NIFA chairman accused of having 'conflict of interest'
The Republican leader of Nassau's county legislature on Tuesday called for state officials to investigate whether the chairman of the state board monitoring Nassau's finances has "an illegal and impermissible conflict of interest" by serving as a director at the same national bank where the county has its operating accounts.
A day before county leaders were to meet privately with members of the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, Majority Leader Peter J. Schmitt demanded NIFA chairman Ronald Stack, a Democrat, resign because "it is clear" that he was negotiating for his Wells Fargo job at the same time former Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi was deciding whether to transfer $82 million to the bank last year.
Nassau transferred the money May 1, 2009, while Stack notified NIFA members June 24 that he would be joining Wells Fargo.
Representatives for both Stack and Suozzi said then there was no connection or conflict. A Wells Fargo spokeswoman Tuesday reiterated "there is no conflict of interest," and NIFA general counsel Jeremy Wise said the state Commission on Public Integrity cleared Stack's job before he took it.
"Mr. Stack has informed me that he had no discussions with Wells Fargo at any time before the transfer of operating accounts to Wells Fargo," Wise added.
But in letters to State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the ethics commission, Schmitt wrote, "A reasonable assumption may be drawn that the mere threat of the removal of Nassau County's operating accounts from Wells Fargo could improperly influence Mr. Stack's behavior."
Schmitt also told the commission that the recent appointment of Thomas Stokes, a top Suozzi budget adviser, to NIFA should "be invalidated," calling it "an affront to good government" because Stokes helped set the budget policies NIFA is reviewing.
Stokes could not be reached for comment Tuesday. The commission acknowledged receiving Schmitt's complaints and said it would review them.
At a news conference in Mineola, Schmitt also criticized the recent NIFA appointment by Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, of Leonard Steinman, a former chairman of the Nassau Industrial Development Agency under Suozzi. "I can see clearly there is a political agenda here," Schmitt said.
Steinman responded, "I have no political agenda. My only interest is looking out for the residents of Nassau County."
Schmitt and Republican County Executive Edward Mangano were to meet privately Wednesday with three NIFA members to review Mangano's spending plans, which rely heavily on borrowing to close a projected $286.5-million budget deficit. Schmitt denied any connection between his news conference and the meeting.
"The best defense is a good offense," responded Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick). "Knowing they can only show borrow-and-spend policies, why not go on the attack and claim that what is sure to be objective criticism [from NIFA] is somehow tainted?"