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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau needs to fix contracting system 'ripe for corruption'

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

Nassau's contracting system, which weeks ago was lauded by the administration of County Executive Edward Mangano for its transparency, last week was criticized in a county district attorney's report as "ripe for corruption."

The county does not verify information, including criminal convictions, from vendors seeking contracts.

It relies on paper rather than 21st-century databases, which would allow quicker, deeper scrutiny of contracts.

It seems to have a penchant for awarding contracts in amounts just shy of those that would trigger legislative or other review.

The county repeatedly lets vendors begin work before contracts have been approved.

And it has no way, in real time, to determine whether the officials who approve them have conflicts of interest.

All this was in a report issued last week by Madeline Singas, Nassau's acting district attorney. She launched a review of the process after federal prosecutors accused former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) of illegally influencing the awarding of a $12 million contract to a company that had hired his son, Adam.

Singas, who is campaigning for the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray for the DA's post this fall, turned up a new crop of disturbing and embarrassing details about Nassau's contracting process.

The report noted one vendor with ties to organized crime. Others had felony convictions and bankruptcies, while another had multiple warrants for unpaid taxes.

The report did not name names, and the report's first footnote says why. "The DA's office is legally barred from discussing any part of a grand jury investigation, including any evidence or materials compelled by grand jury subpoena." Hopefully, that means there will be more details to come.

The report also does not assign responsibility for the abysmal state of affairs, opting instead to reach back two decades to the administration of former County Executive Thomas Gulotta and spread blame forward.

Under Gulotta, Nassau entered into an agreement to switch county employees to a new health insurance plan run by Benefit Plan Administrators. The firm, in 1997, promised to save money for Nassau -- which back then, as now, had significant budget problems. But the B.P.A. contract ended up costing Nassau more.

As Singas' report notes, the county had received an unsolicited proposal from BPA -- one of what the report says became a series of "unsolicited solutions to problems it [Nassau] did not have."

During Mangano's tenure, a failed effort to install school speed-zone cameras, a defunct plan to construct gigantic billboards near major roadways and the now-canceled contract with AbTech Industries -- the firm at the center of federal-corruption-related allegations against Dean and Adam Skelos -- all started out as unsolicited proposals too. All were pitched as ways to generate savings, or to bring in sorely needed new sources of revenue.

But while the Singas report noted similarities between BPA and AbTech, it missed one key difference.

BPA began unraveling after Nassau lawmakers began asking questions, which led to the appointment of former state Supreme Court Justice Milton Mollen to investigate, which led to legislative hearings.

The issues with the contract with AbTech, which has not been charged with wrongdoing, came to light through an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department -- an agency outside Nassau.

On Friday, the county attorney, Carnell Foskey, launched a weak defense of Nassau's system, citing areas where the county disagreed with Singas. But his letter was silent on some of the more serious issues, including unsolicited proposals and verifying vendors.

While Singas' report didn't assign blame for Nassau's latest contracting woes, Mangano, as the county's highest ranking elected official, bears responsibility.

Last week, he said he would consider Singas' recommendations for reform. That's not good enough.

Yes, it will take time to fix all that is wrong with the process.

But for now, why not stop accepting unsolicited proposals? And how about a moratorium on agreements already wending their way through the process?

Mangano needs to show taxpayers he's serious about addressing contracting problems that have festered for far too long.

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