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Hempstead proposes stronger ethics rules

The updated code is intended to eliminate nepotism and the use of town offices for private gain, officials said.

Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen and members of the town board announced a bipartisan ethics reform package on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, that would overhaul the town's existing ethics code with new or revised rules combating nepotism, conflicts of interest and the use of town offices for private gain. (Credit: News 12 Long Island)

The Hempstead Town Board unveiled a sweeping ethics reform package on Monday that would overhaul the town's existing ethics code with new or revised rules combating nepotism, conflicts of interest and the use of town offices for private gain.

The proposed reforms represent a rare bipartisan compromise between the Republican-controlled town board and Democratic Supervisor Laura Gillen, who appeared alongside her Republican colleagues at a news conference announcing the legislation Monday morning.

"It's been a long two years to make this day possible," Councilwoman and Republican Majority Leader Erin King Sweeney said. The proposal shows "the taxpayers that we're working hard for them and doing so in a decent and honest way."

Both King Sweeney and Gillen, while often at odds, have long called for ethics reforms.

"In the past we had a code that was disjointed," Gillen said. "Now we have one comprehensive piece of legislation that will ... ensure the public that we are working to serve the people, not the politically connected."

Steven Leventhal, the town's outside ethics counsel, said the new code would prohibit town officials from:

  • using their town offices for personal gain
  • holding investments or outside jobs that pose a conflict
  • hiring, firing or directly supervising relatives in town jobs
  • pressuring other town employees to engage in political activity

Leventhal said the code would also: 

  • prohibit contractors from using their access to the town to benefit other clients
  • expand the town's board of ethics from three members to five, and cap the number of members from a single political party at two

The reforms require the approval of the town board. The board plans to vote Tuesday to schedule a public hearing on the proposal for Feb. 26.

Ethics reform has been a contentious issue in the town for years. King Sweeney and Councilman Bruce Blakeman battled repeatedly with prior Supervisor Anthony Santino to advance such legislation, including hiring an inspector general to monitor town contracts.

 The board hired someone to the position, renamed compliance officer, last month.

 Santino pushed for his own set of ethics reforms in the town government in 2017, which the town board adopted that year.

Gillen has steadily railed against alleged ethical lapses in the town government, both during her campaign and in her first year as supervisor, and has described aspects of the town government as "a corrupt machine" and "politburo politics."

In September, Gillen and the town board Republicans said they were working on separate ethics reform packages. The proposed legislation announced Monday is an amalgam of their two plans, the town officials said.

Note: An earlier version of this story provided incomplete information about Santino's position on ethics reform legislation.

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