Prominent members of a well-known nonprofit that lobbied Nassau County on environmental issues and volunteered in initial superstorm Sandy recovery efforts later formed a private company that has received more than $12 million in storm cleanup work from the county, records show.
The overlap between the private firm, VIP Splash Waterways Recovery Group, and Operation SPLASH, a grassroots group that was a leading critic of County Executive Edward Mangano's plan to privatize the county's sprawling sewer system, has generated concerns among county lawmakers and other environmental activists.
They question whether Operation SPLASH, which endorsed the sewer privatization last year, after VIP Splash began its work, can continue to lobby Nassau with its members -- and its president's wife -- tied to a for-profit firm with a county contract.
"It may be perfectly well-intentioned, but there are policy pitfalls with having two different types of associations with government," said Richard Amper, head of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a nonprofit focused on drinking water and open space protection.
"I know the group, and they do great public service work," Amper said of Operation SPLASH. "But the danger is that their relations with government have become confused, and that can affect credibility."
Aides to Mangano, a Republican, say that despite its members' ties to the county contract, Operation SPLASH, or Stop Polluting, Littering and Save Harbors, is independent.
"These guys, they will never sell their souls," said Rob Walker, Mangano's chief deputy. "All you have to do is look at them: They'll tell you flat-out when they agree with you and flat-out when they're against you. And just because a few of them may have worked on this project, it doesn't mean it'll have any impact on how they will go about their business."
VIP Splash principals didn't respond to requests for comments or referred calls to the county.
Founded after Sandy
They founded the company eight months after superstorm Sandy, specifically for waterways cleanup. Sandy left more than 18,000 cubic yards of debris along Nassau's South Shore, from refrigerators to boats to bay houses.
The 25-year-old Operation SPLASH, of Freeport, had first helped remove some of that debris using volunteers in boats.
"But some of this stuff was way, way beyond the scope of what I could have asked volunteers to do," said Rob Weltner, Operation SPLASH's president.
VIP Splash Waterways Recovery Group Inc. filed as a domestic corporation on June 24, 2013, state records show. The county issued its request for proposals for Sandy waterways cleanup on July 23. VIP Splash was one of four respondents.
The others were: Tully Environmental Inc. of Flushing, Queens; DRC Emergency Services LLC of Mobile, Alabama; and Galvin Brothers Inc. of Great Neck. Each cites deep cleanup experience following natural disasters, locally and nationally.
On July 30, Nassau awarded an initial $4 million contract to VIP Splash. The criteria used to rate the firms -- and to score VIP Splash first -- were, "cost, prior experience, financial stability, demonstration of RFP requirements and feasibility of proposed solution," according to county contract documents.
A representative of one of the losing companies said municipalities generally want a record of past work as proof of performance and financing.
"As far as we could tell, they'd never done a single construction job," the representative, who requested anonymity to avoid risking future business with Nassau, said recently. "They came out of leftfield."
Walker said: "You never know who is going to bid."
VIP Splash principals, according to the contract, include four tied to Operation SPLASH: Kim Weltner, Freeport's purchasing agent and Weltner's wife; Scott Bochner of Long Beach, a co-founder of Sludge Stoppers Task Force and a SPLASH member; Tommy Asher of Island Park, a boat captain for the nonprofit; and Jim Ruocco of Freeport, another member.
Company principals also include president Michael McLean, of Flanders, and secretary Kent Katter, of Babylon, a developer who was hired as village building administrator in Island Park following Sandy.
"They have a vested interest because it's the kind of work they do," Walker said of VIP Splash principals connected to the nonprofit. "They think that this process is a great thing."
Pact with Hempstead
Hempstead Town is among the municipalities that signed agreements for VIP Splash to remove Sandy debris under its deal with Nassau, at no additional cost, as is common with many county-level contracts. The federal government has reimbursed most of the cost.
But Island Park resident Patti Ambrosia, who criticized VIP Splash because of the company's ties to the nonprofit, said work could have been done at a lower cost to taxpayers because Hempstead's Department of Conservation and Waterways already cleans the local waters.
"Our officials are supposed to be protecting taxpayers," Ambrosia said. "Then they give $12 million to a company for work we have the town to do."
Hempstead spokesman Michael Deery said the town cleaned its local waters after Sandy, but noted, "it would not have been possible for us to remove the debris that needed to be removed in the time frame we all believed necessary."
The county legislature's Rules Committee approved VIP Splash's first $4 million contract in November 2013. Last May, the committee voted for an $8.2 million contract increase. On neither occasion did Mangano aides name the VIP Splash principals tied to the nonprofit. While they weren't required to make the disclosures at public meetings, contract documents did list company principals, as was required.
"It really muddies the water, and it's too bad, because I've always been impressed with the nonprofit," said Nassau Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove). "The association with this company definitely could taint their reputation."
County officials occasionally have fueled the confusion.
In August, Mangano held a news conference to cite progress VIP Splash had made under its contract. He was joined not only by VIP Splash president Michael McLean, but also by Rob Weltner, who wore a shirt with the nonprofit Operation SPLASH logo.
And in a November letter about the VIP Splash contract sent to civic leaders, Legis. Denise Ford (R-Long Beach) merged the two organizations.
"It is expected that upon completion our waters will be cleaner than they have been in years," Ford wrote, "thanks in large part to the efforts of VIP Operation Splash."
On Aug. 18, the administration finalized the amendment increasing VIP Splash's contract to $12.2 million. That day, according to state campaign finance records, the firm gave $2,925 to the Hicksville Republican Committee run by Walker.
Walker, whose club often receives donations from companies with county business, said he did not solicit the money.