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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau County should ban political donations from vendors

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola, which serves as the seat of Nassau County government, is seen here on June 26, 2012. Photo Credit: Amy Onorato

Rather than pushing to limit political donations from vendors, Nassau County would do well to enact a ban instead. That's the surest way to purge "pay to play" from a contracting system that already amounts to backdoor public financing of campaigns.

How so?

Many of Nassau's contracts -- the no-bid ones, the just-under-the-funding-limit-to-spark-legislative-review ones, the ones that slid through with no scrutiny at all, as per recent Newsday stories -- are funded by taxpayer dollars.

And that remains true even if the contracts' funding trickled down from taxes residents handed up to New York State and the U.S. government.

A ban -- judging by the thousands of dollars vendors habitually give to Nassau's elected officials in both major political parties -- could begin to drain a swamp reeking of corruption.

And a series of recommendations handed up by an independent panel headed by Frank Zarb, a former Nasdaq chairman, included an example -- the Town of Greenburgh, which bars businesses seeking public contracts from making contributions during a campaign and for a year afterward.

Greenburgh, in Westchester County, has had its ban in place for almost a decade. It's not a total ban -- which probably would fall to free-speech and other legal challenges -- but one that nonetheless remains effective enough to significantly curb vendor contributions.

The statute levels the playing field for vendors, some of whom have complained about favoritism in Nassau's system. And such a measure also could ease even perceived pressure on Nassau's countywide elected officials to reward backers with lucrative, and often consistent public work.

Make no mistake.

A Greenburgh-style ban in Nassau would challenge a legion of people, businesses and organizations with vested interests in keeping things just as they are.

For them, the loss of contributions also could mean the loss of significant access and influence. The loss of money for candidates also would impact local political parties and political clubs.

But access and a perceived guarantee of influence -- such as those detailed in a federal indictment against state Sen. Dean Skelos and his son, Adam -- were among the catalysts pushing County Executive Edward Mangano to seek changes in Nassau's procurement process.

On Sept. 25, an independent panel led by Zarb, who served as the first chairman of a state panel that oversees county finances, recommended to Mangano that Nassau enact a law to curb "pay to play," and appoint independent auditors to oversee the contracting process.

On Friday, Mangano said he probably will begin seeking candidates for an independent procurement director this week. Officials also were working on making internal changes that would result in the county bringing on an internal auditor with the power to probe the system and turn over results, if deemed necessary, to the district attorney's office or other agencies.

As for "pay to play," Mangano said he was awaiting recommendations from the county attorney and experts from Hofstra University. He said they would examine New York City's law, which includes public campaign financing, as a potential Nassau model.

And, he said, it was unlikely that the county would have proposed legislation ready before next month's elections.

That's too bad.

Because Nassau needs a ban, and elected officials tend to vote more bravely before elections than after.

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