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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

For Nassau GOP, campaign finance comes full circle

Former State Senate Leader Dean Skelos enters Southern

Former State Senate Leader Dean Skelos enters Southern District Federal Court in Manhattan on July 30, 2015. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

In April 2013, Nassau County's most powerful elected representative, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, spoke out against public financing of state campaigns.

Citing corruption charges then pending against a number of New York City Democrats, Skelos said: "Public financing of elections would not have stopped any of those crooks and idiots from doing what they did."

At some point we'll see if Skelos belongs to this "crooks and idiots" club -- since he's now wrestling with a corruption indictment of his own. Skelos insists he's innocent. He remains in the Senate, but ceded the leadership post under pressure in May after being charged.

Now, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano endorses public campaign financing for Nassau along the lines of New York City's.

The move is among several suggestions from a three-member panel that Mangano created to review county contracting practices.

Mangano appointed the panel to help clear the smell of "pay to play" from Nassau's procurements -- resulting, in part, from the criminal charges against Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

That is, federal officials say the veteran senator essentially pushed a contract on the county for a water filtration device that the company that employed Skelos' son, Adam, a co-defendant, was peddling.

In fact, the FBI managed to record Mangano and Skelos discussing the contract.

But would the Nassau legislature, dominated by a GOP majority, suddenly agree to a system providing taxpayer funds to match private donations to local candidates?

Republicans generally have proved more resistant than Democrats to embracing public finance as a reform. As Newsday's Paul LaRocco reported, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said: "We intend to give the panel's recommendations and the county executive's proposals our closest scrutiny."

Mangano says he'll submit a bill before the year's end. It sounds as if this could at least take a while.

"It is an interesting proposal," added a well-placed legislative official. "The questions are: Is it workable? Is it constitutional? And then, will it be done?"

One Mangano ally insisted on the viability of a public-finance proposal, saying of the county legislature: "It's not like one party has significant fundraising prowess over the other. Fundraising is the worst part of the job. "

New York City Campaign Finance Board officials indicate that another key suggestion from the Nassau panel has worked well in the five boroughs: capping election contributions from those with city contracts.

Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesman, said that since these "pay-to-play" rules were imposed, that kind of contribution has decreased from close to a third of all cash to candidates to less than 10 percent.

For localities across the state, New York City's public-match system for campaigns marks an exception. The Buffalo Common Council has taken tentative steps in recent years toward introducing one.

One interesting New York City law that the Mangano administration did not propose might have more relevance: A long-standing ban on political party officials holding policy-making jobs.

That would require a different and perhaps more difficult discussion -- about the role of the party organizations in the county's government.

Clarification: A federal complaint against State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) does not specify how prosecutors learned of an alleged conversation between Skelos and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano about a county contract for a water filtration device. This column initially said the FBI had recorded the conversation.


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