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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: Look who's talking, about pay to play in Hempstead

Secret recordings were part of an ex-Hempstead Town

Secret recordings were part of an ex-Hempstead Town sanitation worker's lawsuit against the town and department. Credit: Charles Eckert

Yakkity yak.

And so Hempstead workers did — to a fellow worker who, unknown to them, taped conversations that would end up in a lawsuit, and later, as justification for a town investigation into whether workers are pressured into giving political donations in return for promotions.

"I don't pay them every week," a veteran sanitation worker tells a colleague.

"I don't pay them every month," the veteran goes on. "I don't deal with their … [expletive]"

It was March 2015, and the recorder was running.

"I wanted the job for the money," the veteran says, "and so I could retire with more money, right?"

"Uh-huh," replies the colleague, Lawrence Coleman, who is taping the conversation.

"And that's exactly what they did," the veteran went on. "They gave me the job. They gave me the money. But they didn't give me — they said to me, unless you want to pay to play, you know, just enjoy your career."

"Yeah," replies Coleman, who, back then, had been a town worker for a decade.

" … That's how the system works," the veteran says. "So, that's what I am doing: I am enjoying the last couple of years of my career here."

The issue of pay to play has come up before in Nassau.

During the trial and retrial of former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, the U.S. government's key witness, Harendra Singh, former restaurateur and self-acknowledged payer of bribes, testified he gave food, gifts and other inducements in attempts to gain favor with Republican officials in Nassau and Oyster Bay, and Democrats in New York City.

Testifying about Republicans in Oyster Bay and Nassau, Singh said, "When you buy a couple of tickets, you become big supporter. When you hold a fundraiser, you become very good friend. When you stuff money in their pockets, you bribe them, then you are family."

Singh, who pleaded guilty to bribery charges long before Mangano's trial began, has yet to be sentenced; meanwhile, Mangano, who was convicted on corruption-related charges after a retrial in U.S. District Court last year is slated to be sentenced in December.

There have been other cases too.

In 1985, a federal jury found that Nassau County and Hempstead Town Republicans — from 1973 until 1976 — had pressured town workers to contribute one percent of their salaries to the county GOP if they wanted raises, promotions and overtime. The defendants, after years of battling through appeals, ultimately agreed to pay $1.3 million.

In 1991, a federal appeals court reinstated a jury verdict won by John Jund, a former town sanitation worker refused a promotion because he refused to contribute to the Republicans.

The three-judge appeals panel concluded that Jund — one of the three who had sued in the one-percent case — had been denied a promotion because of the town's "practice and procedure" of promoting only workers who contributed to the GOP.

But wait, didn't some of those town jobs come under the jurisdiction of the Civil Service system, where exam scores determine who rises and who doesn't?

Let's look to the results of a nine-month investigation Newsday published in 1991:

"From the lowest-paying positions to the most lucrative, competitive Civil Service jobs in Hempstead Town have been manipulated for the benefit of officials, contributors, and friends of the Nassau Republican Party … the favoritism is played out at every level of the Civil Service system as politics dictates hiring, promotions and raises." 

The series, even back then, noted that politics in hiring was common in jobs across Long Island.

And in the decades since, not much has changed — in municipalities run by Republicans, or by Democrats.

The Coleman recordings became part of a lawsuit he filed against Hempstead and the town's sanitation department in 2016, alleging he was denied opportunities to advance because he refused to participate in local GOP politics.

He lost. But the recordings live on, with Democrats in Hempstead — citing both the one-percent and Jund decisions — demanding an investigation to determine whether pay to play lives on. Town attorney, Joseph Ra, a Republican, has agreed to do delve into the matter.

What do Democrats want?

"We are looking for the town to state on the record, hey this is something that is going on, or this is something that is not going on," said Mike Fricchione, a spokesman for Laura Gillen, the town supervisor who often has clashed with Hempstead's majority-GOP board.

And the county Republican Party?

"The primary mission of the Nassau Republican Committee is to elect qualified candidates," said Michael Deery, spokesman for county GOP chairman Joseph Cairo. "At the same time, just like all political organizations, the Republican committee does make recommendations, from time to time, to government officials."

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