The Nassau County Legislature Monday approved new outside legal counsel spending that could total nearly $1 million -- continuing a trend that critics say largely rewards politically connected firms.
Lawmakers on the Republican-led Rules Committee backed four contracts that will pay two law firms a combined total of up to $975,000 to represent Nassau in matters including general labor disputes and a lawsuit from former workers who claim asbestos exposure.
Two of the contracts were backed unanimously, while the others passed on a 4-3 party line vote. One will pay the Mineola firm Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan as much as an additional $350,000 to continue defending the county in labor and employment matters.
Newsday reported in July that the Bee firm -- whose partner, Peter Bee, is a longtime GOP elections lawyer -- is one of five that has received more than $1 million in contracts since County Executive Edward Mangano took office in 2010. All five of the firms had ties to Mangano or other local Republican Party leaders.
Legislative Democrats have complained that Mangano has relied too much on outside law firms to represent the county and should hire more in-house attorneys, after he reduced those ranks from 106 in 2009 to 65 this year. Through June, the county attorney was on pace to spend more than $5 million on outside contracts for the second consecutive year.
"Until you get started , we're never going to get rid of this outside counsel mentality we're in right now," Legis. Judith Jacobs (D-Woodbury) said yesterday.
Referring to the latest contracts, Jacobs said, "For almost $1 million, think of the people you can hire in-house who would be there constantly."
The Suffolk County attorney's office has 52 in-house lawyers and spent roughly $2 million in outside legal contracts last year, officials there said.
In Nassau, the county attorney spent $1.1 million on outside counsel contracts in 2009, the final year of Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi's administration.
But while Mangano has increased that fivefold, he contends that over his first four years in office, the combined total of in-house attorney salary and benefits, plus outside contract costs, was less than during Suozzi's final term.
The administration said the savings are occurring as its increased use of outside firms ensures more specialized representation in complex cases.
"We're saving money by doing this," Deputy Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said yesterday. "I don't understand where the criticism is coming from, meeting after meeting."
Chief Deputy County Attorney Lisa LoCurto told Jacobs her office "has asked for the money necessary" to hire more lawyers. When asked later to specify how many attorneys may be hired, Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin only would say that the 2015 budget is still being prepared.
Also Monday, the Rules Committee approved a $998,099 contract with Laser Industries of Ridge to build a new batting cage and playground at Cantiague Park in Hicksville. Laser, which also received a county contract for as much as $5.7 million for repair work following superstorm Sandy, was identified as the low bidder in contract documents. The firm has given Mangano's campaign nearly $60,000 in donations since 2010, according to state Board of Elections records.
The administration has long said that contracts are awarded through competitive bidding, and that political contributions have no impact on the process.