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Nassau commissioner, after contract to her sister, seeks ethics ruling

A company headed by the sister of Shila

A company headed by the sister of Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, Nassau's public works commissioner, received a $250,000 contract from the county after superstorm Sandy for engineering and inspection services, including oversight of tree debris removal countywide. (Dec. 26, 2009) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau's public works commissioner has requested an opinion from the county's Ethics Board on whether the awarding of a $250,000 contract to her sister's engineering firm constituted a conflict.

Commissioner Shila Shah-Gavnoudias said in a letter to the Nassau Board of Ethics last week that she had recused herself from the selection of her sister's firm, CSM Engineering of Uniondale, for engineering and inspection services after superstorm Sandy.

County Executive Edward Mangano's administration this week released the letter and a subsequent one-page supplement in which Shah-Gavnoudias acknowledged signing the agency routing slip for the contract and a county comptroller approval form. She said neither she nor her husband has any financial interest in CSM.

"I would like the Board to advise me if any violation of the Code of Ethics have occurred, and if so, what actions I should take," she wrote.

Shah-Gavnoudias did not mention that she had presented the CSM contract to the county legislature's rules committee on Nov. 20 without disclosing her relationship to CSM president Carolyn Shah Moehringer. It was one of more than a dozen emergency engineering contracts approved in a single vote that day.

County Attorney John Ciampoli, who sits on the ethics board, declined to comment. He said all requests for ethics board opinions are confidential, as are the panel's responses. Only the person making the request can make the information public, he said.

Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said Shah-Gavnoudias "should have recused herself from any involvement with her sister's contract. Going back and rewriting history with an ethics board stacked with Mangano appointees does nothing to correct the blatant offense." Currently, the five-member board has a majority of Mangano appointees.

The county charter requires county officers and employees to "promptly recuse" themselves from any "private interest that a reasonable person would perceive to compromise his or her ability to make impartial judgments or take discretionary actions in the best interests of the county." The recusal is to be made in writing to the ethics board and be a public record. The board has not responded to a Newsday request for Shah-Gavnoudias' recusal.

The CSM contract calls for the public works commissioner to direct the firm's work and approve its bills. But Shah-Gavnoudias wrote that she does not oversee CSM's daily work, and relied on staff to inform her of projects' progress.

She said CSM already was working as a "sub-consultant" on two county projects when Sandy struck on Oct. 29. A public works superintendent subsequently asked CSM employees to serve as tree and debris removal inspectors, but she took no part in the staffing decision, Shah-Gavnoudias said.Records show that a CSM employee was a monitor for some of the 338 trees taken down along Shelter Rock and Searingtown roads by Looks Great Services Inc. of Huntington.

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