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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

A September surprise in State Senate race

Democratic Legislator Dave Denenberg as he announces run

Democratic Legislator Dave Denenberg as he announces run for the State Senate Thursday March 6, 2014 at the American Legion Post in Seaford. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Just like that, the candidacy of Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) sped straight into a brick wall, destroying what many saw as a strong prospect for his party this fall to pick up a Long Island state Senate seat.

Talk about a September surprise. The well-known law firm that employed Denenberg from 2006 until June -- when everyone involved was strictly silent about Denenberg's abrupt departure -- accused him in court six weeks before Election Day of major ripoffs and fakery.

Hours later, Denenberg announced his withdrawal.

The timing has impact. During the spring, Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was prodded into agreeing for the first time to help unite and support his party in its drive to win back the Senate -- though he's had famously cordial relations with Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

Having Denenberg out of the way doesn't get Skelos & Co. out of the woods. Several competitive battles are under way for districts around the state. But in Nassau, Skelos' home turf, Denenberg's implosion can free up available GOP resources to defend Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) against Democratic challenger Adam Haber or Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) against Ethan Irwin, strategists say.

While it was only the first public step in a lawsuit, the complaint was cast in language tailor-made for a political attack ad. Denenberg's denials Tuesday and vow to explain his side to the U.S. attorney's office effectively acknowledged he could not control damage to his candidacy.

The complaint by Davidoff Hutcher & Citron calls its former member "an arch and devious criminal" who billed one client $2 million for fictitious services, with his misconduct "made all the more egregious because he is, and has been, an elected public official . . . Even more galling, he is presently running for a seat in the New York State Senate . . ."

"In this campaign, Denenberg's slogan is 'Nobody Works Harder,' " -- which the complaint mocks as "only true if one credits him with working hard to abuse the trust and faith of his co-workers and clients, who would have been far better off having never met Denenberg."

The firm is long known for bipartisan connections. Founder Sid Davidoff, a well-known lobbyist, has long had Democratic ties. For many years, partner Robert Malito was known for local Republican connections. He's now with the firm Gerstman, Schwartz and Malito, but his son, Steve Malito, is with the Davidoff firm, as are former GOP North Hempstead Supervisor John Kiernan and Long Beach Democratic chairman Michael Zapson.

The questions of how the Denenberg accusations came to be revealed now -- and how he could not know they were coming -- drew buzz in political circles.

In the complaint, the firm said once his alleged misconduct was discovered, it "consulted a well-respected ethicist" who advised the firm not to disclose it unless directed by the affected client (Systemax Inc.). "Upon learning that the client determined the matter should be disclosed," the complaint says, the firm "commenced this action and brought the matter to the attention of the relevant authorities."

In his announcement, Denenberg said: "While these charges are extremely serious, the timing, politically, should raise many questions." But he didn't say what those questions may be.

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