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Few Clouds 23° Good Afternoon

Melius, Ruocco and a peek into the political sausage factory

Gary Melius, in this photo dated April 25,

Gary Melius, in this photo dated April 25, 2007, at Oheka Castle. Photo Credit: freelance / Joe Rogate

Look long and look hard, Long Island, because, as Newsday reported in several stories last week, this is how sausage gets made:

A castle owner, Gary Melius, makes a deal with a businessman, John Ruocco, founder of Interceptor Ignition Interlocks, pledging to get laws changed to favor Ruocco's firm -- in exchange for a piece of Ruocco's business.

Nassau and Suffolk later become the only counties in the state to make requirements for interlock systems so strict that Ruocco's competitors are essentially left out in the cold.

Nassau goes through an administrative process to select Ruocco's firm. Suffolk discusses the matter in public -- before passing legislation that favors the company.

Which then-County Executive Steve Levy -- one of many elected officials, of different parties and in both counties, who received contributions from Melius -- allows to become law without his signature.

As a result, Ruocco's share of the local DWI interlocking device market jets from 7 percent to 54 percent in Nassau, and from 13 percent to 22 percent in Suffolk in 2011 -- as business for competitors flattens or declines.

Oh, but the partners have a falling out down the line, after Melius accuses Ruocco of not effectively managing the business.

But wait.

Here comes the judge.

That would be State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan -- who has connections to Independence Party leaders with whom Melius is close -- and who will settle the dispute. Whelan ultimately sides with -- insert drum roll here -- Melius. And strips Ruocco of much of his ownership in the firm.

If it looks like a good game of 3-D chess, it is.

Or maybe just another take on that old ditty about the head bone being connected -- all the way down to the toes.

Look long, look hard and learn, Long Island.

Because this is how the political system works -- and not just here, but in Albany, Washington and likely every other municipality, too.

Money plus access equals influence plus power, which leads us back to money again.

It's a tight, closed circle that makes reforming campaign finance so difficult.

And in New York, the lack of a realistic initiative, referendum and recall process -- plus the oversized power of minor parties, which candidates court because they make the difference in tight races -- keeps residents' hands firmly tied.

What would happen if residents, say, could vote on how district lines are drawn? Or on how judges are selected? Or on whether officials who are determined to be corrupt or unwilling to do their jobs should be removed from office?

The investigation continues into the bold attempt on Melius' life by an assailant who, sources told Newsday, shot the power broker in the head, then went back in a failed attempt to finish the job as Melius tried to crawl back to the castle, where he seemingly has played host to a Who's Who of Long Islanders. And as investigators and journalists pore through Melius' business, political and other connections, more disclosures are likely.

"I can't say I am surprised by what I'm seeing here; I can't say I'm shocked; I don't think it's illegal and I can't say it's some great scandal," said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who handles mostly Republican campaigns.

"But maybe I'm jaded about that," he said. Nonetheless, the doors have been tossed wide open on our local sausage factory. And for Long Islanders disgusted by what it looks like, know this: On average, as Dawidziak noted, just one in five eligible voters in Nassau and Suffolk makes it to the polls.

"People have power," he said. "They just don't use it."

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