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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Making the contract system transparent

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Hats off to County Executive Edward Mangano and Nassau legislators for moving so quickly to make transparent the system of awarding lucrative county contracts lurking behind what a spokesman for Mangano last week called "the most transparent process known to government."

As of yesterday, there were two lobbying disclosure proposals on the table.

One, from Mangano and fellow Republicans in the legislature's majority, appears to include a loophole also found in state lobbying disclosure law.

And then there's a second proposal, from minority legislative Democrats, which doesn't just tie off that loophole but goes on to require that every contract lawmakers consider include an attached lobbying activity report among other mandatory attachments.

In Nassau, traditionally the party in power makes the decisions. Which, in the past, meant that legislation introduced by the minority ended up deep-sixed.

That shouldn't happen this time around, because, frankly, it would not look good. Or make good sense when Nassau officials say they are trying to open things up.

If transparency is Nassau's goal, lawmakers would do well to work toward a compromise to give Nassau the best lobbying disclosure law possible.

That's the right thing to do.

And the smart thing to do, given that, reportedly, federal prosecutors already are probing a $12 million contract Nassau awarded in 2013 to AbTech Industries, an Arizona environmental firm that hired Adam Skelos -- son of state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) -- as a consultant.

Adam Skelos introduced county public works employees to AbTech, a source has said, and lawmakers say they approved the contract with no knowledge of the younger Skelos' connection to the firm.

Suffolk County's lobbying disclosure law includes many of the measures now being put forth by Nassau Republicans, including requirements that lobbyists register annually with the county and send quarterly reports about their work, such as the identities of clients and officials they lobbied.

State law mandates most of those disclosures as well.

But the loophole in state law that could end up being replicated by the Republicans' proposal is a big one: It allows consultants to introduce business representatives to government representatives -- as long as there's no pitch for action -- which means the consultants can avoid registering with the state as lobbyists.

More importantly (and thanks to Michael Gormley from Newsday's Albany bureau for his assist on breaking this down), the loophole also allows the business to avoid registering as a lobbying client, a move that can complicate trying to determine what the client is trying to influence.

The proposal from Democrats is unique in that it would make it easier for lawmakers -- and the public -- to see exactly who lobbied whom, and for what, for every proposed contract, rather leaving residents to piece information together from the county registry and other disclosure documents that would become available on Nassau's website.

It's an intriguing idea, but the Democrats' proposal covers only contracts, while the Republican measure -- loophole intact -- covers more territory, including proposed legislation.

To their credit, both Republicans and Democrats include penalties in their proposals, which would give Nassau's law teeth.

But first comes the task of chewing through these proposals to end up with the best measure possible, one that truly makes Nassau's transparent system for awarding contracts transparent.

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