The Nassau Board of Ethics will decide whether the county public works commissioner violated ethics laws by approving a $250,000 contract for her sister's firm without disclosing the relationship.
Last November, Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, appointed by GOP County Executive Edward Mangano, granted a $250,000 contract to her sister's firm for superstorm Sandy cleanup work. The sister, Carolyn Shah-Moehringer, is president of CSM Engineering.
Shah-Gavnoudias did not disclose her relationship to county legislators as required by the county's code of ethics. Late last month, she filed a letter with the ethics board asking it to advise her "if any violation of the Code of Ethics have occurred, and if so, what actions I should take."
Four of the five board members are Republican appointees, and ethics experts say that can lead to the perception of political bias. But board members maintain they function apolitically.
"I think as of late people are politicizing it [the board] which does a disservice to the body," said John E. Ryan, a Republican municipal attorney appointed to the board in 2011.
Democrats say Shah-Gavnoudias should have sought an opinion from the ethics board before signing off on the contract, as outlined in the code of ethics.
"There is no doubt that the failure to disclose is an ethical issue," said Legis. Wayne Wink (D-Roslyn). "Only time will tell to what extent this board is partisan. They still have an opportunity to render a fair and impartial decision."
The county charter allows the county executive to appoint four members to the board, three of whom must receive approval from the county legislature, for five-year terms.
Since taking office in 2010, Mangano has appointed Republicans John Ciampoli, the Nassau County attorney; Owen Smith, a former deputy county executive in the administration of Francis T. Purcell; Albert D'Agostino, a municipal attorney; and Ryan, who provides legal counsel to the Nassau GOP.
"Generally you want professionals who are not politically connected or not easily influenced by their political connections," said Judy Nadler, senior fellow in Government Ethics for the Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. "Are they not going to be as aggressive out of fear of not being reappointed? Are they worried about their political future?"
But Ciampoli said the board's actions are "founded in law. This board doesn't say, 'This is what we think is right. This is what we guess is right.' The determinations are made very carefully with no political involvement."
He also noted that board decisions are guided by outside counsel Steven G. Leventhal, a Roslyn attorney who serves as counsel to the board and lectures on ethics issues throughout the state.
Leventhal said while the board is authorized to investigate ethics complaints, it "is the least significant" of the board's duties.
"A government ethics program is generally about prevention," Leventhal said. " . . . The primary function of the board is to render opinions so that county employees avoid unintended ethical mistakes."
Ciampoli said last year the board rendered 23 advisory opinions, such as the one Shah-Gavnoudias is requesting, reviewed some 600 county employee financial disclosure forms but has investigated only one ethics complaint since 2011.
In 2011, Ciampoli said the board levied a fine in the range of $2,000 to $5,000 on former Nassau Deputy Parks Commissioner Matthew Rocchio, who served under the Suozzi administration, after he failed to seek permission from the board to apply for a job with the Friends of Sands Point Preserve, a nonprofit contracted by the county to run the 216-acre historic Guggenheim estate.
Under the county's code of ethics, county employees cannot apply for jobs with county contractors for a period of two years after leaving county employment, unless they receive approval from the board.
D'Agostino said he recused himself from hearing Shah-Gavnoudias' case because his law firm partner had a land use question before the public works department. "If I feel that I cannot make a decision, based upon the appearance of conflict, I'm going to recuse myself," he said.
Turman, who previously served as campaign treasurer for Legis. Dave Denenberg (D-Merrick), said: "It has been my experience that the board has acted as a nonpartisan, apolitical entity. We've endeavored to put those issues at the door."
Smith said there should be no issue with the county executive selecting board members because Mangano "is the elected representative of the people."
But Robert Weschler, research director for City Ethics, a nonpartisan Jacksonville, Fla.-based nonprofit that offers advice and training to municipalities throughout the United States, said having political appointees on a board could prevent county employees from coming forward with ethics complaints out of fear of retribution.
"Generally members of the ethics board should not do business or give contributions to anyone who is under their jurisdiction," Wechsler said. "It looks bad. You don't want to have any conflicts of interest, on a conflicts of interest board."
NASSAU COUNTY BOARD OF ETHICS
The board has four members appointed by the county executive, three of whom require approval by the county Legislature. The county attorney, an appointee of the county executive, also serves on the board, which is represented by outside legal counsel.
OWEN SMITH: Smith, 75, a Republican, served as chief deputy county executive in the administration of Francis T. Purcell. Smith was appointed to the board in 2012 by Republican County Executive Edward Mangano. His term expires in 2017.
JOHN E. RYAN: Ryan, 56, a Republican, is chairman of the Hempstead Board of Ethics. He has served as the attorney for the Village of Floral Park and counsel to the Town of Hempstead Industrial Development Agency. Ryan was appointed in 2011 by Mangano. His term expires in 2016.
STEPHEN TURMAN: Turman, 39, a Democrat, first was appointed in 2007 by Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi. Turman serves as a Garden City attorney and ran unsuccessfully for Hempstead Town Clerk in 2007. Suozzi appointed him to another open seat on the board in 2009, and that term expires next year.
ALBERT D'AGOSTINO: D'Agostino, 69, a Republican, was named to the board in April by Mangano. D'Agostino serves as school board attorney for the Lawrence and East Ramapo school districts. His term expires in 2018.
County Attorney JOHN CIAMPOLI: Ciampoli was named County Attorney when Mangano took office. He previously served as an elections lawyer for the Nassau GOP and state Republican candidates.
Legal counsel STEVEN LEVENTHAL: Leventhal, a Roslyn ethics attorney, served on the ethics board from 1990 to 2002, appointed by Republican County Executive Thomas Gulotta; Leventhal was board chairman in his last six years. He has published articles on ethics in professional journals and delivers ethics lectures throughout the state.
-- Laura Figueroa