Nassau’s first bid solicitation for a $12 million storm cleanup contract — a pact under federal investigation for its ties to political donations — came just two days after the company that ultimately received the work was formed, newly obtained records show.
VIP Splash Waterways Recovery Group, of Island Park, incorporated with the state on June 24, 2013. On June 26, Nassau’s emergency management office issued a request for proposals, or RFP, for “waterway debris removal services” following superstorm Sandy.
County officials, who later awarded the federally funded contract to VIP Splash over more-experienced bidders, previously only identified the RFP as being issued on July 23, 2013.
But Newsday last week obtained the original RFP. The 75-page document, which officials said was reissued simply to insert a pricing sheet, became the July 23 document that yielded the pact for VIP Splash — whose principals knew county officials through an environmental group that volunteered in early post-Sandy cleanup efforts.
The narrow window between VIP Splash’s formation and the county RFP, coupled with the company’s $2,925 donation to chief deputy county executive Rob Walker’s Hicksville Republican Committee — on the same day Walker signed the $12 million pact on Nassau’s behalf — raises questions, said a good government advocate.
“It certainly appears to be a particularly egregious instance of trading political dollars for taxpayer dollars, which, if true, is ‘pay to play,’” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.
But Walker’s attorney, Brian Griffin, said Friday: “Mr. Walker has never steered any contract to any entity in return for a contribution, and this includes VIP Splash.”
The U.S. attorney’s office for New York’s Eastern District is probing the VIP Splash contract, sources said. While testifying at the unrelated corruption trial of former State Sen. Dean Skelos, Walker confirmed he is being investigated by federal prosecutors for what he called “campaign contributions, that contractors received work because of that.”
Nassau prosecutors also opened an investigation following Newsday reports this year.
“As has always been the case, Mr. Walker has done nothing wrong,” Griffin said Friday.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency signed off on the county’s debris removal RFPs, records show. VIP Splash was one of three companies that bid on the June 2013 solicitation, and one of four for the RFP reissued on July 23.
VIP Splash’s contract was first awarded for $4 million: the cost estimated to scan local waters and assess the debris level. The County Legislature’s Republican-controlled Rules Committee approved the agreement in November 2013. The costs of other bids were not disclosed.
In February 2014, FEMA said it’d fully fund the cleanup work. Nassau put the cost, including pulling more than 100 sunken vessels, at $13 million.
In March 2014, Kent Katter, a VIP Splash principal, signed an amendment that raised the contract to $12.2 million. FEMA monitored all work to ensure proper billing, Walker has said.
In April 2014, another company controlled by Katter — VIP Metropolitan Construction Group — donated $400 to the Nassau GOP Committee, two weeks before lawmakers approved the amendment.
On Aug. 18, 2014, Walker executed the contract amendment with his signature. That was the day VIP Splash gave $2,925 to Walker’s Hicksville club, state election records show.
Two weeks after that, Maria Asher, the wife of Tommy Asher, another VIP Splash principal, gave Walker’s club a $1,050 donation, records show.
Katter and Asher did not return calls seeking comment, but Griffin downplayed the significance of the donations coming in the same timeframe that Walker signed the amendment. He said Walker signed more than 1,000 contracts in 2014.
“More importantly, Mr. Walker does not have the authority to actually award these contracts,” Griffin said, noting that “independent layers,” such as the county legislature, must sign off before Walker can execute final agreements.
Several VIP Splash principals, before their involvement in the for-profit company, had ties to a Freeport nonprofit, Operation SPLASH, that had once opposed privatizing management of Nassau’s sewer system. The nonprofit changed its position last year after VIP Splash received its $12 million contract.
Both Walker and leaders of Operation SPLASH have denied that VIP’s contract had anything to do with the volunteer group’s change of heart.