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Ethics panel: DPW chief didn't break law

A company headed by the sister of Shila

A company headed by the sister of Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, Nassau's public works commissioner, received a $250,000 contract from the county after superstorm Sandy for engineering and inspection services, including oversight of tree debris removal countywide. (Dec. 26, 2009) Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Nassau Board of Ethics has ruled that the county's public works chief did not break the law when she signed off on a $250,000 contract for her sister's engineering firm. But the panel said she should recuse herself from future dealings with the company.

The report by the Republican-dominated panel prompted the sole Democrat to resign and call the process a "charade."

Public Works Commissioner Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, an appointee of Republican County Executive Edward Mangano, requested an advisory opinion from the board on April 29, following a Newsday report that revealed that the county had awarded a superstorm Sandy cleanup contract to CSM Engineering. The firm is run by the commissioner's sister Carolyn Shah-Moehringer.

Shah-Gavnoudias had signed off on CSM's contract -- included among 15 others that the county Legislature's Rules Committee voted on in November -- without disclosing the family relationship to lawmakers.

In a 20-page report released Thursday, the ethics board said Shah-Gavnoudias was not required to disclose her relationship under the county's code of ethics because she did not have a financial interest in CSM and had previously recused herself from the process involved in selecting her sister's firm for county work.

"Based on the facts presented, a prohibited conflict of interest did not arise," the report said.

" . . . While I recused myself from the technical selection committee, I regret any impression created by the signing of a procedural routing slip and Comptroller Approval Form for CSM Engineering," Shah-Gavnoudias said.

Democrat Stephen Turman, a Garden City attorney appointed by former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, resigned from the board during a May 10 board hearing, according to a letter he sent the board.

Turman said he was rebuffed in his request to view six documents cited in the board's report. He also said he was called into a meeting to interview Shah's assistant with no notice, so that he could not prepare.

Turman said the board should have opened an ethics investigation, which carries the possibility of a penalty, rather than merely issuing an advisory opinion.

"This advisory opinion sets a dangerous precedent because if the Board is allowed to skirt the rules and procedures to shield [Shah-Gavnoudias], this board would be free to use the same process as a sword to conduct a pseudo-investigation to unfairly discredit another county official," Turman wrote on May 15.

Republican board members John Ciampoli, the county attorney, Owen Smith, a former deputy county executive, and municipal attorney John E. Ryan voted for the report. GOP board member Albert D'Agostino recused himself, saying his law firm had business before the Public Works Department.

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