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Nassau investigations chief Donna Myrill touts independence

Donna Myrill, Nassau's new investigations commissioner, testified at

Donna Myrill, Nassau's new investigations commissioner, testified at Judge Alcee Hastings' impeachment trial in 1989. Credit: C-Span via YouTube

Nassau Investigations Commissioner Donna Myrill says she understands the optics: County Executive Edward Mangano hired her, can fire her and, therefore, could influence her decisions.

“Perception is everything — we live and die by that,” Myrill said in her first interview since starting the job last June 1. “But neither the county executive nor the county executive’s office ever calls me up and says, ‘Do this’ or ‘What are you doing today?’ ”

She paused. “Nobody will believe that, though.”

Myrill’s job as defined in the county charter gives her sweeping powers to examine the operations of nearly every department or agency, including the awarding of contracts to outside vendors.

But a year after Mangano, a Republican, hired her in response to county contracting scandals, Myrill’s public profile has been almost nonexistent. She has testified before the county legislature only once, issued no public reports and, in the interview, would speak only generally about the cases she is pursuing.

In that vacuum, county legislators have continued their larger fight over Myrill’s office and whether it should be removed from Mangano’s control.

Republican lawmakers say creation of Myrill’s position — which entailed separating the investigations commissioner’s duties from County Attorney Carnell Foskey, another Mangano appointee — was sufficient to improve scrutiny of county contracts.

But Democrats continue to push for creation of an inspector general’s office that would be completely independent of the county executive.

By no fault of her own, Myrill, a former career prosecutor from Queens with no Nassau political ties, is caught in the middle.

She said she can understand why there would be clamor to protect her position from executive branch influence, either by giving her an employment contract or establishing an IG’s office authorized by a change in county law.

“Objectively, no one can disagree with that,” Myrill said. “The charter, of course, does not say that today. I can only work with whatever I have and this is what I have.”

Myrill said she views her job as a “sounding board for better practices in the county.”

She has investigated several contracts, but declined to be specific about their number or result.

She said she has not forwarded any of those to Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas for possible criminal charges, although she said she has given Singas’ office other cases she didn’t specify.

Myrill’s office, which employs two investigators and one assistant, can receive complaints from anyone inside or outside county government. It also reviews allegations of fraud or theft by county employees.

“Donna Myrill’s performance has by all accounts been highly professional and if the law allowed, I would provide her a long-term employment contract,” Mangano said in a statement. “But unfortunately the county attorney advises I do not have the authority to do so.”

The debate over how best to oversee county contracts is now two years old. It started when former State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was indicted in 2015 on federal corruption charges that included improperly influencing the awarding of a county contract to a firm that employed his son, Adam. Dean and Adam Skelos were convicted of bribery and conspiracy and are appealing.

In October, Mangano, a Republican, was indicted on federal corruption charges that related in part to the awarding of another county contract. Prosecutors allege he received bribes and kickbacks from restaurateur Harendra Singh, a longtime friend, in exchange for favors, including the contract and loan guarantees by the Town of Oyster Bay. Mangano has pleaded not guilty.

“The way we root out corruption is not waiting for the corruption to happen, but by having independent entities reviewing the county procurement process,” said Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport).

But Republicans say Myrill’s office appears to be functioning properly, and they note that New York State and New York City have similar systems.

The state has an inspector general appointed by the governor. New York executive law, however, states that the person “shall hold office until the end of the term of the governor by whom he or she was appointed,” which is generally taken as protection from midterm firing.

New York City’s commissioner of investigations is nominated by the mayor. Unlike in Nassau, the legislative branch — the New York City Council — must confirm the commissioner.

Nassau Democrats want to go further than the state or city by hiring an inspector general who would be recommended by a panel appointed by lawmakers of both parties and confirmed by a supermajority of at least 13 of the 19 legislators. The person would not answer directly to any elected official, and could be removed only for clear wrongdoing.

Abrahams and other Democrats note that municipalities including Montgomery County, Maryland, and Palm Beach County, Florida, have inspectors general to oversee contracts. IGs there are chosen by panels of non-county employees and awarded long-term contracts that can only be broken in extreme cases, such as those involving criminal convictions.

But Foskey last year released an opinion that called the Democratic proposal unconstitutional. The measure “disenfranchises the public by purportedly moving ‘independent’ review of contracts from elected officials . . . to an officer not elected by the people or immediately accountable to an officer elected by the people,” Foskey wrote.

“If you’re worried about public corruption, the last thing you want to do is create an office with virtually unlimited powers in this county,” Deputy presiding officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said at a May 8 legislative meeting. “This individual, with all this power, is held accountable to no one. I think it’s a prescription for absolute corruption.”

Abrahams responded: “What you just described . . . is independence.”

Donna Myrill, Nassau County investigations commissioner

  • Started: June 2016
  • Previous experience: Queens County district attorney’s office, 1983-2016. From 2006 to 2016, served as a senior assistant district attorney in the narcotics trial bureau, overseeing cases in the office’s treatment courts
  • No previous political ties in Nassau County
  • Education: Law degree, Howard University School of Law; bachelor’s degree, business law, City of London Polytechnic School of Business Studies

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