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Nassau looks to find new ethics counsel

Steven G. Leventhal during an annual ethics board

Steven G. Leventhal during an annual ethics board meeting on March 18, 2015, at Huntington Town Hall. Credit: David Wexler

Nassau’s Board of Ethics will seek proposals for a new lawyer after the county’s inspector general discovered the board’s longtime counsel did not disclose that he had been sanctioned for “frivolous, obstructionist behavior” in a 2017 court case, county officials said.

But it is unclear whether Roslyn attorney Steven Leventhal, who has served as Nassau’s ethics board counsel for a decade, was required to report the sanction on the county’s vendor disclosure form because of the way the question about sanctions is written.

Leventhal, who also has counseled nine other municipalities’ ethics boards, says he did nothing wrong. In an email, he said he was unable to comment “except to say that I was fully ethical in meeting my obligations to the County.”

Leventhal’s contract with the ethics board started in 2010 under the administration of County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican. It was extended periodically until it expired at the end of January 2018. Leventhal has continued to work as a holdover since then.

Court records show state Supreme Court Justice James McCormack sanctioned Leventhal on March 27, 2017, and ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine to the Lawyers Fund for Client Protection in a long-running dispute between Muttontown Acres, Inc. and the Village of Muttontown over a 107-acre plot. Leventhal was then Muttontown Village attorney.

Although McCormack agreed that Leventhal’s conduct during the discovery process was frivolous, inappropriate and caused delays, McCormack did not report it to the state’s Attorney Grievance Committee, which disciplines lawyers. The grievance committee can take action that could affect a lawyer’s law license.

Nassau’s disclosure form only asks if any sanction affected the vendor’s professional license.

When Leventhal’s ethics board contract was extended by the county legislature in September 2017, he checked “No,” to the following question: “In the past 5 years, have you or this business, or any other affiliated business … had any sanction imposed as a result of judicial or administrative proceedings with respect to any professional license held?”

Inspector General Jodi Francese declined to comment, saying in an email, “It is the policy of the Office of the Inspector General not to comment on matters that may, or may not, be pending.”

Asked about Leventhal’s contract, Christine Geed, a spokeswoman for Democratic County Executive Laura Curran, said in an email, “Based on concerns by the Inspector General’s office, Nassau County is following procedures outlined in its procurement manual. The next step in the procedure is to request an explanation from the vendor. It is our expectation that the vendor will respond and submit his information to us.”

Geed said the ethics board “is in the process of soliciting a new RFP for an Ethics Counselor. A specific date for the start or conclusion of that RFP is not immediately available.”

Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), presiding officer of the county legislature, said in a statement, “It is apparent that the county’s disclosure process and forms need to be revised and tightened so that our contracting is as transparent as possible. We will be passing legislation on August 5, 2019 that addresses a loophole with respect to updating disclosure forms.”

Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Roosevelt) has called for Leventhal’s replacement since 2013, citing “ineffective leadership” in news releases and letters to county officials. Legislative Democrats voted against Leventhal’s contract extension in 2017.

“Ethics counsel must always err on the side of transparency,” said William Biamonte, chief of staff for the legislature’s Democrats. “While Mr. Leventhal clearly had a responsibility to disclose the fact that he had been sanctioned by the court, he failed to do so. Instead, the Inspector General flagged his nondisclosure. We support the decision to rebid this contract and believe that Mr. Leventhal must be excluded from consideration.”

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