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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Down the line, re-examination of Nassau's contracting reforms will be waiting

Jodi Franzese during a Nassau County Legislature meeting

Jodi Franzese during a Nassau County Legislature meeting on Dec. 17, 2018, in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

For a while there, it looked like construction on Nassau's Family and Matrimonial Court in Mineola would have to wait.

But that changed last week, when officials got word that continuing the project had been deemed essential —  and, as such, exempt from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's order that bars nonessential construction as the state grapples with the spread of COVID-19.

Two weeks ago, Nassau County lawmakers approved funding for the final phases of construction on the court building.

Wait, was that only two weeks  ago?

Oh, how the world has changed since then.

As Northwell Health President and CEO Michael Dowling, who is advising Cuomo during the pandemic, reminded Long Islanders Friday during a Newsday webinar, we will get past this.

And when that happens, and when the rebuilding that's sure to come begins, it will become necessary and timely to address concerns about building-related contracts raised by Jodi Franzese, Nassau's inspector general.

In approving funding for continuing construction on Nassau's largest public works project in almost five decades, lawmakers acknowledged Franzese's findings that officials of a major contractor on the courthouse project had not disclosed election campaign contributions.

But despite their frustration, the legislators decided to keep construction moving.

At that point, given the crucial need for new court facilities and the reality of multiple delays and significant cost overruns, keeping things moving was pretty much the only option left, county officials said.

"The inspector general has cleared her concerns," said Laura Curran, Nassau's county executive. "We were able to address her concerns and she was satisfied … and the legislature was satisfied as well."

What clinched the deal was a last-minute substitution of paperwork in which company principals, as is required by law in Nassau, disclosed their contributions to candidates for county offices.

"These are good union construction jobs," Curran said in a recent interview 

"It's important that we put people to work, and the Family Court serves the most vulnerable," she said. "For a lot of reasons, this is important to get done."

Nonetheless, at some point, the report from Franzese will merit a second look.

Franzese questioned the "business integrity" of the company that was awarded an $85.6-million construction contract for the new courthouse, saying the firm failed to identify key officials, or disclose their campaign contributions.

The requirement was put in place under a county law that, in theory at least, was supposed to make Nassau's contracting process more transparent — and less subject to political favoritism.

That law was supposed to be reform, an antidote, to a series of contract-related scandals involving Edward Mangano, Nassau's former Republican county executive, and Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the longtime former state Senate majority leader, who for years was among the three most powerful officials in New York State.

According to the IG's report, E & A Restoration Inc., of Syosset, initially did not disclose the identities of two top company officials when it bid on the contract. E & A ultimately was the low bidder.

The report called Antonios Vournou and his sister Jenny Sakalis "de facto officers/principals" of the company — although their mother, Kalliopi Vournou, was listed as sole owner of the business in company filings.

Company officials said they had not intended to deceive the county. But later, E & A filed amended paperwork, and ended up being allowed to keep the contract.

"We felt as if we ended up between a rock and a hard place," said Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), the legislature's majority leader.

Be that as it may, the report exposed some of what's working, and what's not, with Nassau's contracting reforms.

Creating the independent inspector general position — which was done after considerable political haggling between Democrats and Republicans — worked: Franzese's investigation — and resulting report — was thorough.

But her findings resulted in no penalties.

Is that an issue with the law?

Is it effectively toothless, and as such, ineffective?

At some point, Curran and lawmakers will have to decide,

For now, the pandemic demands that officials' attention be riveted on a single, overarching goal: Navigating the COVID-19 crisis.

"It is going to be difficult," Curran said.

"And once it is over, there will be the rebuilding — and that will be difficult too."

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