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Editorial: Kick the Independence Party off the ballot

Oheka Castle in Cold Spring Harbor.

Oheka Castle in Cold Spring Harbor. Credit: Newsday / Jim Peppler

The chairman of New York's Independence Party insisted that its screening for congressional candidates at Oheka Castle go on as planned, just five days after a hit man tried to kill Gary Melius, the owner of the Gold Coast estate and a broker for the party's endorsements.

"It's business as usual," said party chairman Frank MacKay.

Business as usual for the Independence Party must end.

Even before the shooting, this very minor party with outsized influence, especially with the state's judiciary, was on the ropes. The party, which was formed in 1994 with a kernel of an idea for election reform, was heavily criticized in December for campaign financing improprieties in the 2012 elections. The criticism came from a state Moreland Commission investigating public corruption.

The latest campaign finance disclosures show that 80 percent of the money the party raised in the past two years went to Oheka for fundraisers, to MacKay, or to Rick Bellando, the Oheka banquet manager who also is father of Melius' grandchildren.

Now as rocks are overturned in the search for clues to the Feb. 24 Melius shooting, the ugly connections between the party and the goings-on at the castle will get more exposure.

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota is scouring the victim's business dealings in a search for suspects and motives. Meanwhile, the office of the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District has been asked to review Melius' role in getting former Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale to arrest a campaign worker, Randy White, in an effort to help County Executive Edward Mangano get re-elected. It should.

Newsday reported Sunday on another troubling incident involving Melius and MacKay that, at best, can be described as an unsavory coincidence in which a judge closely connected with MacKay delivered a ruling very favorable to Melius. It should prompt investigators to take an even closer look at MacKay's perceived clout with the judiciary, including involvement in the selection of supervisory judges and other plum assignments that bring jobs and fees.

With these unfolding investigations, why would any candidate accept the Independence Party's stamp of approval this year? The first to walk away from the stench was Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, a Democrat running for Congress. Rice should know; her office's investigation of the Dale affair ended with the commissioner's resignation, but prompted criticism, including the call for a federal investigation to determine whether the trail led back to Mangano.

The Independence Party and other minor parties can be eliminated once and for all this year. New York's quirky election laws give an automatic ballot line for the next four years to any party getting 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial contest. Unlike in most states, however, the laws also permit endorsements of candidates by more than one party. So the minor parties parasitically survive by giving their lines to mainstream candidates in state races. Yet Albany refuses to ban cross-endorsements and most candidates are reluctant to turn down these ballot lines because they yield votes -- mostly from voters disenchanted with Democrats or Republicans. Unlike with the other minor parties -- the Working Families and Conservative parties, for example -- some voters mistakenly think the Independence label means it is not an organized party.

Both of the candidates on the major party lines -- incumbent Andrew M. Cuomo on the Democratic line and, most likely, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino on the Republican ticket -- should stop the charade by refusing the party's embrace.