Two of Nassau’s largest public-private partnerships, meant to provide the county with millions of dollars in savings and new revenues, also have generated more than $5 million in contracts for a White Plains law firm that is one of County Executive Edward Mangano’s top campaign contributors.
Pannone Lopes Devereaux & West, which is overseeing the renovation of the Nassau Coliseum property and management of the county’s sprawling sewer system by a private company, since 2012 has received more outside legal work from Nassau than any other law firm, county records show.
The contracts, which have increased in maximum value by $2 million in the last six months alone, serve as the highest-profile example of Mangano’s push to outsource county legal work.
Since taking office in 2010, Mangano, a Republican, has cut the number of full-time lawyers in the county attorney’s office by 44 percent, from 110 to 62. Spending on outside legal contracts by the office has tripled, from about $2 million a year to $6 million, with politically connected firms among the biggest beneficiaries, records show.
Mangano contends his policy has saved money, even with the increased contracts, by cutting the county attorney office’s salaries and benefits. But records show that the office’s combined budget for in-house attorneys and private law firms was still equal to, or slightly higher than, the final years under the previous administration.
After Pannone Lopes, the firms with the next highest total value of county attorney contracts over the past five years are Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan LLP, of Mineola, where Peter Bee, a longtime Nassau GOP official, is a partner, and Rivkin Radler LLP of Uniondale, where Mangano worked before his election as county executive.
Aides to Mangano defend legal outsourcing as necessary to provide expertise that the county attorney’s office lacks — particularly for the complex Coliseum and sewer privatization deals.
“Pannone Lopes has nationally recognized ‘Public-Private Partnership’ experience in a highly specialized area of the law,” Deputy County Executive Ed Ward said in an email response to Newsday inquiries about the contracts. Public-private partnership “deals are extremely complex and no county attorney’s office in the country is staffed to undertake these types of legal agreements.”
Good government groups and Democratic county legislators said such large increases to outside legal agreements warrant close scrutiny.
“There’s no doubt that governments occasionally need specialized legal help, but by and large, they already have tremendous legal staff,” said Blair Horner of New York Public Interest Research Group, an Albany based nonprofit. “And given that contracting in New York State is becoming such a source of controversy and scandal, any outsourcing of services where you already have capacity has to be extremely accountable and transparent.”
Mangano’s administration drew up Pannone Lopes’ first two county contracts in mid-2011, and completed them in early 2012. The agreements didn’t initially need approval by the county legislature because each was for a maximum of $25,000 — then the trigger for legislative consideration.
A third contract, for general legal services, was approved in 2014.
By this past June, after a series of increases, the county’s contracts with the law firm had risen to a total of $3.1 million.
Since then, contract increases that are effective until 2018 have increased by up to $2.1 million — for a total of as much as $5.2 million in work since 2012.
“It’s really difficult to do any kind of checks and balances on these kinds of contracts,” said Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), who voted with minority Democrats against the recent contract increases. “If they come back to us and say, ‘We need another million dollars,’ it’s very hard for us to say, ‘No, you don’t.’ ”
Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), whose caucus approved all the recent increases with little discussion, said in a statement: “This law firm has and continues to provide legal services on some very complex county issues, and it is important to ensure that the appropriate financial resources are in place to pay for these services.”
Pannone Lopes’ first pact, which has increased in value to up to $2.8 million, involves negotiation of the agreement between Nassau and Forest City Ratner Cos., of Brooklyn, which is overseeing the $260.5 million overhaul of Nassau Coliseum. The project is privately funded, and the arena is scheduled to reopen this spring after two years of work.
Under the contract, Pannone also is helping to oversee Ratner’s lease to build a retail and entertainment center next to the Coliseum, which Mangano said will generate millions of dollars in new county revenues. The firm also is working on the county’s sale of land to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for construction of a privately funded outpatient treatment and research facility near the Coliseum, and efforts to find a new vendor to operate the Trigen energy facility in Uniondale that provides hot and cold water to the Coliseum site and other nearby properties.
Nassau’s second contract with Pannone Lopes, worth up to $1.9 million, is for oversight of the 20-year agreement with a private company, Suez North America, to operate the county’s sprawling sewer system. That $1 billion deal was struck in 2014 and has been effective since the start of 2015.
Suez, under its contract, guarantees the county $10 million annually to offset labor costs. But the legislature’s independent budget review office said this year that even with the payment, the county’s sewer and storm-water district cost more to operate last year than in 2014, the final year before Suez took over.
The third Pannone Lopes contract, worth up to $470,000, covers general legal services, including litigation and labor disputes.
Josh Meyer, a Pannone Lopes partner who handles the bulk of work on the Nassau contracts, said in an email that his firm “has a long and extensive history of working with municipalities across the nation in the area of the law relative to ‘public-private partnerships’ and includes infrastructure development, regulatory compliance, enforcement of contractual rights and litigation.”
Since 2011, when Pannone Lopes’ first two Nassau contracts began, the firm has contributed $46,000 to Mangano’s campaign. Only nine other businesses and eight other individuals or couples have contributed at least as much money over that time, according to state campaign finance records.
Meyer noted that the firm has supported Republicans and Democrats locally and across the nation: “Nassau County Executive Mangano’s campaign has been among those.”
Records show that Pannone Lopes has made more than $200,000 in political contributions to candidates and committees in New York State since 2011, but those to Mangano are $30,000 more than the next highest recipient.
Since 2011, Pannone Lopes also has contributed $5,140 to the Hicksville Republican Committee, run by Mangano’s chief deputy Rob Walker, who is under federal investigation involving the awarding of contracts to political contributors.
Walker’s attorney, Brian Griffin, said Walker “has complied with all legal obligations and acted in an appropriate and transparent manner.”
No wrongdoing has been alleged in connection with the Pannone Lopes contracts, and the Mangano administration has long denied any ties between political contributions and the awarding of contracts.
Mangano was indicted in October on federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, fraud, extortion and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors allege he received bribes and kickbacks from local restaurateur Harendra Singh in exchange for county contracts and loan guarantees by the Town of Oyster Bay. Mangano has pleaded not guilty and has said he will remain in office as he fights the charges.