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Nassau parks department awards numerous no-bid contracts

Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey is seen in

Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey is seen in Mineola on Jan. 29, 2014. Foskey is a former Nassau Parks and Recreation commissioner. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Nassau’s parks department has awarded the majority of no-bid county contracts with values just below the threshold for a legislative vote, spreading nearly identical jobs to multiple companies it billed as each having “unique” skills, an analysis found.

From 2011 through 2015, parks gave out 64 of the county’s 101 personal service agreements of between $24,900 and $24,999 — including one for $24,999.96, records show. The department also awarded nearly 30 percent of all contracts of between $24,000 and $25,000 — 113 of 401.

A public vote by the county legislature is necessary for any contract of more than $25,000, or any two totaling $50,000 to the same company within the same year. On Wednesday, following months of controversy about the issue, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and county legislative leaders announced an agreement to have lawmakers approve all contracts above $1,000.

The arrangement would require legislators to weigh in on work the parks department frequently had said was urgent and couldn’t be performed by county employees.

In almost all of its personal service contracts, which are meant for noncapital work such as consulting, parks officials said the service was “specialized, unique and involves skills that cannot be evaluated through a competitive bid process.”

That language allowed the department to bypass county requirements to solicit multiple proposals before giving out the personal services contracts.

Officials repeatedly awarded these no-bid contracts, primarily funded by hotel/motel tax sales tax revenue, for summer concerts, event security, marketing of county venues and festivals and sports tournaments. Each contract contained similar boilerplate language describing why bids were bypassed.

For example, parks awarded two separate firms nearly identical agreements in consecutive years to promote a county car show.

A political pollster who works frequently for Republicans got back-to-back contracts to produce parks-related television commercials.

Two companies were awarded contracts nearly simultaneously to promote the county film industry, with a verbatim summaries of duties.

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat who last year called the county’s contracting system a “recipe for corruption,” expressed concern about the parks department’s use of no-bid contracts and the repeated use of the same general work descriptions.

“The language is easy to use, but do the facts back up these generalizations?” Singas said in an interview. “That’s what troubled me before and it still troubles me.”

Steven Schooner, co-director of George Washington University Law School’s Government Procurement Law Program, said the county should have been able to find multiple vendors who were capable of doing the jobs.

“It’s a little bit of a stretch,” he said. “These are the kinds of things that would benefit from a little bit of competition.”

County Attorney Carnell Foskey, who was county parks commissioner from 2010 to 2013, said in a statement that all contracts “define the services sought and identify the method of procurement” as required by law. Foskey has said that such agreements often allow vendors to begin work more quickly, without having to wait for legislative approval.

Foskey did not respond to a request to detail the specific work done under several contracts reviewed by Newsday. Generally, he justified the need to hire vendors for promotional work, saying, “the county does not employ a marketing staff nor media buyers.”

One of the companies that received the film promotion pacts, Hauppauge-based BluChip Marketing, is headed by Karin Murphy Caro, who last month was tied to County Executive Edward Mangano through reported sexually suggestive text messages. A Nassau County Police investigation determined the texts were a “hoax.”

But Singas, according to sources, recently issued subpoenas for records of BluChip’s contracts with the county — one for $24,500 in 2013, and the other for $24,000 in 2014.

The 2013 contract to promote Nassau’s film industry was finalized two months before officials entered into a $24,900 agreement with another firm, Coastal Film Consultants of Baldwin, for the same purpose, records show.

Both agreements describe the service as “specialized” and “unique,”, but list the same job description: “to promote and attract film industry projects to Nassau County with the purpose of advancing the marketability of the county and its many famous and historic sites and attractions.”

Ingrid Dodd, Coastal’s president, said in an email that the company’s work included “meeting and greeting filmmakers, locations scouts, directors and producers to encourage them to film here in Nassau,” as well as “working with area hotels for lodging crew and talent.”

Caro has said she worked “very, very hard” on her county contracts, including promoting the Long Beach International Film Festival, which Dodd also helps run. Under its 2014 contract, contract, BluChip arranged a veterans’ salute and promoted Nassau County via online newsletters and on social media.

The justification for a no-bid film promotion contract had been used before. In 2012, the county awarded a $24,999.96 contract to the Queens nonprofit Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council, also to promote the film industry. The county did not respond when asked why that amount was chosen.

“This service is specialized, unique and involves skills that cannot be evaluated through a competitive bid process,” Foskey wrote in a 2012 memo justifying the process.

Charles Fisher, Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council’s founder, said county officials told him it was urgent to get going on the promotional effort, in which Fisher pitched his contacts in the entertainment industry to bring projects to Nassau.

“I don’t guess the political reasons for things,” said Fisher, whose organization focuses primarily on literacy and anti-crime programs. “They just said they couldn’t find anyone else who could do it and we just wanted to make it happen.”

Other types of work have been subject to the same no-bid justification from parks officials.

In September 2012, Mangano personally signed a $24,900 no-bid contract with the GOP political polling and advertising firm of McLaughlin & Associates to produce “media plans” for the parks department. The agreement says the firm — which separately has been paid $3.7 million dollars by Mangano’s campaign to produce political ads — would produce commercials for the parks department and provide the commissioner with demographic information to determine where to air the spots.

Six months later, Mangano’s chief deputy, Rob Walker, signed a second $24,900 no-bid contract between McLaughlin & Associates and the parks department that used the same written description of the work and justification for bypassing bids.

Officials at the Blauvelt, N.Y.-based firm didn’t respond to a request for comment. McLaughlin & Associates gave Mangano’s campaign $3,475 between November 2010 and November 2013, including $250 the day before Walker signed the second pact in March 2013, records show.

Mangano’s administration did not specify what commercials the two contracts produced.

In August 2012, the parks department gave a Port Washington-based company, The Drink Agency, a $24,900 no-bid contract “to provide media and marketing for the Nassau County Car Show.”

In January 2014, officials used that precise language to summarize a $24,900 no-bid pact with Brian Rosenberg’s Garden City marketing and entertainment booking firm to promote that year’s car show.

Rosenberg, who has received $148,090 in contracts of between $24,000 and $25,000 since 2012 — primarily to secure acts for free summer concerts at county parks — defended his no-bid work. He has given Mangano’s campaign $1,732 during the period he has received no-bid contracts — and was paid $20,000 by Mangano’s 2013 re-election campaign for consulting and marketing, a period in which he signed the county car show pact.

“The county should pick the best people that are qualified to do the job and not have to worry about what’s fair,” said Rosenberg.

He said companies such as his often accept less than the market rate for work they do for Nassau under contracts capped at $25,000 in exchange for being able to start on the job quickly, without the lengthy wait for legislative approval.

“The cap at least forces people like me to make it work with less,” Rosenberg said.

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