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Suffolk attorney awards business, husband reaps donations

Suffolk County Attorney Christine Malafi (Jan. 27, 2004)

Suffolk County Attorney Christine Malafi (Jan. 27, 2004) Photo Credit: Newsday File / Julia Xanthos

Seven law firms awarded $3.4 million in county business by Suffolk County Attorney Christine Malafi have contributed more than $20,000 in campaign donations to her husband, Suffolk Legis. Louis D'Amaro, since 2006, state and county records show.

The law firms have contributed to other political candidates, including Malafi's boss, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who recently switched from Democrat to Republican and announced he is running for governor. Four of these seven law firms have contributed to only one county legislative candidate - D'Amaro. The other three have made small contributions to several other county legislative candidates.

State campaign records show that D'Amaro, a Democratic legislator who represents Deer Park, North Babylon and parts of Huntington since 2006, has raised more in donations and in-kind contributions - $211,697 - than any other county legislative candidate statewide.

When Levy was first elected county executive in 2004, he appointed Malafi, a longtime friend, as county attorney. In an interview, he said he also encouraged D'Amaro, a former aide, to run for the Legislature and campaigned on his behalf.

Both Malafi and D'Amaro said in interviews that she had nothing to do with the law firms making campaign contributions to him.

"My husband and I were both lawyers in Suffolk County for 15 or 20 years," she said. "We know people. They're friends."

D'Amaro agreed and said he thought people contributed to him because "they support my policies and positions." He added, "Even if some of them do business with the county, so what? They're allowed to do business with the county."

However, the situation may pose a conflict of interest for Malafi, according to Monroe Freedman, a Hofstra University law professor who specializes in ethics. "It is a conflict of interest because she is required to exercise independent, professional judgment," he said. "If there is a reasonable, plausible risk that it will be affected by her personal interest, or that of a close family member, like her husband, or for that matter, her employer, she has a conflict of interest."

In an interview, Malafi disagreed there was a conflict. "I don't personally benefit from contributions to my spouse's campaign," she said.

She said when Robert Cimino was county attorney, before Levy took office in 2004, outside law firms contributed to the judicial campaigns of his wife, Gail Prudenti, who now sits on the Appellate Division. State records reviewed by Newsday confirm that. Neither Cimino nor Prudenti could be reached for comment.

Bruce Green, a Fordham University law professor, said the situation raised a political issue for Levy because he is the one who appointed Malafi and is her boss. "If Steve Levy thinks it's an appearance problem, he could hire someone else or ask someone else to make those hiring decisions," he said.

Levy, for his part, said law firms picked by Malafi to work for the county also contributed to D'Amaro because, "He's built relationships over the years."

Levy declined to address whether it was a conflict of interest for Malafi to award legal business to law firms that contribute to her husband.

Scott Christesen, a partner at the Hauppauge law firm of Fumuso, Kelly, DeVerna & Snyder, said his law firm contributed to a number of political candidates. He said the firm contributed to D'Amaro because, "We're a local business," but added that he did not know what district D'Amaro serves as legislator.

Since 2006, the firm has contributed $2,000 to D'Amaro and $10,500 to Levy, according to state campaign records. It has not contributed to any other county legislative candidate. It has received $218,433 in county business since 2004.

Joseph Puzo, of the Islip Terrace law firm of Zaklukiewicz, Puzo & Morrissey, also said his firm contributed to a variety of political candidates. Records show his firm has given $2,600 to D'Amaro and $13,000 to Levy since 2006. It also made single contributions ranging from $150 to $250 to three other county legislative candidates.

"We spread it around," Puzo said, adding that it had nothing to do with the firm getting county business.

Lawyers at the other firms either declined to comment on campaign finance or did not return calls.

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