Nassau County ethics board needs ethics

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Nassau County's politically stacked ethics board missed an opportunity to draw a big, bold dividing line between what is acceptable and unacceptable in guaranteeing transparency in public contract dealings.

A 20-page opinion absolving the county's public works commissioner for her failure to tell lawmakers that a stack of contracts she was submitting included one for a company owned by her sister is laughable.

It says, essentially, that Public Works Commissioner Shila Shah-Gavnoudias did not participate in the selection of the company owned by her sister, Carolyn Shah Moehringer.

The ethics board said Shah-Gavnoudias, who had signed the agency routing slip for the contract and an approval form required by the county comptroller, should recuse herself from all matters relating to the company in the future.

The opinion goes on to say that Shah-Gavnoudias did no wrong in the matter the board was considering: Her decision not to divulge that she'd signed off on a proposed contract with her sister's company.

The opinion clears Shah-Gavnoudias because, it says, she had no financial interest in her sibling's company, CSM Engineering of Uniondale, which was awarded a $250,000 contract for post-Sandy work.

What ever happened to the idea of divulging pertinent information to avoid even the appearance of impropriety?

Yes, part of the issue is who got awarded public money and why. But the larger concern is the perception that one company may have had a leg up on other potentially qualified ones because of favoritism or nepotism.

The ethics opinion works very hard not to address either point, slipping and sliding over legalisms to give the commissioner a pass.

But was that only to be expected?

The board has four members appointed by the county executive along with the county attorney, also a county executive appointee. The board currently is dominated by Republicans. The sole Democrat, who was appointed by Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi, quit after complaining about irregularities in how the board gathered information before issuing the opinion.

One Republican member is John Ciampoli, the county attorney, whose job -- which he does with gusto -- is to defend the county.

The board's opinion defies common sense and reinforces the public's perception that government always seems to find a way to minimize practices that are unacceptable.

Last week, Democrats in the legislature wrote to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano asking that he dissolve the board and start again.

In response, one ethics member called criticism of the board a shame because members are all volunteers.

Volunteerism isn't the problem -- it's whether the decision of an ethics board primarily composed of one political party or the other can be impartial.

A more independent board might, for instance, have declined Mangano's request for an advisory opinion and decided instead to launch a full-scale investigation.

No matter.

Local, state and federal law enforcement authorities are looking at Sandy-related contracts; and the public works department, among others, has been subpoenaed.

The agencies are investigating how contracts were awarded and how contract agencies went about their work.

That's all good.

Because if Nassau's ethics board can't draw a clean, clear line between good and bad behavior, perhaps the other agencies will.