Call it the gunfight at the Conservative corral.
The battle between onetime allies, Suffolk's Conservative Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and county Conservative Party chairman Edward Walsh, who also works as one of DeMarco's corrections lieutenants, last week escalated when DeMarco literally moved to make it a federal case -- calling in the FBI.
"This has become a gunfight and there is only going to be one man left standing," said Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk chief deputy county executive and legislative counsel.
DeMarco already had moved to terminate Walsh. While DeMarco has declined to specify the reasons, Newsday has reported that Walsh had been under investigation for charging the county for hours he didn't work.
DeMarco's timing in turning the Walsh investigation over to the FBI also comes only six weeks before Walsh is up for re-election as Conservative leader at a party convention. Walsh last month told other leaders in a closed meeting that he plans to seek re-election. Petitions for competing slates of committee members in some election districts have been filed at the Suffolk Board of Elections.
DeMarco last month declined to continue as a Conservative Party committee member, which will allow him to avoid casting a vote on the leadership. "I'm not happy about what's happening with the leadership in [the] county," said DeMarco, adding that he will play no role in trying to make a change at the convention.
Huntington Conservative leader Frank Tinari, who is also Walsh's lawyer, and three other Conservative town leaders issued a statement last week saying they "fully support" Walsh's re-election.
"Suffolk County has the strongest Conservative Committee in New York State," they said, adding, "We would expect that Ed Walsh be accorded the same constitutional due process protections as any other citizen would enjoy."
Should an FBI probe go forward, it could taint the party and its candidates. The FBI has declined to comment about whether they will proceed with an inquiry.
"At this point, no one's talking, but it's the . . . elephant in the room," said Frank Profeta, Brookhaven Conservative co-leader. "We, as a party, need to have serious discussions about the direction we are heading."
Were Walsh to step down, the names of Tinari and Brookhaven co-leader Kenneth Auerbach have been mentioned as potential successors.
Others see little chance of Walsh stepping aside or losing at the convention.
Alluding to the "Wizard of Oz," Conservative Michael O'Donohoe, Suffolk commissioner of jurors, said, "Right now, there's no Dorothy in the audience to throw water [on Walsh]. And he who controls the gavel controls the convention. . . . The bylaws are written to make the leader like Teflon."
O'Donohoe should know. In 1990 he tried to unseat the late Suffolk Conservative chairman Pasquale Curcio. But Curcio brought in busloads of college students, and allies declared him winner by voice vote.
Some said that below the surface, Walsh's support is soft because many have been turned off by his hardball ways. "He should just turn around and walk away," said Dan Donnelly, a former Smithtown Conservative chairman.
If Walsh survives, DeMarco's electoral future could hinge on a federal probe.
Some say DeMarco's chances for Conservative renomination in 2016 could be nil. DeMarco could run a party primary, but taking on Walsh, known for his skill at grassroots politicking, would be difficult.
Switching parties could also be a problem. Republicans desperately need the Conservative ballot line to make themselves competitive in a wide variety of races, and might balk at bringing DeMarco into the fold. Were DeMarco to join the Democrats, his position against abortion might make him susceptible to a primary.
DeMarco said he is not worried about repercussions so far down the road. "I'm doing what I think is right, and right makes might," he said.