Nassau public works chief should have recused herself from deal

A company headed by the sister of Shila A company headed by the sister of Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, Nassau's public works commissioner, received a $250,000 contract from the county after superstorm Sandy for engineering and inspection services, including oversight of tree debris removal countywide. (Dec. 26, 2009) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

There should have been no debate about whether Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, Nassau's public works commissioner, should have told lawmakers that one of the contracts she was pitching for legislative approval happened to be going to a firm owned by her sister.

Carolyn Shah Moehringer is president of CSM Engineering of Uniondale, which won a $250,000 contract for engineering and inspection services after superstorm Sandy in a unanimous vote of the legislature's Rules Committee.

Shah-Gavnoudias didn't tell lawmakers about the relationship.

And according to papers filed in the county clerk's office, she didn't recuse herself from her department's consideration of the deal either.

Instead, Shah-Gavnoudias signed off on it before it went to Nassau lawmakers last November -- on an agency routing slip and, later, on an approval form required by the county comptroller's office.

To make matters worse, a Newsday review of paperwork submitted with the contract showed the document did not include the county disclosure form usually attached to all county contracts.

That form requires contractors to list the names of principals, officers and the board of directors.

How was that possible because the forms were included with every one of more than a dozen other engineering contracts approved by the legislature that same day?

What's going on here?

Shah-Gavnoudias, a Republican hired by County Executive Edward Mangano when he took office in 2010, wasn't talking last week.

She referred questions about her handling of her sister's contract to her department's spokesman -- who compounded an already bad situation by lambasting complaining Democratic lawmakers as "nothing more than mudslingers . . . at a successful minority woman who has never entered the political fray. . . . It's disgusting."

What is certainly troubling is the administration's clumsy attempt to use Moehringer's gender and ethnicity to shield a series of its own failures.

This isn't about Moehringer; it's about the county's failure to make at least a minimal effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

The fact is that Shah-Gavnoudias should have been nowhere near her sister's contract.

As commissioner, she should not have signed off on it once, much less twice. Nor should Shah-Gavnoudias have presented a package of contracts to lawmakers that included her sister's.

If these are things a commissioner-level government official did not know, it's unsettling. Really, was there no one in the county's contracting-routing process -- including Deputy County Executive Robert Walker, who signed off on the actual personal services agreement -- to clue Shah-Gavnoudias in?

It might have been refreshing to hear someone from the administration say something last week along the lines of: "Yeah, we made a mistake on that one. And, yeah, we know it doesn't look good."

Federal and state law enforcement agencies are investigating how several Long Island municipalities awarded Sandy-related contracts.

This one looks worth adding to the list.

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