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8 in 10 LI voters: Reforms needed to cut public corruption

Former State Sen. Dean Skelos on Nov. 24,

Former State Sen. Dean Skelos on Nov. 24, 2015, outside federal court in Manhattan. Credit: Charles Eckert

Eight in 10 Long Island voters believe reforms are needed to eliminate public corruption “once and for all,” according to a Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll to be released Sunday.

In the poll of 984 Nassau and Suffolk registered voters, 81 percent of respondents said public corruption negatively affected taxpayers and needed to be eliminated, compared with 17 percent of voters who considered corruption an inevitable part of politics. Two percent of respondents had no opinion.

Among steps that could be taken to fight corruption, 78 percent of respondents supported requiring elected officials convicted of felonies to forfeit their state pensions.

The survey also found that the job approval ratings of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone have declined.

The poll comes as state lawmakers consider a series of anti-corruption bills this legislative session following the arrests and convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) last year on federal corruption charges. The Skelos case also has led to investigations of Nassau’s contracting system.

Both counties have seen local corruption investigations. For example, restaurateur Harendra Singh was been indicted on federal charges that he bribed an Oyster Bay deputy town attorney to receive a favorable financial deal. Singh has pleaded not guilty. And former Suffolk County Chief of Police James Burke pleaded guilty Friday to assaulting a handcuffed suspect and orchestrated a departmental cover-up.

“Clearly there’s a lack of trust and confidence among voters when it comes to their public officials,” said Donald P. Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute. “. . . . Over 80 percent of voters are stating, ‘this is killing us,’ we have to find a way to end this.”

The poll, conducted Feb. 14-18 and Feb. 21-22, had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The margin of error for Nassau voters was 4.5 and for Suffolk, 4.4.

Corruption came in third — 14 percent — when voters were asked about the single most important issue facing Long Island. Property taxes topped the list at 36 percent and availability of good jobs was second at 17 percent.

In addition to supporting the pension forfeiture, 66 percent of those polled also support banning political contributions by companies that do business with the level of government they contribute to, and 55 percent back banning elected officials from earning income outside of their government salary. More than half of respondents — 53 percent — support requiring public financing of election campaigns.

When asked which proposal to combat corruption they support the most, 44 percent of respondents — the most — chose pension forfeiture.

Skelos, for example, is in line to receive $95,000 annually from his state pension, despite his conviction last December on charges that he used his influence to secure a $12 million Nassau County contract for a firm he pressured to hire his son Adam. Silver is eligible for a $79,224 annual pension.

“I think it makes our collective blood boil, how large of a pension Skelos is receiving,” Levy said. “Many, many people aren’t going to make that type of money.”

Sixty-six percent of those polled support banning political contributions by companies that do business with the level of government they contribute to, and 55 percent support banning elected officials from earning income outside of their government salary. More than half of respondents — 53 percent — support requiring public financing of election campaigns.

Maureen Cunningham, 53, a West Babylon Democrat, said she supports forfeiting the pensions of convicted officials, saying the money should be used toward the costs of the investigations that led to their arrests.

“It seems like every time you open the paper, something or someone is being investigated,” said Cunningham, a special-education teacher. “Ideally, I’d like to see more done.”

William Cook, 50, a Franklin Square Republican who serves as an associate pastor of an evangelical church in Old Westbury, said corruption “cuts across both parties” and was contributing to the “high cost of living” on Long Island.

“There’s so much wasteful spending,” Cook said. “They have forgotten that they work for the people, and that they need to be responsive to the concerns of the people they serve.”

The poll found that 44 percent of Nassau voters had an unfavorable opinion of Mangano, a Bethpage Republican, while 42 percent had a favorable opinion and 14 percent had no opinion.

The results mark a fall from the 58 percent favorable rating Mangano had from Nassau voters in November 2013, according to a Siena poll released days before he was re-elected to a second term.

Mangano aides contend the sinking job-approval numbers are a result of a report that surfaced as the poll was conducted of an exchange of sexually suggestive texts between Mangano and a female county contractor. On Thursday the Nassau County Police Department said an investigation determined the texts were a “hoax.”

“Look at when this poll was taken,” Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin wrote in an email. “It’s no surprise as the public was being misled by media reports . . . .”

Bellone, a Babylon Democrat, re-elected to a second term last November, has a 47 percent job-approval rating, down from a high of 60 percent last October. The latest poll shows 26 percent of Suffolk voters have an unfavorable opinion of Bellone, and 27 percent have no opinion.

Bellone spokesman Vanessa B. Streeter said: “In a turbulent political environment during a crazy presidential campaign, most sitting elected officials would love to have an approval rating which is net positive by more than 20 points and is positive across all political parties.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had a 56 percent favorable rating, with 38 percent of respondents reporting an unfavorable opinion, and 6 percent having no opinion.

With Robert Brodsky

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