Now that the Nassau trough is empty, County Executive Edward Mangano is ready to corral the feeding frenzy. Embarrassed by federal investigations and stung by the steady revelation of ill-advised contracts and how they are awarded, Mangano has pulled together a team of Long Island leaders to tell him how to better run the county.

The contracting process resembles an ATM for the politically connected. A third of contracts are not let to the lowest bidders, and there is often no official explanation. There is no computerized master list of agreements and their provisions. And a lot of taxpayer dollars can be spent without the scrutiny, tame as it is, of the county legislature.

The system would be a disgrace even if the county were flush, but it's being overrun by an ever-increasing debt that exceeds $3 billion. Last week, county Comptroller George Maragos predicted the county would continue annual shortfalls, with a total deficit of $220 million and a negative balance of $62 million, even if Nassau counts borrowing as revenue.

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Recent examples of questionable spending include: two security consulting contracts with famed ex-NYPD Det. Bo Dietl that came in just under the $25,000 limit requiring legislative approval; a $200,000 consulting agreement with former state senator and state deputy secretary for public safety Michael Balboni that went into effect without a vote because it passed a 45-day window with no action taken; a $12 million contract with AbTech Industries let without a bid process or request for proposals that allegedly hinged on the employment of state Sen. Dean Skelos' son by the company. Newsday also reported in June that the county paid almost $240,000 to the company of restaurateur Harendra Singh with no legislative approval and no acknowledgment of Mangano's friendship with Singh, who employed the county executive's wife.

And Newsday reported Sunday that the county rewrote requirements on a hotly contested $4.5 million contract for investigations into welfare fraud that specifically favored a firm that previously held the contract before the bidding. The firm employed two politically connected lobbying firms: ex-Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's Park Strategies and former Assemb. Arthur Kremer's Empire Government Strategies.

Now under a spotlight, the legislature just tabled $52.5 million in contracts that could have gone into effect without a vote of its rules committee thanks to the 45-day rule. Acting Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas says she's now looking at every county contract, and recently called the system a "recipe for corruption."

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Mangano reached out to former Nasdaq chairman and past Nassau financial savior Frank G. Zarb, who brought in Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz and former National Grid head Robert B. Catell to help show the county best practices of municipal contracting.

Zarb advised the county in 2000 in the wake of the fiscal disaster that was the Thomas Gulotta administration. He was central to the creation of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority and a $100 million state bailout. Now he and the others again must address ills created by a local Republican party that sees the county as its personal preserve.