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Amid drama, Paul Tonna takes over as Suffolk IDA chief

Paul J. Tonna, of Huntington, a former legislative

Paul J. Tonna, of Huntington, a former legislative chief in Suffolk County, was elected unanimously by the county's Industrial Development Agency to be its chairman. Credit: Newsday, 2008 / Thomas A. Ferrara

It was a classic Paul Tonna moment.

A motion had been made in the Suffolk County Legislature to table the appointment of Tonna, the former legislative presiding officer, to the county Industrial Development Agency board. Tonna threatened to withdraw from consideration. "Tabling the bill would be an absolute insult," he said.

Tonna's unexpected move Tuesday surprised Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who wanted to put off a vote because several unions had raised concerns over Tonna's work as a consultant for Jerry Wolkoff, a developer of the $4 billion Heartland project. Wolkoff has balked at making the project a union job.

Anker asked Tonna to reconsider, remarking that his petulant reaction was, "something my 16-year-old son would say when he gets angry," she recalled.

Tonna said a delay would set a "very bad precedent," giving any special interest -- even unions that he supports -- the upper hand in appointments. But reacting to Anker's jibe, Tonna, 54, was more disarming: "My wife has said I've acted like a 16-year-old for the last 25 years."

The tabling motion failed, Tonna's appointment was approved and two days later the Huntington businessman was made IDA chairman within six minutes of joining the board.

"It was a bold move on Paul's part," said Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "But that's Paul. He put the issue on the line."

Tonna's appointment offers the IDA board -- which gives businesses low-cost financing and tax breaks -- a high-powered salesman with a wide network of business and labor contacts across Long Island.

"Politics on Long Island is a contact sport, and Paul Tonna knows how to play the game," business lobbyist Desmond Ryan said. "And it gives [County Executive] Steve Bellone the consummate political professional he needs to get things going and moving ahead."

But Tonna's appointment also comes as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is trying to rein in IDAs, and Bellone has taken fire for installing politically connected people to IDA jobs. Some also have questioned Bellone's aggressive push for a new Suffolk IDA policy to cut property taxes for businesses -- not just taxes on expansion projects -- that could hurt school budgets.

"IDAs are the poster child for crony capitalism directing scarce public resources to wealthy politically connected people at the expense of the little guy," said Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive.

Others say Bellone, a Democrat, sees a political advantage in bringing on Tonna, a Republican, because his connections could mean campaign contributions.

"Every county executive wants friends who have big bucks," said former county lawmaker Michael O'Donohoe, the Conservative Suffolk commissioner of jurors. "And Paul certainly has connections -- he's rubbed shoulders for years on the golf links with unions and big money guys."

Tonna said Bellone talked to him about the unpaid IDA post after he alerted the administration that Broadridge Financial Solutions, with 1,500 employees in Brentwood who process investor reports for businesses, was being wooed last spring by Virginia's governor to relocate.

Tonna says IDAs can serve as an engine to create well-paid jobs, give union members work and thwart those trying to lure business away. "I see myself as a person who can make connections," Tonna said. "I have a lot of contacts and want to use them."

He called Wolkoff a nonissue because the Islip IDA is handling the Heartland project and he no longer advises the developer on labor issues, only intergovernmental relations. He also said he would recuse himself on any deal where there is even a perceived conflict of interest.

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