Not since the days of the Southwest Sewer District scandal have we seen such mudslinging in Suffolk County.
It started with — oh, heck, at this point it’s getting harder to decide who threw the first muck. But, like a black hole of politics, it’s pulled in a lot of Suffolk officials.
Last week, County Executive Steve Bellone took aim at District Attorney Thomas Spota — for, Bellone said, recommending to him a clunker in the form of James Burke, the former chief of police now awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to beating a suspect in 2012 and attempting to cover it up.
This week, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco jumped in with a demand that Spota resign. “Throughout his tenure,” DeMarco opined in a Newsday piece, “Spota has tried to conceal information, protect his friends and exert power over other elected and government officials, giving his administration a reputation as a nest of political corruption.”
Spota then shot (back at) the sheriff, slamming his suggestion of a crooked DA’s office as being “a despicable lie.”
“If the Sheriff believes I should take responsibility for Burke’s crimes, why shouldn’t DeMarco bear responsibility for the crimes of Edward Walsh?” the district attorney, via a statement, asked — referring to Walsh, the county’s Conservative Party leader and recently retired sheriff’s lieutenant who also is awaiting sentencing on a federal corruption-related conviction.
“What is the difference? None,” Spota’s statement added.
DeMarco went to federal authorities in 2014 after, he alleges, Spota foiled the sheriff’s attempts to investigate Walsh — DeMarco’s professional subordinate and political boss — who was convicted in March of wire fraud and theft of government funds.
In this year’s State of the County address, Bellone detoured from prepared remarks — with Spota sitting on the front row — to say, “I want to be clear, anyone in the government, in the system, who abuses power I will fight. I will fight for reform . . . and I will work with anyone.”
Which led Richard Schaffer, Suffolk’s Democratic leader, later to call Bellone a coward. “If you’re putting people on notice, I would think you’d be brave enough to name them or the groups specifically,” Schaffer told Newsday in an interview.
On Tuesday, three Republican lawmakers joined in the fracas, calling for both Bellone and Spota to step aside. They went after Schaffer, too, saying that the political leader and Babylon town supervisor should give up one of the posts.
Lawmakers, the district attorney, a political leader and the county sheriff, all slinging mud about goings-on in Suffolk’s police department, district attorney’s office, sheriff’s department and county executive’s office.
The last time Suffolk was so roiled was during the Southwest Sewer District scandal, which began in the late 1960s and went on for 10 years. “It had all the standard ingredients: greedy contractors, corrupt politicians, massive cost overruns and even the predawn murder of a key official who was eager to tell prosecutors everything he knew,” according to Newsday’s history of Long Island.
The political fallout fractured Suffolk’s Republican Party, leaving wounds that linger to this day. But the scandal also created a strong, independent legislature — which, unlike today, acted rather than debated what action to take on corruption.
Federal prosecutors have yet to wrap up their investigation into allegations of corruption on Long Island. And yet everyone’s already trying to find someone else to blame.
Fifty years ago, in Suffolk, there was a powerful stench of corruption.
This time around?
Well, maybe it’s about the same thing.