Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

It's a promising sign that a state commission investigating corruption in campaign financing already has issued subpoenas and is planning on public hearings beginning next month.

But when commission co-chairwoman Kathleen Rice, Nassau County's district attorney, had a chance to make more of the issue at the local level, she punted.

Rice last week said Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano was within the law when he had seasonal county workers, on county time, walking door-to-door handing out county-funded materials that Democrats said included Mangano's campaign message.

She then referred the matter to Nassau's ethics board -- most of which is appointed by Mangano, who is running for re-election.

In a letter to Nassau officials, Rice said she had no choice, because state and county laws are so narrowly written as to make it almost impossible to sustain a criminal prosecution.

Rice began investigating in June when news began circulating on Facebook pages and in emails that Nassau workers had been handing out county-paid fliers in Baldwin. The lead flier featured a photo of Mangano, and touted his record on taxes and jobs.

Rice did describe as "somewhat dubious" Mangano administration claims that the material was informational. And she recommended that state and county lawmakers come up with "more direct rules and mandatory regulations concerning taxpayer-funded mass communication by local officials, especially those efforts occurring during election season."

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Still, the letter didn't seem to convey the level of passion that Rice, a Democrat who is up for re-election, has bought to other issues, including drunken driving and students cheating on SAT exams.

That's too bad. The region could use a strong advocate for beefing up laws that would clarify the line between government and political activities and punish abusers.

Mangano's door-to-door operation -- justified by administration officials as an information exchange -- had marks of a classic political field operation.

There was a previous complaint that the administration had set up a telephone bank in 2011 to inform residents about a vote on developing the Hub area in central Nassau.

That operation resembled a classic political phone bank.


Both actions by the Mangano administration beg a question: Why would a cash-strapped county want to put precious public resources, time and personnel into such activities?

To be fair, the problem here isn't Mangano, a Republican, or any particular political party. It's an abuse by incumbents at every level of government.

In 1991, after then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau filed charges against then-state Sen. Manfred Ohrenstein for assigning public employees to work on political campaigns, among other things, the Court of Appeals tossed out the guts of Morgenthau's case.

The court said that although assigning publicly paid employees to full-time campaign work was wrong, the State Legislature had the legal right to regulate its own affairs. Since then, prosecutors say, their hands have been tied.

Later that year, in a piece in the Fordham Law Review, law professor James A. Gardner lamented the court's decision.

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"It is one thing for candidates for office to use whatever resources they can marshal as private citizens in conducting their election campaigns and to compete using those resources on an equal footing with other candidates," he wrote.

"But it is quite another thing for candidates who happen to be incumbents to use the resources of the government -- resources which were extracted by force of law from the electorate and which are not available to other candidates -- to assist their own re-election campaigns."

Perhaps recommendations from Rice and the Moreland Commission could help change that.