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Nassau County’s contract law: Will it do the job?

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano speaks about the

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano speaks about the the disputed assessment fund on Monday, April 18, 2016 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau’s new law requiring vendors to disclose their political campaign contributions does not cover many ways contractors historically have made controversial donations.

The disclosure forms cover contributions to all county elected officeholders. But they don’t require disclosure of donations to political party committees and local political clubs, which often are closely tied to top county elected officials.

The forms also do not cover other companies in which the vendor has an interest, or people living at the address of the vendor’s principals, such as spouses.

County Attorney Carnell Foskey defended the new law, which took effect April 1. He said the measure addresses “the legitimate interests of the county in increasing transparency in contracting, while affording some degree of privacy to persons not directly involved in the contracting process.”

But Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a Manhattan-based good government group, expressed skepticism.

“Every thousand-mile journey starts with a first step, but this is barely that,” Horner said.

“If you want to hide the identity of a donor, it’s relatively easy to do,” Horner said. “You really need strict ‘pay to play’ guidelines that exist in other places.”

The Nassau County Legislature, after months of reports by Newsday on contracts that went to politically connected companies, in December unanimously passed the measure that created a new political campaign contribution disclosure form to accompany all agreements up for lawmaker approval.

The forms require disclosure of contributions made by “the vendor or any corporate officer of the vendor” to the campaigns of county legislators, the county executive, county clerk, county comptroller, district attorney and all candidates for those offices.

County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, proposed the measure after several cases in which vendors received lucrative work at about the time they made donations — or on the same day, in some cases — to committees with ties to county leaders.

Last year, federal authorities began investigating a county contract awarded to VIP Splash Waterways Recovery Group after the company had contributed to the Hicksville Republican Committee — run by Mangano’s chief deputy, Rob Walker — the day Walker signed the contract. The wife of a VIP Splash principal also made a donation to the Hicksville club shortly after.

A spokesman for Mangano did not make him available for an interview, but the administration defended the new law as a “balanced approach.”

The disclosure forms are among several county measures passed since last spring, when federal corruption charges were filed against then-State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

The case involved Skelos’ efforts to influence the awarding of a county contract to a company that employed his son, Adam. Both were convicted of eight counts of bribery, extortion and conspiracy. They are appealing.

Last May, as a first response to the Skelos case, Mangano mandated that vendors disclose the names of any lobbyists they use to seek county work. Last fall, an independent panel Mangano formed to study the county contracting process after Newsday reports on other cases recommended the political contribution disclosure law.

The panel also had recommended limiting or banning vendor contributions to county officials. Lawmakers questioned the legality of the measure, and never took it up.

At the time, Newsday had recently reported that federal prosecutors were probing VIP Splash’s $12 million storm debris cleanup contract. The firm gave $2,925 to Walker’s Hicksville GOP club on the same day in August 2014 that Walker completed the contract with his signature.

Weeks later, Maria Asher, the wife of VIP Splash principal Tommy Asher, gave Walker’s committee another $1,050.

Those donations would not have had to be listed on the new vendor disclosure forms.

In February, Newsday reported that CG-3PL Engineering, a Louisiana engineering firm, had signed $16 million in county contracts since its chief executive, Daniel Gerrity, began donating to Mangano and committees that back him.

Donations by Gerrity, CG-3PL and affiliated firms totaled more than $13,000 in that time frame. But under the new law, only $5,800 that Gerrity gave to Mangano’s campaign would have had to be disclosed.

The rest were either given to outside political committees, such as Walker’s, or were given to Mangano’s campaign by other companies tied to Gerrity, but not in CG-3PL’s name.

The administration has said the donations had no impact on the awarding of contracts.

“We’re not preventing any future scandals from happening,” Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said of the county’s new disclosure law.

Abrahams, who supported the law, acknowledged that it was better than no disclosure, but said it didn’t amount to much more than “convenience,” since it saved legislative staff the few minutes it would take the look up the information on the state Board of Elections’ website.

Legislative Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said the law still “increased transparency in the contracting process,” whether or not it satisfied critics.

“Not everything is perfect, but I will tell you, the contract process right now is a lot more perfect than it has been in a long time,” Gonsalves said.

The legislature’s Rules Committee approved the first set of contracts containing the disclosure forms on April 11. Because the forms only ask for donations beginning April 1 — to match when the law took effect — none of the vendors had any donations to disclose.

Records, however, show that six of the 24 vendors who had contracts approved at that meeting had given to Mangano or legislators in recent years.

One of them, the Garden City Park law firm of Vecchione, Vecchione & Connors LLP — which received a $562,000 contract to defend Nassau in workers’ compensation cases — gave $33,500 to Mangano’s campaign between 2010 and 2015, and about $1,000 to county legislators, state records show.

The firm, which has received $900,000 in county contracts since 2011, also gave more than $10,000 to the Nassau Republican Committee and Walker’s Hicksville GOP club between 2010 and 2015 — though those donations also wouldn’t need to be disclosed under the law.

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