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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau needs an independent eye on its contracting process

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. Credit: Amy Onorato

Things got ugly at Monday’s meeting of Nassau’s legislature, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers verbally clashing over whether the county needs an inspector general keeping a watchful — and independent — eye over its embattled contracting process.

Caught in the middle was Carnell Foskey, the county attorney, who was supposed to assume the contract watchdog role as commissioner of investigations.

He tried to answer questions, but much of the time went to Republicans, who support County Executive Edward Mangano’s plan to have the county attorney’s office assume the role, and Democrats, who are vowing to block borrowing for capital projects until Nassau appoints an independent inspector, trying to speak over each other.

Still, Democrats are on to something.

The county attorney’s role is to defend the county, not open Nassau up to potential litigation over flawed contracts. In addition, the county attorney already is part of the contract review process. If the office finds fault, it can stop a contract or send it back for revisions — without the necessity of having investigators do a formal review.

For that matter, if the county attorney’s office suspects criminality, the office already has the power to refer cases to Nassau’s district attorney’s office.

And if the county attorney’s office — acting as Nassau’s commissioner of investigations — received a complaint about, say, BluChip Marketing and its handling of a money-losing county veteran’s salute that ended up not benefiting veterans, Carnell Foskey would have to recuse himself.

Because he signed off on two contracts with the firm when he headed up county parks, recreation and museums, a post Foskey, a former judge, held before becoming county attorney.

Which makes giving the county attorney — who, as Foskey pointed out to lawmakers Monday, “wears many hats” — a brand new fedora something the office does not need.

Yesterday, Mangano, in an interview, said he was considering a change of plans. “I’m seriously considering separating the roles,” he said, “of having a separate commissioner of investigation and having it not be the county attorney.”

That would be one step in the right direction.

But Mangano should press on with recommendations suggested to him by an independent panel, headed by Frank Zarb, a former Nasdq head. The panel, which also included Stuart Rabinowitz, president of Hofstra University, and Robert Catell, a former chairman of KeySpan, was clear in its recommendations for greater transparency and oversight.

It suggested Nassau hire an independent procurement director, who would grow online postings of contract documents, including vendor disclosures.

Mangano said he believed that the county was close on making a selection for the post, after the first candidate backed out after the county asked about a discrepency in his resume.

A second recommendation was that Nassau appoint an internal auditor to probe all aspects of the contracting system.

Mangano wants to use the commissioner of investigations post, a position that reports to the administration, to handle that job. Democratic lawmakers — along with Madeline Singas, Nassau’s district attorney — want to create an inspector general’s office with subpoena power to investigate questionable contracts.

Title doesn’t matter as much as following the panel’s most important recommendations for both posts — that they be assured both independence, and protection from political interference.

All of which means the fights will go on.

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