Nassau County is rolling out its first digital system for tracking and approving contracts, part of a larger overhaul of procurement policies that follows nearly two years of criminal investigations into how agreements were awarded.
The new system, being implemented first in the information technology and parks departments, is designed to make it easier for county officials to track the nearly two dozen signoffs each contract must receive before execution — a routing process that includes the transfer of paperwork, without a centralized way to monitor it all.
It will also create a database of vendors’ disclosures of financial and lobbying information, and political contributions, so officials can more easily spot potential conflicts of interest.
Both issues have been central to federal and local prosecutors’ probes of Nassau contracts, which account for hundreds of millions of dollars a year paid to outside companies. District Attorney Madeline Singas has called the county’s scattered, paper-based contract approval process “a recipe for corruption.”
“Moving away from having to review every single thing on paper is hugely important to the success of really making this a better process,” said Robert Cleary, the county procurement compliance director, who was hired last May as part of County Executive Edward Mangano’s efforts to reform the contracting system.
Cleary, previously a deputy chief contracting officer in the New York City Department of Health, described Nassau’s process of physically routing contracts — known internally as “packages” for their reams of attached paperwork — as slow and cumbersome.
“We’ve had packages in the past that were lost. That will not happen. We’ve had packages where pages were removed, where pages were put in different order,” Cleary said in an interview last week. “All of these things take time. All of these things cause pain. All of this slows things down.”
The Mangano administration, as it works to get other departments on the new online approval system, also has released the first large-scale update of the official countywide procurement policy since 2004. The new document outlines several other new contracting policies:
- Cleary’s office must preapprove nearly all bid requests to ensure the work is necessary.
- Each county department must designate its own chief contracting officer and, with each contract, provide a memo detailing how officials chose the winning vendor. Currently, many departments don’t include this information in contracts filed with the county legislature, which votes on all agreements of $1,000 or above.
- Execution of all no-bid contracts will be announced publicly on the county’s website and in legal advertisements in local newspapers.
- In an effort to reduce the number of projects that attract only one bidder, the county will increase the advertising period from 5 days to 15 days.
- In an effort to increase participation from minority-, women- and veteran-owned businesses, the county’s Office of Minority Affairs will receive 30 days’ notice of most bid solicitations. Previously, the office was notified when bids were solicited.
“Some people feel that our procurement process is not transparent enough,” Cleary said. “This gives the marketplace notice.”
Nassau’s contracting system has been under scrutiny since May 2015, when then-State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was indicted on federal corruption charges that included improperly influencing the awarding of a county contract to a company that employed his son, Adam. Dean and Adam Skelos were convicted and are appealing.
Federal prosecutors in 2015 also opened an investigation into Mangano’s chief deputy, Rob Walker. The probe focused on the awarding of a storm cleanup contract that was executed on the same day in 2014 that the vendor made a political contribution to Walker’s political club. Walker, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, “has complied with all legal obligations and acted in an appropriate and transparent manner,” said Walker’s attorney, Brian Griffin.
In October, Mangano was arrested on federal corruption charges for allegedly accepting bribes and kickbacks from a local restaurateur who received benefits including a county contract. Mangano has pleaded not guilty.
Singas also launched several probes into county contracts over the past two years.
Beyond the newly announced reforms, the scandals already have prompted other changes to the county contracting system. The county strengthened the financial background forms it requires vendors to fill out, and passed laws requiring that they identify any lobbyists they use and political contributions they make to county officials.
Mangano and lawmakers also lowered the threshold requiring legislative review of contracts from $25,000 to $1,000 and hired a new investigations commissioner. But Singas, a Democrat, has pushed for one change Republican lawmakers have resisted: creating the office of an independent inspector general to investigate contracts.
In a statement, Singas called the county’s new policies “a step forward,” but added: “Without comprehensive modernization, independent oversight, and robust procedures to guard against conflicts and improper influence, Nassau’s contracting policies will remain vulnerable to corruption.”