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Tax refund companies give thousands to pols

Residential tax refund companies have become politically involved, directing hundreds of thousands of dollars to local candidates and political committees on Long Island in the past four years.

State campaign finance reports show that the residential tax protest agencies or their principals have contributed nearly $450,000, the vast majority in Nassau, since 2009 -- individually or through the Committee for Fair Property Taxes, their political action committee.

About $250,000 has gone to political committees controlled by North Valley Stream Republican leader Joseph Cairo, who was named last month by Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Mondello as his heir apparent.

More than $70,000 was contributed to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican who was elected in 2009 -- about $35,000 of which came from the tax protest PAC. In comparison, the PAC contributed $5,000 in 2009 to former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat whose administration blamed the tax protest firms for the high number of assessment challenges filed in the county.

For more than a decade, residential and commercial property owners have won about $100 million in property tax refunds every year because of successful assessment challenges, mostly for commercial protests.

Mangano adopted a more conciliatory relationship with the tax protest firms, naming principals to his Assessment Reform Team. Recently, he appeared at a news conference with team members Paola Orsini, who runs Re-Assessment & Evaluation Services Inc. of Garden City, and Shalom Maidenbaum, who heads several assessment protest agencies, to announce the county had settled all 117,000 residential property tax challenges filed last year before the first tax bills go out in October.

Tuesday, the county proposed a new plan for the residential tax protest firms to sell $20 million in judgments against the county to an investor as a way to pay overdue tax refunds.

County Attorney John Ciampoli, who devised the plan, and PAC members said there is no connection between the proposal and the contributions.

"Our PAC was formed more to raise awareness of the issues of the industry, to give us a stronger voice," said Craig Norberto, who runs Tax Correction Agency with his father, Peter.

"I don't care if you're a Democrat or Republican, whoever is going to help the taxpayer, that's who we're going to try to re-elect," said Sean Acosta of Property Tax Reduction Consultants.

Orsini said, "We're for candidates, regardless of party, who will put the interests of the taxpayer first."

However, Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said he believed contributions have an influence on public policy. "Real reform would impact their bottom line," he said.

The county's former assessor had estimated that Maidenbaum's Property Tax Reduction group had earned $12 million from 2005 through 2009 by collecting a percentage of property taxes saved by his homeowner clients. Tax attorney Fred Perry earned $10 million and Acosta collected about $6 million, according to the assessor's report.

This month, Orsini's and Norbert's firms mailed residents praising Mangano's residential settlement program, urging them to appeal their assessments.

"As more and more of your neighbors file successful challenges to their property taxes, the tax burden shifts to those whose assessments are higher, which consequently may well result in your paying more than your fair share," according to the letter from Orsini's firm.

State records indicate that the Committee for Fair Property Taxes began contributing to local candidates in October 2009 after collecting $94,000 from the top residential challenge firms. By 2012, Perry had contributed $107,500 to the PAC, Maidenbaum individually and through related companies had a given more than $80,000, Acosta donated $95,000 and Norberto and associated firms gave more than $75,000.

The PAC, in turn, contributed $60,000 in 2009, $94,000 in 2011 and $50,000 in April to North Valley Stream Victory funds, controlled by Cairo. The PAC also gave $36,000 to Joint Republican Headquarters in North Valley Stream, which consists of most western Nassau political committees.

With Laura Figueroa

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