Three Nassau Community College trustees who voted for former Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray as the school’s $151,000 a year acting general counsel had donated a total of nearly $10,000 to her previous political campaigns, state campaign finance records show.
Trustees Anthony Cornachio, Edward Powers and John DeGrace donated a combined $9,200 to the Friends for Kate Murray campaign account between March 2007 and April 2015.
None of the trustees who voted for Murray at the board’s Dec. 8 meeting mentioned their previous contributions to Murray. Her appointment was approved by a vote of 6-2.
Cornachio, who nominated Murray, told trustees at the meeting that he had never met her and could not recall her first name, but knew she was a “dynamo.”
The board had not advertised for an interim chief counsel, who is primarily responsible for lobbying county and state lawmakers on behalf of the school, before offering it to Murray, and did not discuss other candidates.
Murray, who ran unsuccessfully for Nassau County district attorney in November after serving for 12 years as supervisor, assumed the position early this month.
Question of transparency
While ethics experts said it was unclear whether a conflict of interest occurred, they said trustees should have disclosed their political contributions to Murray, and should have discussed other possible candidates and alternatives for filling the position.
“They’re spending public money and have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that they are following the proper processes to vet all qualified candidates and options,” said James Abruzzo, co-director for the Ethical Leadership Institute at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey.
“There was a financial relationship because they donated to her campaign, and they should’ve disclosed that,” Abruzzo said.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a nonprofit that advocates for state campaign finance reform, said “the entire vetting procedure appears to have been ignored. This is not the way to go about deciding how to spend taxpayer dollars. The trustees should have at least declared that they previously contributed to her campaigns to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest.”
State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has said she is examining whether trustees had the authority to hire Murray. Her spokesman said last month that, “best practices within higher education nationally indicate that college councils or boards name their president and then trust that president to appoint the senior leadership team.”
Murray’s predecessor as general counsel for governmental and media relations, Chuck Cutolo, was named to the position in January 2002 by then-NCC President Sean Fanelli. Cutolo had served as legal counsel to Nassau’s Legislative Democrats from 1996 to 2001.
NCC board of trustees chairman Dr. Jorge Gardyn has stressed the interim nature of Murray’s appointment. He said the board expects by this spring to have named a new president with authority to replace senior staff. Gardyn, who voted for Murray’s appointment, did not return messages for comment for this story.
The school of 23,000 students has been without a permanent president since July 2012. Trustees launched a second applicant search in June, after failing to choose between five finalists previously.
Cornachio, Powers and DeGrace did not return phone messages left at their homes.
‘Delighted’ by job offer
Murray said she was unaware of any of the trustees’ contributions to her campaigns, saying “I have lots of supporters in the past and I’m grateful to them all. I really have nothing to say because I wasn’t aware of their donations.”
Murray said she did not speak to trustees or administrators before the Dec. 8 meeting to express interest in the job, but was “delighted” when approached with the offer a day after the vote. “Anybody who knows me knows that I’ve always been a cheerleader for Nassau Community College and it flowed from there,” she said.
Asked to comment about the process that led to her appointment, Murray said: “Not being part of the board of trustees I certainly can’t comment on their behalf as to any of the logistics of the appointment. I’m just thrilled to be here ... and I look forward to advocating successfully on behalf of Nassau.”
Change of heart
Cornachio at the board’s Nov. 10 meeting had opposed filling the general counsel vacancy. He said he shared the concerns of trustee Kathy Weiss about whether the position was necessary as the school grappled with budget shortfalls.
But at the Dec. 8 board meeting, Cornachio made the motion to hire Murray as interim general counsel, saying Cutolo’s retirement, which had been announced in September, created an “emergency situation,” according to meeting minutes.
Cornachio noted Murray’s political experience, but said he had “never met her face-to face, never spoke to her on the phone — but I know of her.”
Continuing, Cornachio said, “I make that motion that Kathleen I think — Katherine or Kathleen, I don’t even know her name. I know of her and I know she’s a dynamo. What is her name? Kathleen or Katherine? Ms. Murray. That, soon to be formerly of a position in the Town of Hempstead, that she be appointed to the vacancy created by Mr. Cutolo’s resignation.”
Trustee Wanda Jackson abstained.
State records show Cornachio has donated $175 to Murray’s campaign and $1,100 to the Hempstead Republican Club since 2007.
Powers has contributed $8,000 to Murray and $2,920 to the Hempstead Republican Club since 2007.
DeGrace had contributed $1,025 to Murray’s campaigns since 2007.
Weiss and Arnold Drucker, who both voted against Murray’s appointment, raised questions about whether the board was bypassing standard hiring procedures, such as creating a job description for the school to advertise.
“How do we appoint somebody, vote for something, in which the person hasn’t even expressed interest in a job?” Weiss said at the Dec. 8 meeting. “I’m very confused.”
“I’ve never heard of someone being appointed to something that they don’t even know about,” Drucker said.
Weiss and Drucker did not contribute to Murray’s campaign. Trustee Donna Tuman and student trustee Jennifer Borzym, who voted for Murray’s appointment, have not donated to her past campaigns, according to a public records search.
Robert Wechsler, research director for City Ethics, a Jacksonville, Florida, nonprofit that advises government agencies on ethics laws, said “the best thing to do is go through the normal processes that have been established for hiring. The board could have also gotten bids for lobbying firms who may have been able to do the job cheaper, or some schools have their president serve as the main lobbyist and face of the school before lawmakers.”
NCC faculty union president Frank Frisenda called Murray’s appointment “pure political patronage.” He criticized the board for “acting on the fly” and voting despite questions raised at the meeting about whether proper procedures were being followed.
“This is kind of stuff that I thought took place in the proverbial smoke-filled backroom,” Frisenda said. “I guess this is their idea of transparency.”
Stanley Klein, a political-science professor at LIU-Post and a Suffolk Republican committeeman, said that on Long Island, it’s common for former politicians, Republicans and Democrat, to land in government jobs after they leave elected office in Nassau or Suffolk.
He noted Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s hiring of Democrat Marlene Budd for the county attorney’s office following her defeat for re-election to Suffolk Family Court in November to Suffolk County Family Court.
“Some retire and then get appointed to a job; some retire from one field and are chosen to run in a race that they can’t lose,” Klein said. “Eyebrows go up, and chit chat goes around at social gatherings — ‘Maybe we should stop this? Is this ethical?’ — All sorts of questions are asked, never answered, and the process continues.”
Trustee Anthony Cornaccio’s switch on naming Kate Murray to NCC counsel post
Nov. 10 board meeting:
Opposed filling the general counsel vacancy created by the retirement of longtime counsel Chuck Cutolo. He said he shared the concerns of trustee Kathy Weiss about whether the position was necessary as the school grappled with budget shortfalls.
Dec. 8 board meeting:
Made the motion to hire Murray as interim general counsel, saying Cutolo’s retirement, which had been announced in September, created an “emergency situation.” Cornachio said of Murray: “Never met her face-to face, never spoke to her on the phone — but I know of her.”
He added: “I make that motion that Kathleen I think — Katherine or Kathleen, I don’t even know her name. I know of her and I know she’s a dynamo. What is her name? Kathleen or Katherine? Ms. Murray. That, soon to be formerly of a position in the Town of Hempstead, that she be appointed to the vacancy created by Mr. Cutolo’s resignation.”