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Nassau framing 'pay to play' ban, modeled partly on Westchester town

Paul Feiner at his office building in Greenburgh

Paul Feiner at his office building in Greenburgh on Oct. 1, 2015. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

In the Westchester County Town of Greenburgh, longtime Supervisor Paul Feiner has seen his political fundraising plummet in recent years.

He says he doesn't mind.

"It's very liberating," Feiner said of the reason for the drop -- a 2007 law banning campaign contributions to town officials from companies with business before them. "I don't care anymore what people think when they come for applications. They can't do anything for me or against me."

Greenburgh, population 88,000, has become one of the models for Nassau County and its 1.3 million residents as it considers its own anti-"pay to play" law in response to recent heightened scrutiny of how it awards contracts.

The town, which prohibits vendors with contracts of more than $25,000 a year and applicants before the town board from contributing to officials, is one of three municipalities statewide that have taken on "pay to play."

New York City and upstate Orange County allow contractors to give to politicians -- but significantly limit the amounts.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is developing his proposed regulations in response to recommendations made late last month by an expert panel that he had appointed in the wake of the arrest of state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his son, Adam, on federal charges partly related to the awarding of a $12 million county contract in 2013. Dean and Adam Skelos have pleaded not guilty.

Officials and experts familiar with the other municipalities' existing anti-"pay to play" laws -- all less than 10 years old -- say they've done their job by reducing the influence of political money on government contracting.

In New York City, contributions from contractors accounted for a quarter of all money given to candidates as recently as 2001, compared with two percent in the 2013 election cycle.

"Let's not forget that New York City was seen as a bastion of cronyism and corruption for decades," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonprofit good-government group based in Manhattan. "Our 'old-school' system was torn down and rebuilt. So if New York City can do it, anyone else in the state can do it."

While the measures have withstood court challenges based on free-speech concerns, there are some critics.

Officials in the administration of Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, a Republican, noted that contracts now take longer to process because staff must explain restrictions to vendors. They say donors can still find ways -- like through "independent expenditure" groups not tied to candidates -- to back chosen officials.

"While those behind campaign finance laws often claim they are the best thing since sliced bread, anyone who opens their mailbox around election year knows there is still no shortage of funds spent on elections," Justin Rodriguez, Neuhaus' spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

Mangano said that he hopes to submit an anti-"pay-to-play" bill, including a public campaign finance component similar to New York City, to the county legislature by the end of the year.

His panel, headed by Frank Zarb, the first chairman of Nassau's state fiscal control board, in a Sept. 25 letter suggested a cap on contractor donations of about $2,000 a year, the average maximum for county legislative candidates. Currently, individuals can contribute up to $47,000 a year to all candidates for countywide office, including the county executive.

'A level playing field'

"The goal here is to create a level playing field and move forward with more transparency. The committee certainly gave a road map," Mangano, a Republican, said in a recent interview. "Clearly, assuming that this legislation is adopted, I think that other counties will want to adopt it too."

If approved, Mangano's legislation would signal a seismic shift in the way politics and governing mix in Nassau. Prominent companies and their principals routinely contribute tens of thousands of dollars a year to county executives and political parties, including donations made in close proximity to when they receive contracts. The firms always deny any connections.

Like his Democratic predecessor, Thomas Suozzi, Mangano has amassed a large amount of campaign funds from companies with business before the county. Since taking office in 2010, Mangano has raised $10.5 million; many of the largest individual contributions -- in amounts up to $35,000 at a time -- have come from people connected to firms with millions of dollars in county contracts.

Newsday reported in August that Nassau since 2011 has awarded hundreds of no-bid contracts for amounts just below the $25,000 threshold for legislative approval. Many of the agreements were with politically connected companies that had donated repeatedly to Mangano's campaign.

In March, Newsday reported that a company that had incorporated shortly before it bid on a contract for county storm cleanup work gave, according to state records, $2,925 to the political club run by Mangano's chief deputy on the same day the $12 million agreement was executed. Zarb's panel, however, did not suggest capping vendor contributions to political clubs.

"You can't address every loophole, but limiting the size of contributions from those who do business with the . . . [county] lessens the chance of corruption and cronyism," Dadey said.

New York City's law, passed in 2007, created an online database of companies and people with business with the city, limited their political contributions to candidates to no more than $400 in an election cycle and made those contributions ineligible for any public matching funds.

The 2013 election cycle was the first for which the law was fully in effect. Companies that did business with the city contributed $1.3 million during the cycle -- 2 percent of all donations -- compared with $12 million, or 25 percent, in the 2001 election cycle, according to a report by the city's Campaign Finance Board.

"These rules help ensure voters are deciding elections, not big-money contributors or political insiders," the board's executive director, Amy Loprest, said in a statement.

New York City's law withstood a challenge on First and 14th Amendment grounds. It was upheld in U.S. District Court in 2009 and in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2011.

Nassau's panel suggested that the county had a legal right to take similar action as the city, saying 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."

"If it's a level playing field it's advantageous for all," said Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors Association, which represents nearly 200 members in the heavy construction and civil engineering fields, many of which regularly donate to local politicians.

Relatives exempted

Orange County's law, passed by the county legislature in 2013 by a 20-1 vote, initially set a $1,000 annual cap on donations to countywide office holders by vendors or those seeking contracts, and their principals.

Subsequent revisions raised the maximum to $4,000 over a four-year elected term and exempted the family members with the same addresses as those principals of companies with county contracts. The law applies only to contracts awarded outside of the competitive bid process.

"Each time it's been revised, it's made it a little easier for the donors," said the bill's sponsor, Orange County Legis. Mike Anagnostakis, a Republican. "Still, 95 percent of the restrictions are still there, and they can't get rid of them, and they'll never be able to get rid of them unless they get rid of the whole law."

Greenburgh's law, passed in 2007, is by far the strictest of the statutes cited by the Zarb panel in Nassau County. It not only bans vendors from giving to any town office holders, but also prohibits donations by companies with development applications before the town board, both for a period before and after they file. The ban covers applicants' lawyers or agents, but exempts political challengers, as in Orange County.

Feiner, a Democrat first elected Greenburgh town supervisor in 1991, said the impact has been real. He noted that he once could bring in $45,000 at individual fundraisers, but now is "lucky" if he collects $15,000.

State election records show Feiner raised $95,000 in the 2007 election cycle, before the ban on contractor contributions began -- but has averaged less than $30,000 in each of the three two-year election cycles since.

"Sometimes, you can talk yourself into thinking you're doing things for the right reasons, when you're really thinking it can raise you $20,000 or $30,000 in donations," Feiner said. "Now, the temptation of being influenced by big money just isn't there."


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