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Break up the game among Long Island political insiders

Oheka Castle in Huntington.

Oheka Castle in Huntington. Credit: Elliott Kaufman

A recent Newsday special report chronicles the rise of Gary Melius, the owner of Oheka Castle who sold the illusion of grandeur to outsiders while hosting a smoke-filled room of dealmaking that benefited Long Island’s political insiders.

“Pathway to Power” is a story of outsized personalities exploiting us to achieve their outsized ambitions. It portrays a culture of power brokers greatly benefiting from their connections to public officials, and of those officials putting personal gain ahead of their civic responsibilities.

The names found in the 30,000-word report are just the latest players exploiting a system hardwired into Long Island politics. Unless it changes, it will suffocate us.

It robs taxpayers of their money. It forces good people out of politics. It erodes trust in government, the foundation of a healthy democracy.

Melius’ castle is the most cinematic emblem of this corrosive environment, and former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato its most prominent gargoyle in protecting this brand of transactional politics.

It’s not illegal to have friends, and Melius has many, or to make political donations, and he has given at least $1.3 million over the years. But it’s wrong to exploit policy loopholes, to play in the gray spaces of what’s forbidden while defanging the institutional watchdogs that supposedly enforce the rules. FBI agents and top police officials were feted at Oheka, as were district attorneys and state judges. These people included disgraced and incarcerated former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, described by his sentencing judge as “having corrupted a system.”

There’s former Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice and her former top investigator, Chuck Ribando, who determined there was nothing illegal about Melius using his connections in the Nassau police department that resulted in the arrest of a witness in a case that could have hurt the re-election hopes of then-County Executive Edward Mangano.

Then there are the judges, like Thomas Whelan, a fixture at the Huntington mansion, who made rulings benefiting Melius businesses. And political bosses such as Edward Walsh, the former head of Suffolk’s Conservative Party, also serving prison time, a castle mainstay who traded his minor party’s endorsement for judgeships. Over and over, Newsday found that there were elected officials who made decisions that wound up benefiting Melius.

This cozy back-scratching was not limited to the reach of Melius and D’Amato and the others who nibbled from his plates and drank from his bottles. The Oheka gang just normalized it to a new level.

Government officials using their power to benefit friends and family has become so routine, it seems like it’s just the way business is done. When federal prosecutors accused then-State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of shaking down vendors to get his son, Adam, a job, Skelos was defended with the claim that routine political behavior was being “criminalized.”

Now Mangano and former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto will soon go on trial for conspiracy, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. Mangano claims that gifts including meals and vacations from star government witness Harendra Singh were not bribes but simply the thoughtful gestures of a friend. Former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota awaits trial on charges that he abused his office.

In all, more than three dozen Long Island officials face federal indictments or are serving time after convictions. The numbers are stunning, but so is the failure of the district attorneys in both counties to have played a role in cleaning it up despite New York State’s strong anti-corruption laws. Not only would federal prosecutors not work with Spota, he was a target of their probe.

The story of Gary Melius and his friends reveals a system in which discounts on events at Oheka, a seat at a poker game, a few cigars and premium Scotch, even some parties for the kids of the adjoining homeowners, were designed to seduce. In the land of NIMBY, he got targeted zoning from Huntington Town that might allow him to build 191 condos — worth hundreds of millions of dollars and the solution for Melius’ chronic financial problems.

Melius couldn’t have done what he did without the elected officials and politicians who enabled him. Nassau County paid Melius $6.2 million from its open-space fund for a brownfield in Freeport, almost three times the parcel’s estimated market value.

What “Pathway to Power” teaches is the importance of maintaining the integrity of a system of checks and balances. Police, prosecutors and judges are the most important line of defense against the culture of corruption. Prosecutorial discretion covers a lot of sins. When it’s compromised, we all lose.

Developer Wilbur Breslin was in a smackdown court fight with Melius. When he arrived for a hearing at court in Mineola, he saw Melius’ car in the spot reserved for the chief judge.

“We’re screwed,” said Breslin.

He speaks for all of us when an independent judiciary goes in the tank.

“Pathway to Power” illuminates the road for real reforms:

Suffolk’s police and district attorney should bring to justice the person who shot Melius in the head in 2014. No one believes this case can’t be solved.

The heads of the state’s court system must appoint administrative judges in each county who have the highest reputations for integrity, not the ones recommended by political leaders.

The governor and state lawmakers must enact a New York version of the federal Hatch Act that makes it a crime for public employees to participate in any way in partisan politics.

Cross endorsements must be prohibited. Each candidate should run on one ballot line. Period. This would loosen the stranglehold of minor parties that use their endorsements as jobs programs.

Public financing of campaigns is probably the best solution to rid money from politics. But there are other ways to minimize the influence of money in elections. Set campaign contributions for town, county and state races at the federal level of $2,700 for individuals. If that’s all a member of Congress can raise, it should be good enough for county legislators.

Good, honest government shouldn’t be an illusion for Long Islanders.