Bellone's IDA pick spurs cronyism charges

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gives his first

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gives his first State of the County address in Hauppauge. (April 18, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

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For more than a decade, Anthony Manetta has been well-known locally as a political fundraiser and consultant. But in the past two weeks, his name surfaced in a new arena -- as potential chief executive of Suffolk's Industrial Development Agency.

County Executive Steve Bellone wants to install Manetta as head of an agency that provides low-cost bonding, tax breaks and incentives to encourage businesses to expand or stay in Suffolk. The job pays up to $130,000 a year.

The only problem is that, officially, it's not Bellone's job to give. The task belongs to a seven-member board appointed by the county legislature.

After intense behind-the-scenes lobbying, Bellone and his aides were able to get longtime agency chief executive Bruce Ferguson to resign as of August. But the board so far has balked at naming Manetta, despite an hourlong interview with him, and is waiting until June 7 to see whether other contenders step forward.

Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said "the key thing about the IDA is its independence from the executive branch . . . and its independence from political influence." He expressed concern about the possibility of "undue political influence being brought to bear on members."

Bellone said he had no problems with the IDA board doing "its due diligence." But he also made clear that he wants Manetta. "He will bring a lot of private-sector experience and real energy to the job," Bellone said.

Manetta has worked for political clients including Suffolk Sheriff Vincent Demarco, Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro when she ran briefly for U.S. Senate in 2005, and Wall Street investor Harry Wilson in a close but unsuccessful race in 2010 against Democratic state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Election filings show that his firm, Roosevelt Strategy Group, has made nearly $550,000 since opening in 2001, though Manetta said the sum included money that paid for TV ads, mailings and other expenses.

A man for nearly all political seasons, Manetta started as a Republican, became a Conservative Party member and now belongs to the Independence Party.

He said that while political clients make up 60 percent of his business, his firm has done marketing and government relations work for companies such as Fairfield Properties, the region's largest apartment landlord. Manetta's resume also lists a 13-month stint as a vice president for MAEVA Advisors, described as a "boutique advisory firm focused on corporate turnarounds and renewal." MAEVA is owned by Wilson, who until January was considering a run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat.

Some see the IDA post as a potential reward to Suffolk and state Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay for backing Bellone last year. But MacKay said he had no role, though he touted Manetta, who has an MBA degree, as "well-qualified."

"It sounds like crony capitalism on steroids," said Paul Sabatino, who was chief deputy county executive under Steve Levy. "If you're serious about economic development, you bring in people with a track record of experience, not someone with a political background."

Bellone, who raised more than $5 million last year for his county executive bid, said Manetta will play no fundraising role in his new post, and that Manetta promises he will give up his business.

In Babylon, where Bellone was supervisor, the town has an IDA whose chief is Robert Stricoff, the Babylon Democratic Party leader and a Bellone fundraiser. Stricoff said he has never solicited "potential [IDA] clients or those who just closed deals." He said some firms later made donations, but he did not seek them out.

Stricoff predicted success for Manetta. "This job is about public relations and marketing . . . and shouting out how great Suffolk County is," said Stricoff. "We also need someone who understands the small 'p' -- the political landscape of this county without having to train someone. He's a perfect choice."