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Nassau contracting panel urges rapid change, new anti-corruption law

Frank Zarb, retired chairman of the Nasdaq Stock

Frank Zarb, retired chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market Inc., is pictured in New York on Monday, May 14, 2001. Photo Credit: Bloomberg News / Daniel Acker

A panel created to examine Nassau's contracting process has recommended an anti-"pay-to-play" law to limit vendors' contributions to county political candidates and the appointment of independent auditors to oversee the system.

The panel, led by Frank Zarb, the first chairman of Nassau's financial control board, delivered its initial recommendations to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and urged swift action.

"At this critical juncture, it is of paramount importance to take steps to restore public confidence in the county's contracting process," said the letter signed by Zarb, also a former Nasdaq chairman, and the other panelists: Stuart Rabinowitz, president of Hofstra University, and Robert Catell, a former chairman of KeySpan.

Nassau's procurement system has been under scrutiny since a federal indictment this spring of state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) for allegedly improperly influencing the awarding of a $12 million county storm-water treatment contract to a company that had employed his son, Adam. Dean and Adam Skelos have pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, conspiracy and extortion.

Mangano, a Republican, subsequently instituted new lobbying disclosure requirements. Also, acting Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat, issued a report calling the county's largely paper-based contracting system a "recipe for corruption."

Mangano appointed the Zarb panel in August, after news reports about county professional service agreements that often didn't go to the lowest bidder; contracts that were given to politically connected vendors for amounts just below the $25,000 threshold for legislative approval; and large contracts approved automatically without any legislative vote.

Zarb at the time had said that the panel would "open every window and every door."

The letter sent Friday recommended:

Increased oversight of the bidding and award process, including hiring of an independent procurement director who would increase online posting of most contracting documents, including vendor disclosures, and an internal auditor with the power to probe all aspects of the contracting system. Both positions should be assured independence and protection from political interference, the letter said.

Requiring vendors to disclose political contributions to political candidates and party committees, and capping the amount of donations to county officials and candidates. Such legislation "would provide assurances to the public that individuals affiliated with contractors were not making political contributions in order to receive county contracts," the panel said.

The letter noted that limitations on vendors' political contributions are in effect in New York City, Orange County and the Town of Greenburgh in Westchester County. Addressing possible concerns about free-speech protections, the panel said the U.S. Supreme Court has "held that limits on amounts that may be contributed to candidates are permissible if such limitations are designed to prevent quid pro quo corruption."

The panel suggested limits on contributions by vendors of about $2,000, the maximum for donations to Nassau County legislators.

Several of the recommendations will require legislative approval, and capping political donations may require a public referendum, officials said.

Mangano didn't immediately say which recommendations he supported. He said in a statement that he will meet with the panel Monday "to express my gratitude and will be announcing reforms shortly."

Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said in a statement "we . . . will now turn our attention to the recommendations provided to us so that Nassau County's contracting process might serve as a model for other governmental entities."

Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said he embraced the panel's recommendations.

"To be honest, this was exactly what we were calling for," he said, noting that Democrats have requested disclosure of vendors' political donations and an appointee with the power to audit contracts. "We're very supportive of what the panel has put together."

Jon Kaiman, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state board that controls county finances, said the panel "clearly got to the crux of the matter, which is to recommend that centralized procurement and internal auditing be incorporated into county operations in a meaningful way."

The panel's letter noted that not every decision-maker may support every recommendation, but said it is important to do something significant, nonetheless.

With Joye Brown

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