Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy dropped a bombshell last Thursday in announcing he would not seek a third term in office amid a 16-month investigation into his campaign finances by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.
And he hasn’t been seen since.
His absence had at least one elected leader, Legislator Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor), saying that if Mr. Levy continues to be a distraction, the county executive should consider resigning.
“Some people know where he is; I don’t know,” Mr. Cooper said. “He’s already a distraction with him being AWOL. I can understand why he’s away with his family at this time; I can’t imagine the embarrassment for such a proud man. But for all the weeks to take off. We have a state budget getting approved that will have tremendous impacts for Suffolk County.”
“But it’s going to be day-to-day, to see what evolves,” Mr. Cooper continued. “Right now there is this moral cloud that’s hanging over Levy’s head. And if God forbid there are revelations about, say, what, if anything, he was going to be charged with. Or if any new allegations emerge about others. It would be unsustainable. He’ll have to go.”
Dan Aug, a spokesman for Mr. Levy, told the News-Review only that the county executive was out of state, with his family.
“He will be away for several more days or the rest of the week,” Mr. Aug said.
Meanwhile, questions are swirling as to what District Attorney Thomas Spota meant when, in a statement released shortly after Mr. Levy’s announcement, he referred to “serious issues with regard to fundraising” that were turned up in the Levy probe.
Mr. Spota’s spokesman, Bob Clifford, would not give details of the probe’s findings, citing an ongoing investigation.
“The investigation will continue with respect to the conduct of others,” the district attorney’s statement read.
Mr. Levy, a longtime Democrat who turned Republican in a bid to run for governor last year, issued a press release Thursday afternoon saying he would not be seeking the nomination, citing a desire to “look to new challenges,” among other reasons. Then, at the end of the release, he indicated he would be turning over his $4 million campaign war chest to the district attorney.
“Questions have been raised concerning fundraising through my political campaign,” Mr, Levy said. “Since this occurred under my watch I accept responsibility. In order to resolve these questions, I will be turning over my campaign funds to the Suffolk County District Attorney.”
Mr. Spota said he was confident Mr. Levy never profited from his actions, and that the “forfeiture of his $4 million campaign fund demonstrates his acceptance of responsibility for these failings.” He said those monies would be returned to donors who want a refund following the Nov. 11 election. The rest will be given to charity.
Mr. Spota, a Democrat, said there would be no further investigation into Mr. Levy’s conduct and that the district attorney’s decision to “allow Mr. Levy to complete his term was carefully considered and involved weighing his conduct, the need for stability in government in these difficult economic times while affording a smooth transition after the 2011 elections.”
After referring to Mr. Levy’s “deal with Mr. Spota,” Mr. Cooper said he also worried about how a publicly shamed county executive would now deal with the public and other government officials during the nine months remaining on his term.
“The county executive is the primary negotiator for Suffolk County to New York State,” Mr. Cooper said. “If he’s in a weakened position as a result of his being tainted by the scandal, that’s not good from that point of view.”
But he also said county government may have no better alternative.
“If he resigned, that means for the next three months, Chris Kent, the chief deputy county executive, would fill in,” Mr. Cooper said. “I’ve worked with Chris but I don’t know if he’s qualified to be chief financial officer of a $2.7 billion operation. And we would have to run a special election, which would cost at least $1 million.”
Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), whose district covers eastern Brookhaven, Riverhead and the Southold towns, said he was surprised by Thursday’s announcement. But he didn’t call for his longtime rival to resign.
“It’s unfortunate that he’s the first county executive in Suffolk’s history to be forced from office,” Mr. Romaine said, adding that he trusted Mr. Spota, who said Mr. Levy did not personally profit. “[Mr. Levy] politically profited, there’s no doubt, so I have to think the punishment he’s going through, well, the DA’s charged with justice, and that’s what he sought. I have nothing but high regard for the DA and I trust his decision on this.
“I will tell you it is a sea change for Suffolk County,” he continued. “And this comes at a time when we desperately need leadership. The county is facing a $175 million budget gap, and we’re facing more cuts from the state.”