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Long IslandPolitics

Suffolk Conservatives hold screening for DA candidates

Suffolk Conservative Party Chairman Frank Tinari is seen

Suffolk Conservative Party Chairman Frank Tinari is seen in Central Islip on Oct. 18, 2016. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

The Suffolk Conservative executive committee on Sunday will be screening candidates for district attorney — the top electoral post up for grabs in November — and who will show or sit it out could say a lot about the shape of the race to come.

It will probably be a long day for the 60-member executive committee, which will give contenders each a half-hour to present themselves and be peppered with questions at the American Legion Post 944 hall in Kings Park.

Eleven of 15 possible contenders — five Republicans, five Democrats and one Conservative — have appointments Sunday or have sought a later date.

“There hasn’t been a contested race since 2001, and there seems to be a lot of interest,” said Frank Tinari, Suffolk Conservative chairman. “We’re anxious to hear them make their case why they should get Conservative support.”

The minor party’s backing can give a candidate a winning margin — making the Conservative screening crucial. Suffolk Conservatives are, by far, the state party’s largest county organization, with 21,372 enrolled voters. Their ballot line draws even more — President Donald Trump got 35,931 votes on the Conservative line last fall.

The early screening may also winnow the field. Foremost is four-term Democratic incumbent Thomas Spota, 75, who has yet to make his electoral plans known, and who has run three times with the backing of Conservatives. His spokesman declined to comment on whether he will appear Sunday.

However, his absence would be a clear sign he is ready to pack it in amid an ongoing federal probe of his office’s possible connection to a cover-up of a beating that led to the conviction and jailing of ex-Suffolk police chief James Burke. Spota has not been charged and says he did nothing wrong.

Also in a sensitive situation is State Supreme Court Justice Andrew Crecca, who two weeks ago appeared with other GOP contenders before Republican town chairmen. Party officials described those sessions as “interviews,” as opposed to the “screening for the office of Suffolk County District Attorney,” as the Conservatives’ event is billed. Party sources say Crecca has asked to appear Sunday.

Judges are barred from political activity by state ethics rules. If Crecca becomes a candidate for another elected office, he would be required to step down immediately from his judgeship, which pays $193,000 a year. He has seven years left on his term.

However, a 1993 state ethics advisory opinion stated a “judge may make a special appearance before the executive committee of a political party for the limited purpose of being interviewed as a possible candidate for . . . district attorney.”

A 1997 opinion stated judges could hold “limited nonpublic discussions [that] constitute ‘testing the waters’ for a possible future run” with party officials.

Crecca declined to comment.

However, Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, cautioned that a screening may be a step too far for Crecca.

“I’ve always known Andrew to be a very smart person, but I think if he shows up as a sitting judge, that may be called into question,” he said.

But Peter Bee, a prominent GOP elections lawyer, said: “Whether you call it a screening or an interview makes no difference . . . the bottom line is that a judge can test the waters.”

Schaffer, meanwhile, said he has alerted Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini — one of eight potential Democratic contenders — about the screening and the commissioner intends to take part.

Schaffer added Sini, 36, a former federal prosecutor, recently expressed his interest in the race, even though Sini last year told lawmakers during his confirmation that he “had no intention” of seeking the job. Sini did not return calls for comment.

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, GOP caucus leader, said a Sini candidacy would be “an inherent conflict,” and said he should step down as commissioner if he is named the Democrats’ candidate for district attorney.

“He’s already gotten as much press exposure as he could possibly need,” he said, referring to Sini’s frequent media events as commissioner. “Maybe we could get someone with some actual police experience as commissioner.”

Potential Suffolk DA contenders

Republicans

  • Ray Perini — Announced candidate from Huntington and former district attorney narcotics bureau chief, now in private practice; ran losing 2013 GOP DA primary.
  • William Ferris — Announced candidate from Southold. A Navy veteran and 23-year prosecutor, now in private practice, who screened four years ago but did not run in the primary.
  • Robert Biancavilla — Suffolk deputy homicide bureau chief from Eatons Neck who also owns a bakery.
  • John Halverson — Former assistant district attorney from Patchogue who is now in private practice. Ran a losing race for county legislator in 2014.
  • Edward Friedland — Lawyer from West Islip who is now district executive of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
  • Andrew Crecca — State Supreme Court justice and former county court judge from Hauppauge. Former Suffolk legislator and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

Democrats

  • Thomas Spota — District attorney since 2001. Won with major and minor party cross-endorsements for the last three terms. A Mount Sinai resident, he earlier served as the office’s chief homicide prosecutor and later worked in private practice.
  • Timothy Sini — Former federal prosecutor who lives in Babylon and has been Suffolk police commissioner since 2016.
  • David Calone — Former federal prosecutor and chair of the Suffolk County Planning Commission. Venture capitalist who lives in Setauket and narrowly lost a Democratic congressional primary last year.
  • William Wexler — Former assistant district attorney who lives in Islip. Shares law offices with Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer. Counsel to the Suffolk and Babylon industrial development authorities. Was ex-Conservative chairman Edward Walsh’s defense attorney.
  • Tad Scharfenberg — Criminal defense attorney from Holbrook. Once served as assistant district attorney and ran a losing race for district attorney in 1996.
  • James Chalifoux — Deputy bureau chief of the district attorney’s major crime bureau. Lives in Islip.
  • Mark Lesko — Former federal prosecutor and Brookhaven Town supervisor who left government to start Accelerate Long Island. Serves as Hofstra University’s vice president of economic development.
  • Laura Ahearn — Rape victim advocate for more than 20 years who is executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law and Crime Victim Center and lives in Stony Brook. She recently became a lawyer and is not enrolled in any political party but has sought backing of the Democratic Party.

Conservative

  • Patrick O’Connell — Former assistant district attorney who lives in Patchogue. Is in private practice with Suffolk Conservative chairman Frank Tinari.

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