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Newsday opposes Levy effort to keep his 2011 deal with Spota secret

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has been

Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has been fighting a Newsday Freedom of Information Law request to make public a previous non-prosecution agreement with Ex-Suffolk DA Tom Spota. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Newsday joined the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office in opposing an effort by former County Executive Steve Levy to keep secret the 2011 agreement that ended his political career, urging the court in an appellate brief to reject Levy’s effort "to keep the public in the dark."

Newsday also requested the state Appellate Division reverse a lower-court ruling that denied Newsday’s request to intervene in the case, noting that the case itself was initiated by a Newsday Freedom of Information Law request for the agreement in February.

Newsday in that February filing cited Levy’s own public statements about the non-prosecution agreement he signed with former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota in arguing that the document should be made public, particularly given the high public interest in the case. In an appellate brief filed last week, Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Cohen, arguing the case on behalf of Suffolk DA Tim Sini’s office, noted that Levy himself "did not treat the document as confidential."

Levy in a 2020 Newsday opinion piece described the charges against him in the agreement as "more along the lines of using county computers and telephones for campaign purposes, rather than as a ‘death penalty item’ or as ‘something nefarious.’ "

Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Paul J. Baisley Jr. in July ordered Levy to release the agreement, noting that the document itself did not include language for keeping it secret. Lawyers for Levy argue that the document’s title page, which said "Under Seal, Privileged and Confidential," was enough and that any further language would have been "redundant."

In arguing to be permitted to intervene in the case, lawyers for Newsday argued it has an "undeniable interest in the matter, as the question of whether the Suffolk County District Attorney may disclose documents in response to Newsday’s FOIL request is the central one at issue in this case."

Newsday further argued that Levy has "no legitimate privacy interest" that would preclude the document’s release, noting his "prominent position in government and the intense and valid public interest" in seeing the agreement.

"Levy’s arguments about his entitlement to privacy and his alleged 'injury to reputation' are particularly weak given that, unlike an 'ordinary' public servant, Levy was the county executive," Newsday lawyers argued. " … His powerful position at the top of the county renders his privacy interests even more diminished than those of other public servants."

Levy agreed to the non-prosecution deal with Spota following a 16-month investigation in 2011, forfeiting his $4 million campaign war chest and agreeing not to run for reelection. Spota has since been convicted of federal obstruction and conspiracy charges in an unrelated matter and is scheduled to begin a 5-year prison sentence in December.

Newsday argued the solution to Levy's concerns about damage to his reputation is to "speak out about the [non-prosecution agreement], not for him to demand that this important public document stay secret forever."

The brief notes Levy's own claims about Spota's alleged "political coup" and "malicious investigation" against him and said the document reflecting those claims "should be brought into the light of day."

"The public is entitled to answers about this entire ordeal," Newsday lawyers wrote, "none of which should ever have been secret in the first place."

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