Column: Will the real Tony Coates please stand up?

08/02/2013 7:00 AM |

FILE PHOTO | Anthony Coates last year, announcing his intentions to run for Town Council.

I like a lot of what Anthony Coates is saying in his campaign for Riverhead Town Board.

A bright guy with a gift for gab, he’s painted an opponent as beholden to developers and himself as a political outsider who’s all about transparency in government.

He’s articulately outlined why you should believe he’s the better choice over his Republican primary opponents — well, one of them at least — and how much more he wants the job than anyone else. With 40 days left until the primary election, it’s been as spirited a challenge as you’ll see in this town or any other.

I’m just not sure it’s been a completely honest one.

In a phone call to WRIV radio this past June, Mr. Coates made a curious comment about the development experience of one of his opponents, Jodi Giglio.

“When it’s in your DNA and you represent developers, you represent them all over the place,” he said of the councilwoman. “Once it’s in your DNA, that’s where you’re cut from.”

That statement just hasn’t sat well with me since I heard it. Hasn’t Mr. Coates worked for developers? Isn’t that in his DNA?

Grant Parpan

Grant Parpan

It’s just an odd statement from a man who spent several years working closely with infamous Port Jefferson developer and automobile dealer John McNamara — a man whose empire came crashing down following his conviction in a $436 million Ponzi scheme. Mr. McNamara’s misconduct led to the arrest of Brookhaven Town officials he allegedly bribed to swiftly approve his development projects, though all town officials were acquitted in the case.

While the résumé Mr. Coates shared with the News-Review shows he worked as publisher of the Port Jefferson Record at a time when Mr. McNamara owned the paper, it makes no reference to Mr. Coates’ involvement with any other McNamara businesses. In fact, the résumé makes no reference to any experience working in development whatsoever.

It’s in line with an approach Mr. Coates has taken since moving to Riverhead, where he has acknowledged his time working for the disgraced developer in interviews but has often distanced himself from the scandal.

In an article published last March on RiverheadLOCAL.com, Mr. Coates said he ran “a portfolio of 15 businesses” for Mr. McNamara.

When asked about the résumé discrepancy in an interview with News-Review staffers last month, Mr. Coates said, “I did run a bunch of companies for him,” including a development company named 347 Corp. of Florida, a name similar to Route 347 Realty Corporation, the Port Jefferson Station company at the center of the McNamara bribery scandal. He stressed, however, that he had no involvement with the local development company or the car dealership, which Mr. McNamara used to secure financing from General Motors to keep his scheme afloat.

In August 1992, Mr. Coates claimed in a federal forfeiture action against the McNamara companies that he was owed more than $11,000 for eight weeks of unused vacation time while he was employed by Mr. McNamara. He claimed he was owed that money by Route 347 Realty Corporation in Port Jefferson Station and not 347 Corp. of Florida, which was also listed as a defendant in the proceeding, according to the documents.

In a follow-up interview this week, Mr. Coates maintained that he never worked for the company at the center of the scandal involving Brookhaven Town officials, but his attorney advised him that claiming that company owed him vacation pay increased the odds of getting paid.

“You go after the bigger company,” he said.

Mr. Coates also said in the earlier interview that he stopped working for Mr. McNamara on his own terms after he sensed his employer was having financial difficulties.

“My first kid was born, I’m making oodles of money and for the first time now the job isn’t fun,” he said. “And also, I went from this wet-behind-the-ears kid who doesn’t know [expletive] to, you know, Sinatra. So I was like, ‘I’ll go off and do other things.’” He said they parted ways mutually in a planned departure and left the door open for him to still do consulting work for Mr. McNamara’s companies. He said he could afford to leave the job — even at a time when his first daughter was just an infant — because he had become financially comfortable working for Mr. McNamara. He said during the interview that to this day his tenure with Mr. McNamara has afforded him a comfortable lifestyle.

When asked how much he made working for McNamara companies, Mr. Coates said, “Oodles of money. Many, many, many zeroes at the end of the money.” He said his salary was for his job at the newspaper and he “earned bits and pieces of other things he touched … mostly I was paid through the newspaper, though.”

As a creditor in the federal forfeiture action, Mr. Coates stated his tenure with Mr. McNamara ended with “an out-of-the-blue termination” on March 15, 1992, one month to the day before Mr. McNamara was indicted in the scheme to bilk GM out of $436 million. Mr. Coates states in his claim that his weekly pay rate was $1,442 during the time he worked for Mr. McNamara — about $75,000 per year.

When asked in a follow-up interview if that was his salary and if he would characterize that as “oodles and oodles of money,” he said that was just his salary and the bulk of his pay came from performance-based bonuses from the other companies he represented.

Even the dates Mr. Coates worked for Mr. McNamara are inaccurate on the résumé, which states he published the newspaper from 1989 to 1993. But Mr. McNamara sold the newspaper in November 1991 and was arrested in April 1992. He admitted in the interview that he left the newspaper before it was sold and spent the remaining months of his employment with Mr. McNamara working for other companies, including a highly profitable heating oil company.

After first being questioned by this newspaper several months ago about possible inaccuracies in his own résumé, Mr. Coates said in an email: “There isn’t an item on my résumé that is disputable, exaggerated or in doubt. I knew what was coming at me, I took every precaution. I may be a bit off on a date here and there because who really remembers their life to the day?”

In that same email, he said of Ms. Giglio, “People with thin résumés shouldn’t throw stones. It’s about time someone calls this woman on her lies.”

Mr. Coates has no doubt he said a lot of the right things during his campaign. But I do wonder how much of it he truly believes and how much of it is just the right thing to say.

Is he really disgusted by Ms. Giglio’s career in development, despite having once worked for one of Long Island’s most powerful developers and having later worked on other development projects? Is he really a political outsider frustrated with the current Town Board, even though he’s been involved in Suffolk County politics for more than 30 years and has run the recent campaigns of the current town supervisor? (His résumé says his first job was as a Suffolk County legislative aide at the age of 16.) Is he truly committed to transparency when his own résumé leaves off his development connections and downplays his role as an employee of Mr. McNamara at the height of the scandal?

When asked similar questions this week, Mr. Coates said his DNA is made up of a lot of different parts. He’s not just a guy who worked for developers, he’s not just someone who’s worked in politics and government. He’s also worked for a fuel buyer’s group and in the financial world. He accomplished a lot at an early age and has rejected a lot of the bad he’s seen in the early part of his career, he said.

He says a reformed insider is really the candidate he is today. I just wish, in the interest of true transparency, his campaign did a better job conveying that to the voting public.

Grant Parpan is the executive editor of Times/Review Newsgroup. He can be reached at (631) 298-3200, ext. 266 or gparpan@timesreview.com.