Nassau's spending on outside law firms has increased sharply under County Executive Edward Mangano, prompting complaints of political favoritism even as officials say the policy has saved money.
Mangano, a Republican, reduced the number of lawyers in the county attorney's office from 108 in 2009 -- the last year of Democrat Thomas Suozzi's administration -- to 73 this year, a 32 percent drop.
That cut more than $3 million in employee salaries and benefits, but the office's annual contract costs (largely to pay private counsel to represent Nassau) spiked from $1 million in 2009 to $5 million in 2013.
Top recipients of this outsourcing since 2010 are firms with strong ties to the county GOP, including chairman Joseph Mondello's firm, another that once employed Mangano, and those run by people who have given as much as $52,000 each to Mangano's campaign.
Mangano notes that many of Nassau's top contracted law firms, despite their Republican affiliations, donate to and work for local politicians of both parties. He says contracts are recommended from a list of firms deemed qualified by a panel of deputy county attorneys.
"There's no politics in the selection process," he said.
But Legis. Judith Jacobs (D-Woodbury), a former legislative presiding officer and a leading critic of legal contracts under Mangano, said, "These firms might have qualifications, but is it political? I have to believe it is. We appear to be going down a slippery slope of politics overtaking what's good for the people of Nassau."
Suozzi, at the start of his second term, sought to reduce legal outsourcing by hiring more staff lawyers. In 2006, the county attorney still had $4 million in contracts, but over four years, as its in-house staff grew, that number fell to $2.3 million in 2007, $2.2 million in 2008 and $1.1 million in 2009.
Mangano argues that including several years of spending prior to 2009 is necessary to show that the county attorney under Suozzi previously had a larger in-house staff and still spent a lot on outside firms.
When including the older spending, the administration notes, its increased use of outside counsel has saved money because of the simultaneous in-house cuts. Salaries and benefits for deputy county attorneys totaled about $45 million between 2006 and 2009, and fell to $33 million from 2010-13.
At the same time, county attorney office spending on outside contracts -- including for transcription and expert witness services, as well as legal representation -- totaled $9.7 million from 2006-09 and $19.2 million from 2010-2013. That means the four-year total of personnel plus contracts was $2.3 million less under Mangano, or about $575,000 a year.
The savings come while assuring specialized expertise in complex cases, Mangano said.
"I'd ask taxpayers, 'Would you rather me assign a deputy county attorney to represent you, or a law firm that's practiced in the field for 30 years?' " Mangano said in an interview.
Deputy county attorneys are nonunion positions, so they can be political hires. But the jobs pay just $50,000 for entry-level lawyers, and average less than $80,000 -- meaning they can be less attractive as patronage jobs than other administrative posts. Therefore, the most politically connected lawyers tend to be in private practice.
Rick Su, a University at Buffalo Law School professor who studies municipal law, said Nassau is mirroring a larger trend "unfortunately driven more by politics than by efficiency."
"A lot of it comes down to 'How are you outsourcing and what are you using it for?' " said Su, speaking generally. "Mass outsourcing, especially on routine cases, is problematic."
He said private corporations tend to have detailed guidelines for when to use in-house staff and when to choose specialized contractors, but government typically does not.
"Usually, you're not saving money at all," Su said. "It's more like redirecting money to the private sector."
Former County Attorney John Ciampoli, who served under Mangano from 2010 until being ousted last year, defended his use of outside counsel, saying he always tried to partner experienced contractors with in-house attorneys.
Still, Ciampoli said county lawyers can only be cut so far.
"I certainly had a belief that staffing of around 85 attorneys was what was needed to get the job done," said Ciampoli, who was replaced by parks Commissioner Carnell Foskey. "I was very concerned the caseload for my deputies was climbing too high. You worried something might not get done that needed to get done."
A Newsday review of county attorney office contracts since 2010 shows that five firms have received more than $1 million in work. They are: Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan LLP, of Mineola; Standard Valuation Services Inc., of Mineola; Rivkin Radler LLP, of Uniondale; Lewis & Fiore Esqs., of Manhattan; and Berkman Henoch Peterson & Peddy PC, of Garden City.
The Bee firm, which has represented Nassau in labor and employment matters, includes partner Peter Bee, a longtime GOP elections lawyer. The firm has given $43,008 to Mangano's campaign since 2010.
Standard Valuation Services has been used by the county attorney for expert witness services in property tax assessment cases. Its president, Matt Smith, has given $52,320 to Mangano's campaign since 2010. His wife, Joanne, has given $5,200 to Mangano plus $10,000 to the Hicksville GOP club that is run by Mangano's chief deputy, Rob Walker.
Rivkin Radler has represented the county in cases including a lawsuit against its state fiscal control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority. Mangano held the title "of counsel" at the firm before his election as county executive in 2009. The practice has since given Mangano's campaign $45,700.
Lewis & Fiore has represented county staff subpoenaed in a state investigation of the shuttered police crime lab, and in other cases. A partner, David Lewis, has worked for State Senate Republicans -- for whom Ciampoli now works.
Berkman Henoch Peterson & Peddy has represented the county in a range of suits, including ex-employees claiming asbestos exposure from Nassau Coliseum. Mondello is "of counsel" at the firm.
Most of the firms did not respond to requests for comment, declined to comment or referred a reporter to Mangano's office. A Mondello spokesman also declined to comment.
Bee, a former deputy county attorney and Garden City mayor, said outside counsel often are able to marshal resources for complex cases -- including investigators and researchers -- that municipal law departments do not have.
"It seems to me that while politics plays a role in every aspect of government, I don't think it's a primary factor in the selection of outside legal firms for the county attorney," Bee said. "You may go to a doctor because you know him, but you don't go to a doctor unless you think he'll do a good job. The same is true of lawyers."
A spokeswoman for the county legislature's GOP majority declined to comment on the increased legal outsourcing. But Nassau Democrats continue to question the practice, which recently included the administration seeking to hire a firm even before it had a specific case to assign it.
"If you don't have experts in your own house, you're going to get in a cycle that's very difficult to change," Jacobs said.