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Editorial: The dark ways of Steve Levy

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy speaks to a

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy speaks to a business group in Ronkonkoma (June 14, 2011). Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

County Official E should be ashamed of himself.

The searing special grand jury report released yesterday by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota used a lot of tough words to describe an "intentional and systematic assault on Suffolk County's ethics infrastructure." It talked about county employees who operated honorably within an ethics system that it took decades to put together, but concluded: "Unfortunately, in the end they were overcome by more powerful and dark forces."

The two words that the document did not use were "Steve Levy." (By law, this kind of report can't name names.) But no one who has been around county politics for the last few years could read it and fail to deduce that County Official E was Levy, the heart of the "dark forces." The report paints an unseemly picture of Levy, the Suffolk County executive from 2004 to 2011, holding whispered conferences in hallways and at a pizza parlor, to push other alphabetically disguised officials to help him in his schemes to bend the ethics commission to his political purposes.

Any fair reading of the report, based on 25 witnesses and 5,000 pages of exhibits, would lead to the conclusion that Levy went beyond the bounds of propriety. That included gathering financial disclosure data on legislators, as ammunition to persuade them not to support a special legislative committee to investigate the ethics commission. It also included his pursuit of baseless ethics complaints against two adversaries: Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive, and Legis. Edward P. Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who ran against Levy in 2003 and lost.

This is a second jolt for Levy, coming after he agreed last year not to run for re-election and to forfeit his more than $4 million in campaign funds to Spota. If he chooses to run again someday, he'll have to do some explaining.

Right now, Levy is in private business. But someone who has spent most of his adult life in politics is unlikely to be able to resist a later run for office. His strategy for any future election would have to include stepping out from behind the County Official E shield and explaining his manipulation of the ethics commission. Whether he runs or not, whether the actions covered by the grand jury were part of the legal sword of Damocles that persuaded Levy to give up a re-election bid and his $4-million campaign war chest, or whether there's a lot more, Levy must come clean to be in public life. His statement yesterday responds sharply to some points in the grand jury report, but its tone is not confessional.

The more important question is not Levy's political future, but the county's future. The ethics commission mess persuaded the Suffolk County Legislature to create a new five-member board of ethics. It would be pleasant to think that the new board, plus the stinging words of the grand jury, will suffice to deter ethics tampering. Still, the grand jury, which did not bring criminal charges, did recommend concrete actions, including the creation of felony crimes to cover several kinds of transgression that would undermine the county's ethics system.

This was a dark chapter in Suffolk history. The legislature and the executive should heed the grand jury's recommendations, to make sure this never happens again.