle's "experience as a legislator, his knowledge of the process and his ability to open doors." Asked whether he had concerns about Towle's criminal past, Farrell said, "I don't have any. He paid his debt."
Towle in the 2003 probe was charged with 35 counts, including accepting a $10,000 cash bribe, accepting unlawful gratuities for his vote on a county land deal, and misspending campaign cash on gambling junkets, Mets and Islanders season tickets, limos and credit card bills.
Yet District Attorney Thomas Spota praised Towle at his 2006 sentencing for wearing a wire, which Spota described as "invaluable" in a dozen other corruption cases. Towle's 2- to 6-year sentence was cut to 6 months.
According to those who know him, Towle since his release has done campaign consulting, PR and run a permit-expediting business. He also has worked for many years as sales manager for the weekly South Shore Press in Shirley. The paper gets county legal ads as a result of a state law that allows the major political parties to recommend the newspapers that get ads. Over the past two years, the Press has gotten $280,000 worth of Suffolk ads.
Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle said Towle's "tremendous institutional knowledge" makes him a valuable consultant.
But LaValle said that in recent years, Towle also has cultivated Democrats including Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko and Rep. Tim Bishop -- angering some Republicans. Bishop said he has known Towle since he was a student at Southampton College, where Bishop once was an administrator. Bishop noted that Towle, like many community leaders, has brought local issues to his attention. Lesko did not return calls for comment.
Legis. Thomas Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), to whom Towle was a $500-a-month political consultant, said Towle was helpful as a county lawmaker when Muratore was a Suffolk Police Benevolent Association official. "We all make mistakes and he's paid for them," Muratore said. "Now he's trying to earn a living. I have no problem with what he's doing."
But John Cochrane, a former Suffolk GOP chairman, said officials with such past legal problems always face more scrutiny. "In the back of your mind, there's always a thought, 'Is he coming at you with a straight deck or playing an angle?' " Cochrane said. "It's something that never completely evaporates."