Political activity supported by Nassau taxpayers has surged since District Attorney Kathleen Rice determined in August that it wasn't criminal for Republican County Executive Edward Mangano to use county workers to deliver fliers trumpeting his re-election slogans along with a Web address for superstorm Sandy aid.
After investigating complaints about the fliers, Rice, a Democrat running for re-election, said the material did not include "objectively overt political statements" and she could not prove criminal misuse of government resources.
County Republican legislators put out a government-paid mailing that warned: "DEMOCRATS ARE PLAYING 'POLITICS' WITH YOUR HEALTH," referring to a legislative dispute over borrowing for restoration of the flooded Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.
Democratic leader Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) sent 90,000 postcards printed and paid for with public funds announcing, "County Executive Ed Mangano's mismanagement has Nassau drowning in over $3.5 BILLION in DEBT!" -- a main campaign theme of Mangano's Democratic opponent, former County Executive Thomas Suozzi.
Mangano and George Maragos, the Republican county comptroller also seeking re-election, issued a joint government mailing that repeated the GOP campaign slogan about "Holding The Line On Taxes" while also providing their government phone numbers and a Sandy Web address.
At a news conference in the county's ceremonial chamber, Mangano stood in front of the county seal, in the middle of a county work day, to criticize Suozzi as a "compulsive liar." Mangano was flanked by signs made in the county's print office by county employees. One said "Tom Suozzi Hurt All Nassau Families," while the other read "SUOZZI DEBT."
The Autoseum, a nonprofit group that teaches auto customizing in Nassau-owned space and uses county telephones, emailed its backers to support Mangano's re-election. Autoseum's sponsor, Mike Manning, said the email was supposed to come from his company, Celebrity Chase Collision. The Autoseum, as a nonprofit, "can't by law be political," Manning said.
'More and more blatant'
Stanley Klein, a political-science professor at LIU Post in Brookville and a Huntington GOP committeeman, said he had never seen so much partisan activity paid for with public funds. He said Rice "has opened a Pandora's box" with her decision.
"It seems to me as those are all political, not governmental," Klein said.
"Most politicians are very, very careful about not using governmental facilities and governmental monies for strictly political items," Klein said. "They might use the steps of a building, or the lawn, but not inside the building and not using material printed on governmental presses. This whole thing is a little untoward."
Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York State League of Women Voters, said: "It just looks blatantly unethical."
Bartoletti said publicly funded electioneering turns off voters. "When they see their money being used for things like this, instead of bringing down property taxes or for something positive, citizens throw up their hands and say, 'Why should I bother to vote? They're all crooks,' " she said.
Retired educator Louis Farbstein of Merrick contacted Newsday after receiving two Mangano-Maragos mailings. "If this is paid for by county money from my taxes, it's disgusting," he said, calling the pieces "thinly veiled campaign literature."
Farbstein said his late father, a Democratic U.S. congressman from Manhattan from 1957 to 1971, always included the statement "not printed at government expense" on his campaign literature. The Nassau mailing "is obvious by its timing and content that it is a political flier disguised as a public service announcement," he said.
Michael Dawidziak, a campaign consultant who works primarily for Republicans, said politicians at all levels have "been pushing the envelope on this for years. It's been getting more and more blatant."
"The only thing I know is that it is strictly illegal to raise money for political purposes on governmental property," he said. "You're not allowed to send a fundraising letter to a county worker at their county address, not allowed to call them on their county phone or use their county email address."
Dawidziak said that, "If the DA says it's OK, I guess it's OK. Until the taxpayers raise a stink about it, they're going to do it."
DA: Dubious, not criminal
Complaints about the practices began circulating in early June after county employees went door-to-door delivering fliers that presented Mangano's campaign messages in bold print: He froze property taxes, repealed an energy tax, cut wasteful spending, and created and retained private jobs. In smaller print, at the bottom, was a state website address where Sandy victims could register for aid.
Rice said in an Aug. 2 letter to the county ethics board that Mangano officials contended the materials were meant to inform residents and solicit input.
Although she termed that "somewhat dubious," Rice wrote that without "objectively overt political statements" she could not find proof "beyond a reasonable doubt that a violation of criminal law has occurred."
A Rice aide said the district attorney is charged with enforcing the law and has no authority to create it. "We can't fabricate a crime to charge when the law doesn't provide for one," said John Byrne.
Rice recommended state and county lawmakers establish rules and regulations for taxpayer-funded communications and referred the Mangano complaint to the county board of ethics.
The 19-member Nassau legislature approved $1.1 million for its mailings this year, while Mangano has a $1.4 million postage budget, with $2 million proposed for next year.
Experts see gray area
The New York Constitution essentially bars public money from being spent for political ends. The State Court of Appeals ruled in 1995 it is "unassailable that the use of public funds . . . to pay for the production and distribution of campaign materials for a political party or a political candidate or partisan cause in any election would fall squarely within the prohibition."
But experts have said that it is often difficult to determine when educating voters turns into trying to persuade them how to vote.
Republican legislative spokesman Frank Moroney said every GOP legislator sent the sewer mailing within their districts "to inform their constituents of a critical legislative vote that affected some 500,000 residents and to seek taxpayer feedback." Republicans complain that Democrats agreed to borrow only $260 million of $722 million Mangano wants to upgrade the Bay Park plant.
Moroney said Abrahams' postcard "simply repeated Tom Suozzi's false campaign statements on county debt and was sent countywide to people based solely on political affiliation."
"Ours was a governmental mailing; Kevan's was political," said Moroney.
Democratic legislative spokesman Michael Florio said, "After seeing the Republicans bombard residents with misinformation, we believed it was necessary to inform them of the consequences of Mangano's disastrous fiscal policies."
He said the amount of taxpayer-funded communications increased after Rice's decision. "I think the amount of different kinds of activity got worse. Since this summer, it's been as bad as I've ever seen it."
Ethical questions floated
Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin defended Mangano's Sept. 12 news conference in the county's ceremonial chamber.
"While serving in an official capacity, County Executive Mangano will always respond to those who question the integrity of the county's finances," Nevin said. Earlier in the day, Suozzi had accused Mangano of being a "compulsive borrower."
Maragos, who oversees the county spending, said he does not have the authority to police the use of county resources.
"We just review the numbers," he said. "From the comptroller's point of view, reducing the budgets will save money and will certainly bring some discipline and reduce the number of frivolous mailings."
The county ethics board is controlled by Mangano appointees, including the Nassau Republican party's chief election lawyer John Ryan and county attorney John Ciampoli, who served for many years as the state GOP's election lawyer. Ciampoli said the board has not taken up Rice's letter.
Robert Wechsler, director of research for City Ethics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, said an ethics board whose members do not work for elected officials or political leaders would provide cover for politicians by determining the appropriate use of government money before questions arise.
"It may not be criminal, but that doesn't mean that it's legal," he said. "In most jurisdictions, you're not allowed to use any government resources" for campaigning.
Former Suffolk Chief Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino, who spent two decades as counsel to the Suffolk Legislature under both Republicans and Democrats, said it is often difficult to determine when politicking with public money crosses the line into criminality. He said taxpayers can file a civil suit against officials -- though Wechsler said such actions are uncommon.
Sabatino, a Republican, said he never saw similar language in official Suffolk newsletters while he was in government.
"When you're trying to skirt that line, the safest thing is to make reference to the years, or to the previous administration," Sabatino said. "But when you start talking Republican or Democrat, that's not governmental information."