Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, speaking Friday in more detail than ever about why he suddenly ended his political career in 2011 and relinquished $4 million in campaign funds, said he acted out of fear of then-District Attorney Tom Spota and the Suffolk County Police Department.
"I was being targeted, but if I said it eight years ago people would have said that I am delusional and paranoid," Levy told The Point. "I have been wanting to get this off my chest for eight years."
The Point contacted Levy in December immediately after Spota and his top aide, Christopher McPartland were found guilty of federal obstruction-of-justice charges for their roles in covering up the beating of a burglary suspect by James Burke, the then-chief of police in Suffolk.
Levy would only talk off the record then, reluctant to make a public statement. However, Friday morning, Levy's successor, County Executive Steve Bellone, surprised the audience at the annual Long Island Association breakfast by veering off the usual business-and-development issues to talk about Spota's conviction. Bellone said it marked the "closing of a dark chapter in this county's history ... that climate of intimidation and fear had a crippling impact on Suffolk County government." While not mentioning Levy by name, Bellone said an elected county executive "had been removed from office by the district attorney in a secret deal that was never made public."
After Bellone made his remarks, The Point contacted Levy again and he decided to speak on the record. "They were following Bellone around, they were always trying to find something they could hold over on you," he said of Spota and those who were part of his law enforcement cabal.
"You see from the trial - police officers, hardened tough guys, were scared for their lives," he said about four current and former officers who testified for the prosecution in Spota's trial. Those close to Levy believed at the time that Spota had tapes of Levy's private conversations and that some of the remarks would embarrass the public official if revealed.
Levy bolstered Bellone's claims of a "culture of intimidation," saying that some of his staffers "were pulled over to the side of the road and had the bejesus scared out of them" by police. He said others were promised jobs and another told his financial problems would disappear if they provided incriminating information but Levy would not provide any names or more details.
Levy's stunning deal with Spota, a Democrat, came just as Levy would have geared up for a likely successful bid for a third term, but as a Republican. Levy, who had a formidable $4 million war chest, had switched parties the year before to make a run at the GOP gubernatorial nomination, but he failed to get on the primary ballot.
A Spota investigation of Levy's fundraising practices was an open secret at the time in Suffolk County amid news accounts that county contractors were being forced to make contributions. However, when Spota revealed the deal with Levy, he noted that the county executive "did not personally profit" but that "the investigation revealed serious issues with regard to fundraising."
Levy, who accepted responsibility at the time, told The Point Friday that the irregularities were more along the lines of using county telephones or computers for campaign purposes. "It was not a death-penalty item."
"I do regret giving back the money, it implied something nefarious," he said Friday.
But why would Levy, who had the reputation of a pit bull and was outspoken about exorbitant police contracts, suddenly stand down if there was only a weak case against him?
"It's easy for others to say I should have gone to the mat. But I was burnt out. I had burned my bridges switching to another political party. And I had an unsuccessful run for governor," he said.
Levy said Spota threatened to freeze the campaign funds. "I would have to put a mortgage on my house to run again. Why would I do that?" he said. "I had a 26-year career. It was enough."
Rita Ciolli is Newsday's editorial page editor.