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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau contracting process offers plenty for panel to investigate

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano speaks during Vision

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano speaks during Vision Long Island's 14th Annual Smart Growth Awards at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury Friday, June 12, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

In 2000, Frank G. Zarb, a former Nasdaq chairman who once served as President Gerald Ford's energy czar during the oil embargo and gas lines of the 1970s, was asked by then-Gov. George Pataki to examine Nassau's finances.

He did.

And -- for a time -- he managed to put an end to the political squabbling over whether Nassau really was in financial trouble. It was, and the red ink flowed wider and deeper than most residents had imagined.

From there, Zarb -- and, yes, there's a business school named after him at Hofstra University, his alma mater -- would go on to be appointed by Pataki as the first head of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state control board that, back then, pushed county leaders hard and effectively enough to pull one of the nation's richest counties back from the brink of insolvency.

Zarb is coming back.

This time -- and as part of a triumvirate that includes Stuart Rabinowitz, Hofstra's president, and Robert B. Catell, former head of National Grid -- to dig into Nassau's contracting process, which already is under scrutiny by the county district attorney's office and central to a federal probe into political corruption.

The three met this week with County Executive Edward Mangano, who, months ago, said in an interview that he would seek an independent panel to look at Nassau's system.

"I have given them no guidelines, other than to take a look at our procurement system, and I have given them no deadline," Mangano said Friday when asked whether the review and recommendations on contracts would extend to licenses, leases and concession agreements, all of which also have come under criticism.

Mangano said Zarb already had met with Nassau's legislative leaders and with Madeline Singas, the county's acting district attorney, who is running for election to the office. In a report released last month, Singas dubbed Nassau's process for awarding contracts "a recipe for corruption."

Mangano's office is slated to announce the independent panel's creation in a news release Monday. As for how it would work, Mangano said that would be up to the panel and referred further questions to Zarb.

On Saturday, Zarb, in an interview, put the panel's mission succinctly. "We told the county executive that we intend to open every window and every door and he said he was OK with that," Zarb said.

And the review will not be limited to how contracts are handled by the executive branch. Zarb said the panel would also look at what happens to contracts in the legislature and at the county comptroller's office.

He said that, in addition to other Nassau elected officials, he's spoken to County Comptroller George Maragos and to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

And all for what the panel intends to be a two-part process.

"Step one, we will focus on the fairness and integrity of the contracting process so that Nassau ends up with a world-class modern system that is fair and that is neutral," Zarb said.

"Then, step two, we will have to deal with enforcement, to make sure that the system is bulletproof," Zarb said. Currently, there is no strong and consistent oversight.

And he said that the panel's report would be released publicly. "We intend to be very transparent here," Zarb said.

Nassau's contracting system, which the administration has defended, has come under scrutiny since details of a $12 million agreement with AbTech Industries, which employed state Sen. Dean Skelos' son as a consultant, were released by federal prosecutors in April. Since the charges, the Rockville Centre Republican has stepped down as majority leader.

A series of Newsday reports showed that legislators did not know about the Skelos connection to the contract; that Nassau -- until Mangano issued a recent executive order -- had no mechanism of its own for requiring lobbyists to disclose their activities; that a third of Nassau's specialty contracts examined by Newsday, like the one awarded to AbTech, did not go to the lowest bidder.

This week, Newsday reported on a loophole in Nassau's process that allowed a lucrative police department contract to be awarded with no legislative review or action. And the district attorney's office also is looking at a contract that went to a politically connected vendor who produced a report, portions of which the district attorney believes were plagiarized.

All of which means there's plenty for Zarb, Rabinowitz and Catell to do.