Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano has hit legal and legislative roadblocks to instituting sweeping campaign finance reform and curbing contractors’ political influence.
In the wake of several scandals involving county contracts, including a federal corruption case against former state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), Mangano, a Republican, in September pledged to propose legislation to create public campaign financing and cap political donations by county vendors.
On Monday, a county legislative committee approved the only bill Mangano so far has sent them: a measure to require contractors to disclose their political donations. Administration officials signaled afterward that they were unlikely to press for more sweeping changes anytime soon.
Those who were hoping for something stronger, given Mangano’s statements this fall, expressed disappointment.
“There’s nothing worse than giving voters hope that the problem of money in our political system was being addressed, and then underperforming,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonprofit good-government group based in Manhattan. “It’s worse than never promising anything at all.”
Mangano aides this week expressed concern about the legality of the public financing element, while Republican county legislators questioned the proposed limits on vendor contributions.
Attorney’s legal concerns
A memo Thursday from County Attorney Carnell Foskey’s office said creating public campaign finance would be too costly for a county with a budget crisis. The office also said such an effort could be considered pre-emption of state election law, despite the fact that New York City’s system has been upheld.
“I strongly believe this local law is a step in the right direction,” Foskey said of the disclosure bill that passed the Rules Committee on Monday.
Asked whether Mangano planned to pursue an anti-“pay to play” law, a spokesman responded Friday with another statement by Foskey: “We believe campaign finance laws are in the jurisdiction of the New York State Legislature.”
Asked whether the county legislature’s GOP majority supported a limit on contractor contributions, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), said: “We would have serious constitutional and First Amendment concerns.”
Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said Democratic lawmakers were ready to support Mangano’s original plans.
“Overall, we’re very disappointed,” said Abrahams, saying the new disclosure requirements represented minimal progress.
“To be honest with you, we could get that information from the state Board of Elections’ website in five minutes,” Abrahams said. “We’re not doing anything that is groundbreaking here.”
Most of Mangano’s original reform plans stemmed from recommendations by an outside panel he commissioned to study the contracting system.
Creation of the panel followed federal corruption charges against Skelos and his son, Adam. The Skeloses were found guilty Friday of using the senator’s power as majority leader to pressure three companies to give jobs, fees and benefits worth $300,000 to Adam Skelos, doing favors in Albany for the companies in return, and intervening with Nassau County to help one of the companies with a contract.
The Mangano panel recommended that Nassau hire an independent auditor, require contractors to disclose political contributions to elected officials and pass legislation limiting such contributions. So far, Mangano has taken steps to hire the auditor and introduced the disclosure bill.
County contractors and their principals routinely contribute significant amounts — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars a year — to county executives in Nassau. Mangano’s contracting panel suggested a $2,000 cap.
Commission members Frank Zarb, a former Nasdaq chairman; Stuart Rabinowitz, president of Hofstra University; and Robert Catell, a former chairman of KeySpan, either declined to comment or could not be reached this week.
The panel had suggested New York City, Orange County and the Town of Greenburgh in Westchester County as potential models for Nassau’s efforts to curb “pay to play.”
“A county like Nassau doing this would have restored a lot of confidence in people that government is doing things for the right reason,” said Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, a Democrat who’d advocated a full ban on vendor donations, similar to his town’s.
“But I just think there’s a lot of resistance from election officials — of both parties — to clean things up,” Feiner said.