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Experts: Political donors undermine Suffolk ethics body

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (Oct. 4, 2010)

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (Oct. 4, 2010) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

As a special county legislative committee continues its investigation of the Suffolk Ethics Commission, records show that some commissioners and staff have made campaign contributions to the very officials they regulate - a practice some government ethics experts say undermines the body's independence.

Records show that commissioners and staffers - who review financial disclosure forms of roughly 650 county employees and write advisory opinions - have made political contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. Since 2004, the largest amount went to County Executive Steve Levy, who took office that year. Records show at least $4,950 was contributed to Levy from the commission chairman, a former commissioner, two staff attorneys and two secretaries. County legislators and political committees that give to candidates also received contributions.

"It's wrong," said Paula Franzese, former chairwoman of the state ethics commission in New Jersey, where such contributions are banned. She said such contributions raise "the inference of impropriety. An ethics commission only works if the body is independent."

Levy spokesman Dan Aug said donations from commission members to elected officials are not a problem. "This would only be an issue if ethics commission decision-makers were receiving, rather than giving, donations - but that was never the case," he said.

Officials in New York City, Westchester, Nassau and New York State said they had no outright bans on political contributions by ethics commissioners or staff. These municipalities have laws that prohibit activities that would create an appearance of a conflict of interest. The Suffolk County ethics law has similar language.

Mark Davies, executive director of the New York City Conflict of Interest Board, said donations from an ethics commission are not a good idea. "If someone asked me, should you do it, I would say no because it looks bad," Davies said.

Although Aug said it wasn't necessary, he said Levy initiated a policy of returning donations from commission members. Campaign filings show Levy's campaign returned three contributions totaling $800 from two staff attorneys and a commissioner but did not return all of them. Aug said "if there has been any oversight," other contributions would also be returned.

He declined to explain why Levy initiated the policy.

A review by Newsday of campaign records also shows that ethics commissioners in the previous administration of Robert Gaffney also contributed to elected officials.

The question of the ethics commission's independence and effectiveness is at the core of the committee's inquiry, according to Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook). Levy has criticized the probe as politically motivated. In June, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota subpoenaed records related to which officials in the county file the local financial disclosure form. Newsday reported that Levy had, from 2006 to 2010, filed the state disclosure form in place of the county form. Tensions over the committee's probe flared last week after the ethics commission refused to turn over records the committee had requested.

Campaign records examined by Newsday show that among the contributions are these:

A staff attorney in 2009 made $360 in contributions to a county official. That official filed a complaint in 2008 with the commission that is pending.

A commissioner contributed $300 to Levy. The commission later issued an opinion, which the commissioner signed, that allowed Levy's wife to do business with hospitals that receive county funds.

Two staffers made donations totaling $320 to two county legislators.

A commissioner's law firm contributed more than $1,500 to three political committees and a county legislator.

In addition, County Attorney Christine Malafi, who has described herself as commission counsel and whose office has supplied the commission with attorneys and secretaries, has contributed $1,400 to Levy since 2006, records show. She has not contributed to other politicians. She did not return a call for comment.

Lindsay said he had been unaware of the donations, but said he is now considering proposing a legislative ban. "Anybody that's connected with the ethics commission should not be contributing to a campaign," he said.

Campaign records show that commission chairman Thomas G. Nolan, who was appointed in 2006, has contributed a total of $350 to Levy in the last three years. He also has contributed to judicial campaigns. Levy returned a $200 donation from Nolan on July 15 of this year. Nolan did not return calls for comment.

Michael Kennedy, who recently left the board, did not make personal contributions as a commissioner. But his law firm, Borda, Kennedy, Alsen & Gold of Bay Shore, contributed to political committees, which distribute money to various candidates, and a legislator. Records show the firm contributed $1,150 to the Suffolk Democratic Committee, $150 to the Independence Party Chairman's Club, and $250 to Legis. Ricardo Montano's campaign for State Senate.

"I was never told it was prohibited," Kennedy said of his law firm's donations.

Franzese, the former chairwoman of the New Jersey Ethics Commission, said that it was better for the firm to refrain from campaign contributions because it's difficult to maintain separation within the law firm.

Montano said the donations he received were from the firm, not Kennedy.

Kennedy's firm also gave $100 to the Campaign for a Democratic Legislature, which is a political action committee started by Lindsay to raise money for legislators. Lindsay said he personally does not benefit from it, but that he would ask the committee to return any donations tied to the ethics commission.

Craig Tortora, who replaced Kennedy on the commission in June, said he has stopped making all campaign contributions. "I do not believe that it's appropriate," he said.

Records show that two staff attorneys, John Holownia and Jessica Hogan, have contributed to Levy. Records show that Holownia contributed $2,300 and Hogan $600 since 2006, while they were assigned to the Ethics Commission. Levy returned $300 to Hogan on June 20, 2009, and $300 to Holownia on Jan. 13, 2009. Attorneys assigned to the commission provide advice and help write ethics opinions.

Hogan also contributed to James Morgo, the chairman of the county Industrial Development Agency, when he ran for Islip supervisor last year. As chairman, he files a financial disclosure form with the commission. While he was a chief deputy county executive, Morgo filed a complaint in 2008 with the ethics commission. The complaint is still pending. Morgo stepped down from that position shortly before running for office. Hogan did not return a call for comment.

In an interview, Morgo said he didn't remember soliciting Hogan for a contribution, but said they were friends.

Holownia also contributed $200 to the Campaign for a Democratic Legislature and $400 to Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), who is married to Holownia's boss, Christine Malafi.

Records show that Vivian Keys, the commission secretary, and Daina Sindone, secretary for commission Executive Director Alfred Lama, also have made campaign contributions.

Keys has contributed $450 to Levy since December 2007. She also contributed a total of $150 to Brian Beedenbender, when he was a county legislator. Keys declined comment. Beedenbender, who now works for Brookhaven Town, said he wasn't aware that Keys worked for Lama and that it probably wasn't appropriate for him to accept contributions from her.

Sindone has contributed only to Levy, $600 since December 2006. She did not return a call for comment.

Steven Gittelman, who was an ethics commissioner from 2000 through 2006, contributed $300 to Levy on Dec. 5, 2006. The previous year, on Oct. 24, 2005, the commission issued an opinion - which Gittelman signed - that Levy had sought on whether his wife, Colleen West, who has a court reporting business, could do business with hospitals that receive county funding. The opinion found it would not reasonably create a conflict, as long as West did not publicize her role as the county executive's wife.

Gittelman, who also contributed to other elected officials, said it had not occurred to him that his Levy donation might be a problem. "No one has ever made that point to me before. In retrospect, I agree," he said.

Campaign records show that ethics commissioners who served for Levy's predecessor, Robert Gaffney, also made political contributions. David Besso, who was the ethics commission chairman under Gaffney, said he did not contribute to Gaffney and records confirm that. He said his law firm contributed to other candidates. Besso said he didn't think a small contribution would influence anyone's judgment.

"I think that if it's a minimal contribution, I don't see a problem," he said. "It's de minimis," he said, using a legal term to describe something lacking in significance.

"I think it is very unwise for individuals who are asked to regulate officials to be in the position of contributing to their campaigns," said Lee Ann Pelham, executive director of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, where such donations are banned. "If you gave a contribution to somebody and had to weigh in on an opponent, how can the public expect you to treat that person fairly?"

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