Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Brookhaven Town Hall is buzzing with speculation about a comeback by ex-Suffolk GOP chairman John Powell, amid concerns that he is seeking to insert himself into patronage decisions in Suffolk's largest town.
Powell got attention last spring when he said that he could take back leadership of the county GOP "within 30 days" -- though he later said he was joking. Recently, he has been making the rounds at local GOP clubs. Powell talked about reviving the once townwide Heritage GOP club, which launched him in politics. Last month, the Brookhaven GOP for the first time since his downfall gave Powell an award at a fundraising breakfast.
Powell's political career ended more than a decade ago when he was convicted of federal corruption charges. He says he has no political ambitions.
"There are rumors all around the county about what John Powell is doing," said the former GOP boss. "But John Powell is doing nothing."
Powell is a former Brookhaven highway department worker who in 1988 was elected as a state assemblyman. After an accident the next year in which his young son was hit and killed by a postal truck, Powell returned to Brookhaven and became a town board member. He subsequently served as both town and county GOP leader.
Powell was sentenced in April 2000 to two years and three months in prison for bribe-taking and involvement in an illegal truck chop shop. He was released in June 2002.
Powell's activities have stirred enough concern that Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle and Brookhaven's Democratic Town Supervisor Mark Lesko took the unusual step last month of huddling over the issue at Ruby Tuesday's in Selden.
"Talk about John Powell's potential comeback and his attempts to exert influence over the town were the menu's specials of the day," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, one of several officials with knowledge of the meeting who were interviewed.
The participants were more circumspect. "It was a current supervisor meeting a former supervisor," said LaValle, who once headed the town. LaValle said their conversation dealt with "a nonelected individual indicating they control what occurs in the town."
Lesko, a former federal prosecutor, acknowledged the lunch but dismissed the notion that the former party boss could resurface in an official capacity. "I think my former office took care of that," he said.
Powell, 52, now in the paving business, said he has not tried to exert influence over town jobs, and only gives advice to office seekers who approach him for help. "If these guys spent less time about me and more time worrying about building the party, they might get more wins under their belt," he said.
LaValle countered, "Unfortunately, we have had several issues revolving around corruption and it's taken us almost 14 years" to recover.
Schaffer, also the Babylon Town supervisor, said he urged Lesko "not to get involved in another party's internal battles."