Regina Calcaterra says her work on corporate pension fraud cases was the perfect training for her new role as Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's chief deputy, given the county's yawning budget deficit.
"In cases like WorldCom, we spent time looking at the financial statements to find where there were lies and how it affected investors," said Calcaterra, whose law firm represented the state pension fund in its successful bid to recoup $6 billion from the company.
After a blue-ribbon panel unveils its assessment of Suffolk's budget shortfall on Tuesday, Calcaterra's key role will be to help Bellone dig out of a fiscal hole. "That's my skill set," she said.
Calcaterra, 45, is Bellone's key point person for shaping a new administration and figuring out how to find new resources or shrink county government, where 600 jobs are only funded for half the year.
Bellone describes Calcaterra as an "absolute dynamo" who "blasts me with emails" from the office while he is still home getting his daughters dressed. He also has come to appreciate Calcaterra's network of statewide contacts from her years as a lobbyist in the public and private sectors.
"When we go to Albany, more people stop her than stop me," said Bellone. "And those contacts are going to be incredibly valuable as we struggle through this crisis."
Those who work with Calcaterra say she's extraordinarily organized, often putting in 18-hour work days and working weekends.
Calcaterra presides daily at early morning meetings with top Bellone aides, equipped with a pre-printed, color-coded agenda.
Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) called Calcaterra a "quick study." But given her newness to county government, she's likely to have to devote time to learning "the culture of the job, who's valuable and who's not and who's worth listening to," Romaine said.
Calcaterra said she's still on a "learning curve," but said she and Bellone, former Babylon supervisor, can rely on long-term aides such as fiscal deputy Fred Pollert to avoid minefields.One of five children, Calcaterra lived in shelters and foster homes in Suffolk as a child. Calcaterra said her mother abused drugs and alcohol; at age 14, Calcaterra petitioned Family Court for emancipation so she could stay in one school, she said. After graduating from Centereach High School in 1984, she got an undergraduate degree from SUNY New Paltz. At 25, she enrolled at night at Seton Hall University Law School and graduated four years later.
Calcaterra worked as an Albany lobbyist for former New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and as deputy general counsel to the New York City pension system. She was a partner in a city consulting firm before becoming managing partner of the New York office of Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, where she worked on the WorldCom case and others. WorldCom was sued for fraudulently inflating earnings and hiding risks that injured investors including the state pension fund.
While many admire her skills and work ethic, some who have worked with Calcaterra say privately that she can be harsh in dealing with people. She doesn't dispute the characterization.
"When I'm questioning officials to find out something, I treat it like a deposition," she said. "If I don't get the answer I want, I'll ask the question six or seven ways." She said she can be "curt and abrupt" because "I have very little tolerance for delay."
But Gregory Blass, social services commissioner, said he has no problem with Calcaterra's style, saying she also takes the time to understand issues. "She doesn't mince words," said Blass. "But she listens and absorbs."
Schaffer says he's heard some concerns, but notes that Calcaterra often is the bearer of bad news. "A lot of people just don't like to hear the answer 'no,' " he said.
Babylon town board member Tony Martinez, who was co-chair with Calcaterra of Bellone's county executive transition team, said her most important quality "is the way she sees the big picture. She's the kind of person who can take a 5,000-piece puzzle and develop a plan to make sure all the pieces fall in place."