Nassau Comptroller George Maragos this week squared off against the county election board over retroactive salary increases -- part of $1.6 million in pay raises and benefits Nassau officials have awarded to appointees since December.
Maragos, a Republican, moved to recoup more than $30,000 in retroactive raises already paid to five election board workers, who have close ties to top county Republican leaders. He also refused to grant similar retroactive raises to five Democratic appointees.
On Monday, the comptroller mailed certified letters to the five Republicans, whose pay hikes ranged from $3,000 a year to nearly $40,000 annually, saying that because of a "clerical error" his office had approved raises retroactive to July 1.
After the county's financial control board lifted a three-year wage freeze last summer, Maragos had warned that he would not approve retroactive raises for appointees.
Maragos noted in his letters that outside legal counsel had found the state constitution bars retroactive wage increases to appointees as illegal gifts of public money. He directed the five to return the overpayments in a lump sum or in installments.
The letters went to:
Julie Maier, a longtime secretary and assistant to Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello. Maier's salary jumped from $125,531 to $165,000, and her title changed from executive assistant to special assistant to the commissioner. Maier also works at the Nassau Republican Committee, where she earned $15,220 last year.
Joseph V. Ra, son of Hempstead Town Attorney and Franklin Square Republican leader Joseph Ra. The younger Ra got a $10,000 raise as he was promoted from a $96,328 chief election officer to a $106,238-a-year deputy clerk.
Diane Alleyn, longtime secretary and assistant to Joseph Cairo, the North Valley Stream Republican leader who is Mondello's top lieutenant in the county party. Alleyn, an administrative aide, received a $5,000 raise to $120,409.
Nancy Staab, secretary and assistant to Republican Elections Commissioner Louis Savinetti, received a $7,500 increase as she was promoted from administrative assistant to the $66,566-a-year Republican manager of accounts and special reports.
Administrative aide Wanda Foss, wife of a top Mondello committeemen in his West Levittown Republican club, who received a $3,000 raise, to $78,000 annually.
Foss declined to comment. The other four could not be reached.
Republican Elections Board counsel John Ryan said he will fight Maragos' directive. Ryan said the state constitution gives election commissioners sole discretion on how to spend their approved budgets.
"I will respectfully ask him and his attorneys to look at the law and the constitution," Ryan said.
Democratic elections attorney Tom Garry also said he didn't think the provision cited by Maragos applies to the board. "We're ready, willing and able to talk to them and try to figure this out," he said.
A Maragos spokesman said the office discovered its mistake after Newsday inquired about one of the five raises, which were missing from lists provided under Freedom of Information requests for salary increases granted to appointees after Dec. 19.
Newsday reported in December that Nassau officials had awarded $4.4 million in salary hikes and benefits to appointees after the wage freeze was lifted.
Since then, records show the county granted $1.282 million in raises and $346,000 in benefits. The pay hikes averaged $9,785 a year to 131 more appointees, including several department heads.
They include Public Works Commissioner Shila Shah-Govnoudias, whose annual salary rose from $135,850 to $154,003, and John Marks, executive director of the county's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, whose pay increased $17,455 to $148,080.
Brian Nevin, a spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano, said, "This is the first wage adjustment in five years that was necessary to retain excellent commissioners who are working with . . . fewer management positions."
At the elections board, both Democrats and Republicans say they had agreed to ask for raises retroactive to July 1 for five employees each. The GOP appointees received the retroactive pay; the Democrats did not.
Maragos spokesman Jostyn Hernandez said the election board submitted all the proposed pay raises at the end of December, which the comptroller's office processed effective Jan. 1. That batch included the request for the five Republican retroactive increases, which were mistakenly paid, Hernandez said.
Raises for the five Democrats were included, but the request to make them retroactive was not submitted until March 4, Hernandez said. At that point, Maragos refused to grant the retroactive payments.
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said he usually doesn't approve of retroactive raises. But he said that in this case, the pay hikes went to five of the lowest-paid Democrats at the board, who had been stuck in entry-level positions because of the pay freeze.
Before the raises, the five Democratic employees earned from $35,953 to $50,000 annually. After the raises, their annual salaries ranged from $45,000 to $55,000.