Nassau County awarded a $200,000 no-bid consulting contract to former Republican state Sen. Michael Balboni without legislative approval, and has paid him more than $64,000 to date, records show.
The contract with Balboni's firm, Redland Strategies Inc., for advice on the county crime lab, was approved automatically in August 2013 under a little-known provision of the county charter that allows personal service agreements for outside professional services to be "deemed approved" if the legislature does not act on them within 45 days.
County Executive Edward Mangano's administration subsequently extended the Redland contract through the end of last month and increased its original $75,000 cost to $200,000 -- again without legislative approval.
Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), who has argued for more oversight of county spending, said she was not aware of the 45-day provision. "What a way to get around being questioned, to not even call the item and it automatically goes through," she said. "That goes against everything government should be."
Officials in the county administration and the county legislature, both controlled by Republicans, say the provision has been in effect for years because government cannot stop if the legislature is on vacation, on holiday or otherwise unavailable.
"It is only a couple of times a year that contracts fall into that 45-day category," said Frank Moroney, spokesman for Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow). "We shouldn't be allowed to hold them forever."
Moroney and other county officials said they could not provide a list or number of contracts that have been automatically approved, because the agreements are not classified separately from agreements passed by the Rules Committee. To identify them, officials would have to pull the backup for each of hundreds of county contracts, they said.
Under the county charter, the committee is the sole legislative authority for approval of personal service contracts of $25,000 or more. Such contracts are for professional services, such as legal counsel, engineering and design of construction projects, and managing the county sewer system.
No mention in report
The issue of automatically approved contracts was not mentioned in a recent report by acting District Attorney Madeline Singas on Nassau's contract process. Singas began her probe after state Sen. Dean Skelos was charged with illegally influencing the county's award of a $12 million contract to a company that employed his son. Skelos and son Adam have pleaded not guilty.
But Singas said she's not done. "I committed to a comprehensive review of the contracting process in Nassau County and that's exactly what we're doing, looking at all types of contract issues including dollar thresholds for legislative review, the 45-day rule, no-bid contracts, emergency contracts, and personal service contracts, among others. Our review, which has already borne fruit, is ongoing," she said in a statement.
The Nassau Democratic Party has nominated Singas to run for district attorney this fall against Republican Kate Murray, now Hempstead Town supervisor. Former Manhattan prosecutor Michael Scotto is seeking to run in a primary against Singas.
Mangano on Monday will announce an independent panel to "review Nassau's procurement policy and examine how it compares with neighboring municipalities," his spokesman Brian Nevin said last night.
County officials say Balboni, who was state chief of Homeland Security under former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, was brought in as an expert adviser during the emergency that surrounded the closing of Nassau's police crime lab in February 2011. Faulty forensic testing by the lab had threatened the outcome of criminal cases. Nassau began building a new lab that is expected to be completed next year.
Mangano also tapped Balboni to lead a forensic advisory panel to oversee construction of the new crime lab. The five-member panel included Singas, then chief assistant district attorney.
"The county executive asked me to step into that and take on that whole effort of trying to assist various agencies and bring people together," Balboni said in an interview. "I worked very closely with the police department and developed a very good relationship with the police leadership."
Balboni, a contributor to both Democratic and Republican candidates, has donated $18,950 to Mangano's campaign committee since the county executive took office in 2010, records show. Balboni was the only other bidder last year on a contract for a "special adviser on public safety" that was eventually awarded to Richard "Bo" Dietl, a former NYPD detective and security consultant.
Dietl issued a report on a possible merger of the Hempstead and Freeport village police departments with the county's force without consulting either village. The county has called the report incomplete and has not paid Dietl for his work. The $24,000 contract fell just below the $25,000 threshold for legislative approval.
The county first hired a Balboni company for forensic advice in August 2011 when the Mangano administration awarded a no-bid $24,500 contract to Bluewater International, where Balboni was a managing partner. For both this contract and the subsequent Redland agreement, the police department argued that it did not need to seek other proposals because of Balboni's "unique experience and expertise." Generally, the county must seek three proposals for personal service agreements.
In September 2012, the Rules Committee unanimously agreed to extend the agreement through 2013 and increased its cost to $124,500. Legislators asked no questions about the contract, and Balboni's role was not mentioned, a meeting transcript shows.
After a legal dispute with Bluewater's other partners, Balboni created Red Land Strategy Inc., doing business as Redland Strategies, based at his East Williston home. A new $75,000 contract with Redland for forensic advice and lobbying services was submitted to the legislature on July 10, 2013. It was listed on the July 29 Rules Committee calendar, but Gonsalves skipped the agreement without explanation -- making it the only calendared contract not called for a vote that day.
On Aug. 26, then-Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli declared the Redland contract automatically approved.
Moroney said Balboni's contract was pulled because of questions about the crime lab, which were not answered until the 45-day window was up. "We do monitor the deadline," Moroney said. "Every contract gets clocked in. When they're reviewed, the day of the clock-in is on the work sheets. Everybody is aware of that."
"From my perspective, I don't think there was any political consideration given to this contract," Balboni said. "There was an articulated need, and based upon my work in the state with the State Police, the Department of Homeland Security . . . and the state forensic commission, the department felt I could be of assistance."
Former Presiding Officer Judith Jacobs (D-Woodbury) said that when she led the legislature from 2000 through 2007, she had instituted a "tickler" system to track each contract. "The legal office was constantly reminded that we had 30 days, 15 days -- we always kept aware of the deadline," she said.
The Rules Committee would table contracts if members had doubts or needed more information, Jacobs said. Tabling a contract "is an action. The only thing that stops the 45-day ticking clock is taking action." Jacobs said she was not aware of any contracts approved without some type of legislative action during her tenure.
After the Redland contract was automatically approved, the administration exercised options to extend the agreement through June 30, 2015, and increased its total amount to $200,000. Acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said he still expects to receive further reports and invoices from Balboni. Krumpter said the county expects to issue a new request for proposals for a forensic adviser within a few days.
"The bottom line is you couldn't remove Mike Balboni from the process because of his intimate knowledge and history of the way the lab was, and it's only now that we're able to rebid it and open it up to another request for proposals" because the emergency no longer exists, Krumpter said.