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Nassau files show tree firm got precontract $6M

Looks Great Services Inc. of Huntington, one of

Looks Great Services Inc. of Huntington, one of the tree services used by Nassau County for cleanup after superstorm Sandy, got $6.7 million in 2011 before being approved as a contractor for cleanup after Tropical Storm Irene, county records show. (Oct. 30, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

A tree service scheduled to receive $70 million from Nassau for superstorm Sandy cleanup got an emergency $6.7 million from the county for work after Tropical Storm Irene because the firm said it would go out of business unless it was paid, records show.

The county comptroller's office said a $6.697 million check to Looks Great Services Inc. of Huntington was issued Dec. 1, 2011 -- four days before county lawmakers approved paying the firm for emergency tree pruning and removal after Irene hit at the end of August 2011.

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county's financial control board, approved Looks Great's contract on Dec. 8. At that meeting, NIFA's counsel told the board that County Executive Edward Mangano on Nov. 30 had asked NIFA chairman Ronald Stack for emergency approval of Looks Great's payment "because the company told the county that they were in jeopardy of going out of business if the bill was not paid in advance of this meeting."

But when the legislature's Rules Committee voted on Dec. 5 to hire Looks Great, lawmakers were not told that the company already had been paid, according to a transcript of the meeting.

Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), a Rules Committee member and former legislative presiding officer, said she can't remember a vendor ever being paid before approval of their contract.

If necessary, she said, the Rules Committee would have scheduled a special meeting. "The bottom line is you need fiscal oversight even if you're in a dire emergency," Jacobs said.

Looks Great representatives could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice last month issued subpoenas to Looks Great, which is getting the largest Sandy payment from the county, along with A-H construction, Renu Restoration and Contracting and the county. The investigation into how debris-removal firms were hired after Sandy expanded to Suffolk this week when District Attorney Thomas Spota subpoenaed similar records from the towns of Brookhaven, Islip and Babylon.

Union representatives have questioned whether dozens of out-of-state crews working for Looks Great and other clean up firms were paid prevailing wage as required on municipal public works contracts.

A Looks Great spokeswoman has said the company adheres to all legal requirements and is working cooperatively with state, federal and local governments. Looks Great has been paid about $35 million of $68.8 million authorized by the county legislature for Sandy clean up.

Nassau contends it does not have subcontractor payroll information for Looks Great because the firm was hired under an emergency purchase order, rather than a public works contract for Sandy and Irene.

However, the administration provided county lawmakers this year with an 11-page "Professional Services Agreement" dated Aug. 26, 2011, and signed by County Public Works Commissioner Shila Shah-Gavnoudias and Looks Great president Kristian Agoglia. It says the agreement will be in effect for at least five years, spells out the services to be performed by Looks Great and includes a "contract price list."

Further details about the Rules Committee meeting in 2011 were difficult to obtain Wednesday. Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt, a Massapequa Republican who served as committee chairman, died last year. Republican legislative spokeswoman Cristina Brennan said she didn't "have any information" about what lawmakers knew. "The assumption is that it was done appropriately," Brennan said.

Jostyn Hernandez, a spokesman for Comptroller George Maragos, said the comptroller's office completed its review of Looks Great claims for Irene on Dec. 1, 2011, and the county treasurer issued the check the same day. Hernandez said the check was authorized appropriately but that the office could not immediately locate the "paper trail."

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