A behind-the-scenes battle between Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and his one-time mentor, Suffolk Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer, is dividing county Democrats as Bellone presses for the resignation of District Attorney Thomas Spota.
The seeds of the division were planted at a meeting in 2013, when Bellone presented a sweeping plan to change Suffolk County government to Schaffer and two other top Democrats, Babylon Democratic chairman Robert Stricoff and Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider, Schaffer said. Bellone included a list of 17 political figures and office holders whom he wanted removed from their positions to “change the culture” of the county, according to Schaffer.
“I’m more of a kumbaya person — let’s figure out how to make everything work, instead of fighting wars on 17 fronts at once,” Schaffer remembers saying at the meeting. “That’s where it started to unravel between me and him.”
Bellone declined repeated requests for an interview for this story. In a statement, he said federal investigations into Suffolk government and law enforcement “have now publicly highlighted what I have been confronting here for more than four years.”
He added: “Government reform is often not popular with political insiders and party leaders . . . While I would have always liked to have had the support from my political party leader on my reform efforts, it is my responsibility to move forward with those reforms.”
Several months after the meeting, Schaffer said, Bellone complained that Schaffer hadn’t worked hard enough to persuade Democratic county lawmakers to pick Bellone’s candidate for presiding officer of the county legislature, Legis. Lou D’Amaro of North Babylon. Instead, lawmakers picked Legis. DuWayne Gregory of Amityville — one of the officials Bellone wanted removed.
Schaffer said that weeks later, he learned of what he believes was a plot by Bellone and Stricoff to oust him as county party chairman.
That summer, Schaffer launched an audit of the Babylon Democratic Committee’s finances, which alleged Stricoff had received $125,000 in unauthorized raises and expenses. Stricoff found himself facing a criminal investigation by Spota for giving himself unauthorized raises and charging the party for unauthorized expenses.
Gregory said the feud has put Democrats in awkward positions.
“It has been difficult,” Gregory said. “The top two figures in the Democratic Party, who have a long personal relationship — it’s hard to see them going through what they’re going through.”
Schneider said Bellone’s initiatives were never aimed at individuals but at streamlining the government.
“He was looking at how you can structurally reform the government, make it more efficient,” Schneider said.
For the most part, the discord between Schaffer and Bellone has remained hidden from public view. They hugged at election-night celebrations in front of party faithful and issued public statements that they were working together.
But the dispute has bubbled over as Bellone has called for the resignation of Schaffer’s longtime ally Spota.
Christopher McPartland, Spota’s top corruption prosecutor, is the target of a federal grand jury probe, Newsday has reported.
Spota also said he has turned over boxes of documents and recordings of wiretaps to federal prosecutors under a subpoena related to the investigation of Robert Macedonio, a politically connected defense attorney.
On May 12, Bellone stood alone on the steps outside Spota’s office and called for him to step down, saying Spota was the head of a “criminal enterprise” that had used the prosecutor’s office to punish enemies and protect friends. Spota has denied any wrongdoing and said he won’t resign. Schaffer said he has advised Democratic lawmakers to let the federal investigation play out, and no other Democrat has joined Bellone’s call for Spota to resign.
Political experts said the split between Bellone and Schaffer began as a difference over pace and the extent county government should reform.
“Steve is the visionary with the bold ideas,” said longtime lobbyist Desmond Ryan. “Rich is a well-grounded individual with a keen awareness of what he can and cannot accomplish.”
Legis. William Lindsey III (D-Bohemia) said Bellone wants to make big changes to county government. “It’s a difference between trying to make government smaller and more efficient. In both parties, there’s so much resistance to change just because we’ve done it for so long a certain way.”
Schaffer, 52, who is also Babylon town supervisor, said he sees issues with county operations, such as the need to strengthen the board of ethics, and has tried to help Bellone achieve his goals.
“I think my record speaks for itself in that I have always been a supporter of the good-government initiatives any of the various officials have brought forward,” he said.
But Schaffer said he is pragmatic about what can be accomplished.
“I tried to carry out his agenda in the best way possible — the most politically feasible way possible,” Schaffer said. “I try to lay out a strategy, and lay out a plan to accomplish what you want to do.”
During his 4 1⁄2 years as county executive, Bellone, 46, pushed through consolidation of the elected treasurer’s and comptroller’s offices, reduced the size of the county workforce and created a “performance management team” tasked with making departments more efficient.
He has expressed frustration, though, with the political resistance to change.
“We have a government in Suffolk County where devotion to process is rewarded while innovation is discouraged,” Bellone said in his 2015 State of the County speech.
The split is particularly dramatic given Bellone’s and Schaffer’s shared history.
Schaffer moved to Marcy Street in West Babylon when he was 13 to live with his great aunt and uncle. Bellone, who is six years younger, lived across the street. Other kids from the block included Stricoff and Dennis Cohen, a former District Court judge who is Bellone’s chief deputy county executive.
Bellone’s political career began in 1995 at age 26, when Schaffer, in his first stint as Babylon Town supervisor, hired him as an aide in the public information office. Two years later, Schaffer tapped Bellone to run for town board. In 2001, he picked Bellone to run for Babylon supervisor.
In 2011, Schaffer helped clear a crowded Democratic field for Bellone to get the Democratic nomination for county executive. Bellone easily beat Republican Angie Carpenter. Incumbent Steve Levy did not seek re-election and surrendered his campaign war chest to Spota in a deal over his campaign fundraising.
In April 2013, Bellone called a meeting with Schaffer, Stricoff and Schneider at Panera Bread in North Babylon.
Schaffer said Bellone had a list on an iPad, entitled “Changing the Culture of Suffolk County.” It contained the names of 17 elected and political party officials or positions that Bellone said stood in the way of his plans to make Suffolk government more efficient.
According to Schaffer, Bellone wanted to merge the county treasurer’s office — then headed by Carpenter — with the county comptroller’s office.
Schaffer said Bellone wanted the county sheriff’s office, whose $154 million budget is the largest outside the county executive’s control, run by an appointed sheriff. Vincent DeMarco, a Conservative, has held the elected position since 2006.
Schaffer said Bellone’s list named both Carpenter and DeMarco. Bellone wanted Frank MacKay removed as Suffolk Independence Party chairman, Schaffer said, though they never discussed how.
Bellone also wanted to remove ranking Democratic county lawmakers DuWayne Gregory of Amityville and Wayne Horsley of Babylon from their legislative leadership posts, Schaffer said.
“It was what I interpreted to be a personal hit list,” he said.
Schaffer said he believed Bellone wanted to make the historically combative county government more like Babylon’s, where most town board votes are unanimous.
“It seemed to be a list of people he couldn’t get along with,” Schaffer said. “I think he was trying to create a Babylon situation, where government is supervisor-centric.”
Schaffer said that despite his reservations with the overall list, he tried to help Bellone with some of his goals.
Schaffer said he spoke to Carpenter about merging her office with the county comptroller’s. She agreed, but wanted to finish out her term in 2017 and secure a job for her deputy, who would need an extra year to qualify for his pension.
Bellone, who said the voter-approved consolidation would send a message that the public wanted to streamline county government, insisted the merger occur at the end of 2013, according to Schaffer and Schneider.
Also, Schaffer recommended Horsley for a job as regional director of Long Island state parks in June 2013. Horsley, who was next in line to become legislative presiding officer, got the job. Horsley said he had only heard rumors that Bellone wanted him out of leadership. He said he took the state job to fulfill his own goal of heading state parks, where he had worked years before.
Gregory said he believes a district attorney’s investigation into his residency in early 2014 was prompted by a Bellone associate and was part of an effort to remove him from his position. Gregory, who declined to disclose his source, said he has tried to work with Bellone.
“I don’t want my legacy to be DuWayne Gregory, who fought with Steve Bellone,” Gregory said. “I want to get stuff done.”
Bellone said in a statement: “Neither I or anyone associated with me had anything to do with a DA investigation into his residency.”
Carpenter, DeMarco and MacKay did not return calls for comment.
Schaffer said the big hurdle came when Bellone pressed his case for D’Amaro to become presiding officer.
Schaffer considered it an almost impossible task. D’Amaro had once attempted a coup against the late former presiding officer, Bill Lindsay, and was not popular with other lawmakers.
Shortly before Christmas 2013, Democratic county legislators picked Gregory.
Schaffer said Bellone accused him of not lobbying hard enough for D’Amaro. After a brief conversation following the vote, he and Bellone didn’t speak for months, Schaffer said.
D’Amaro declined to comment.
Schaffer said he did not recall the other names on Bellone’s list, but said it did not include Spota or other county officials who have been prosecuted or are under investigation by federal law enforcement.
Schneider said he never saw any such list.
In January 2014, Schaffer heard “from several people” that Bellone and Stricoff had begun talking about unseating him as Democratic chairman in September at the county party convention.
“I thought it was a direct response to what they believed was my inability to get the presiding officer they wanted,” he said. Schaffer started preparing for primaries of Democratic committee members, who ultimately pick the party chairman and executive committee at the convention.
Stricoff, through his attorney, John Carman of Garden City, declined to comment. However, Carman said Stricoff “was never involved in any discussion about taking Schaffer out.” Carman added: “I had the impression that Rich Schaffer believed that.”
Carman said Stricoff is a casualty of the dispute between Schaffer and Bellone.
“Bob found himself in the crossfire of other people’s disagreements and conflicts,” Carman said.
In July 2014, Schaffer began an audit of the Babylon Democratic Committee’s finances after the party’s campaign finance reports were posted online. Schaffer said he had been warned that Stricoff may have been reimbursed twice for the same expenses.
Schaffer said he and incoming Babylon Democratic town chairman Peter Casserly, an attorney and accountant, presented the audit to Stricoff on August 20 and asked him to reimburse the party or present receipts and other evidence to explain discrepancies.
When Stricoff didn’t make the reimbursements, Schaffer sent the audit to Spota’s office. Spota did not file charges, and forwarded that complaint this year to the state Board of Elections, Newsday has reported. The board’s chief enforcement officer, Risa Sugarman, declined to comment.
“He has done nothing that could justify the manner in which his reputation and integrity has been impugned in what is clearly a highly political matter,” Carman said. Spota spokesman Robert Clifford did not respond to a request for comment.
Schaffer said the investigation into Stricoff was unrelated to his split with Bellone.
The feud had seemed to simmer down until last August, Gregory said.
That’s when Bellone reneged on a commitment to donate $250,000 to $300,000 to a coordinated campaign to elect Democrats in Suffolk races, Schaffer said. Schaffer lent the party $80,000 personally and solicited another $115,000 in loans from other party leaders. Bellone had $1.8 million in his campaign fund at the time, state records show.
Schaffer referred to the incident in remarks this year at a Babylon Democratic dinner, when he disclosed that he had experienced bouts of anxiety last summer that required medical help. He called Bellone up on stage to publicly “thank” him.
“If he had not done what he did to me last summer, I wouldn’t have gotten the help I needed,” Schaffer said, tongue in cheek.
Schneider wouldn’t comment about the issue.
Bellone has not addressed his relationship with Schaffer publicly.
The closest he came was in his 2016 State of the County address in April. Bellone said he used to believe that efforts by others to maintain the status quo represented the county’s most serious problem, but that he had changed his mind.
In the months before, former police Chief of Department James Burke had pleaded guilty to beating a burglary suspect and orchestrating a cover-up of the crime.
Former sheriff’s Lt. Edward Walsh, who also was Suffolk Conservative Party chairman, was convicted in U.S. District Court of billing the county $200,000 for hours he didn’t work. Also, Christopher McPartland, Spota’s top corruption prosecutor, is the target of a federal grand jury probe, Newsday has reported.
In his speech at the county legislature, Bellone departed from his prepared remarks to say, “The real rift in government is between those who would abuse their power, both governmentally and politically, to further their own agenda. I want to be clear, anyone in the government, in the system, who abuses power I will fight. I will fight for reform.”
Schaffer and Spota were sitting in the front row. Afterward, Schaffer remarked to a reporter, “If you’re putting people on notice, I would think you’d be brave enough to name them or the groups specifically.”
Schaffer said he doesn’t speak to Bellone unless they run into each other at public meetings.
But on May 28, Long Island Association president Kevin Law hosted Bellone and Schaffer for a brief meeting at his house.
“I apologized for anything real or perceived that I may have done to him over the period that caused the rift,” Schaffer said. Bellone, he said, “returned the apology.”
Law said they didn’t discuss any specific grievances. But, he said, “they shook hands and agreed to work together.”
Nonetheless, Schaffer said, “You don’t think I’m hurt by all of this? Yes, I wear my emotions on my sleeves, and this hurts. It’s somebody I’ve had a relationship with and think very highly of. And it hurts where it’s at this point.”
Timeline of the feud
1977. Richard Schaffer, 13, moves onto Marcy Street in North Babylon. Steve Bellone, six years younger, lives across the street.
1995: Schaffer, the Babylon Town supervisor, hires Bellone as a $30,000 a year aide in the public information office.
1997: Bellone wins a seat on the town board.
2000: Schaffer becomes Suffolk County Democratic Party chairman.
2001: Bellone becomes Babylon supervisor.
2011: Schaffer raises almost $1 million for Bellone’s campaign for Suffolk County executive, and helps him secure the Democratic nomination. Bellone is elected in November.
April 2013: Bellone meets with Schaffer, Babylon Town Democratic Party chairman Robert Stricoff and deputy county chairman Jon Schneider and presents a plan to reform county government. Bellone includes a list of 17 officials or party leaders he wants removed, according to Schaffer.
December 2013: Against Bellone’s wishes, the Suffolk legislative Democrats pick Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) as the new presiding officer.
January 2014: Schaffer says he is informed that Stricoff and Bellone are planning to try to oust him as county Democratic chairman. Stricoff’s attorney denies that such an effort took place.
July: Schaffer begins an audit of the Stricoff. The audit, which finds that Stricoff overpaid himself as much as $125,000 in salary and expenses, is forwarded to the district attorney’s office.
October 2015: Schaffer says Bellone breaks his commitment to help fund Democratic legislative campaigns. Schaffer loans the county party $80,000 and gets $115,000 in loans from friends.
November 2015: Bellone wins re-election as county executive.
April 2016: The state Board of Elections takes over Stricoff probe.
May 2016: Bellone calls on Suffolk County District Attorney Spota to resign. Schaffer discourages county Democratic lawmakers from getting involved in the dispute.