A nonprofit that aids Nassau County's parks and museums spent thousands of dollars improperly on staff luncheons, bereavement flowers and meals and wedding expenses for a county vendor's daughter, according to a county comptroller audit.
The audit of the Friends of Nassau County Recreation Inc. for 2016-17 said a lack of oversight "allowed a well-intentioned organization to be used by former County Officials to avoid internal controls and disguise questionable transactions, including use of charitable funds for what may have been political purposes."
The nonprofit, founded in 1981, collected more than $1 million a year in revenue during the audit period, with fees from the Long Island Marathon providing much of the income, according to the audit by Comptroller Jack Schnirman's office.
The group's mission is to serve as a booster for the county's more than 70 parks, museums and historic properties. It also has helped operate the marathon. In 2018, when Nassau County Executive Laura Curran took office, a new parks conservancy was established in the place of Friends.
The audit by Schnirman, a Democrat, focused on the operations of county parks and Friends of Nassau County Recreation in 2016 and 2017.
The report described "questionable" spending on parties, barbecues, and holiday parties for county parks staff, as well as bereavement meals and flowers for the relatives of parks employees.
Friends expenditures cited by the audit included:
- $3,200 for bereavement catering and flowers. Friends said the conservancy and parks department "ceased all such practices" beginning in 2018.
- $6,000 for decorations and to pay a wedding photographer for the wedding of a county vendor’s daughter. Auditors said Friends "failed to respond to why they paid for an individual’s Wedding Florist and Photographer … "
- $4,622 for 2,311 soft drinks for a veterans ceremony. On the bill a parks department employee wrote, “We seriously paid $2 per drink for soft drinks? That’s more than a vending machine!” Parks employees told auditors they needed extra drinks for the annual event.
- $827 for 105 alcoholic beverages for a "Tiki Time" party in 2014 for parks' staff members at Wantagh Park. That included $132 for 22 imported beers; $95 for 19 domestic beers; and $340 for 34 specialty drinks. Supplying county employees with alcohol violates Nassau County's drug and alcohol-free workplace policy, the audit said. In its audit response, the parks department said the department and the conservancy ended all practices beginning in 2018.
Schnirman's report also said Friends sometimes failed to file and/or complete accurate federal and state tax documents.
Auditors said Friends "possibly violated" federal Internal Revenue Service guidelines between 2014 and 2017, by promoting the name of then-Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Schnirman's office wrote.
Auditors cited county parks department events advertised as "Ed Mangano presents Oktoberfest"; "Ed Mangano presents Youth Soccer Clinic"; and "Ed Mangano invites you to the Gingerbread Workshop."
The audit cited IRS regulations for tax-exempt organizations that prohibit nonprofits “from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.
Also, “no part of the net earnings" of a 501(c) (3) organization "may inure to the benefit of any private stockholder or individual,” according to the IRS rules cited in the audit.
Mangano's name was "prominently displayed on advertising and promotion for Friends’ activities, detracting from the logos of both Nassau County and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Museums," the audit said.
Ed Ward, a former Nassau deputy county executive who served under Mangano, said in a statement on Mangano's behalf that Friends “existed long before former County Executive Mangano took office. It was and is operated by a not-for-profit board which the County Executive has no authority how it is administered. In 2007, prior to the Mangano administration, a contract authorized the use of the County logo on materials. The logo in the past has been accompanied by the county executive names and in some instances the legislators names and districts as well. It appears the audit took a narrow approach with its examples and time period."
In its response to Schnirman's audit, the nonprofit said "the items cited in the audit purportedly demonstrating a violation of IRS regulations were clearly" county events. Friends said the audit was "misleading by stating the flyers state 'Ed Mangano presents Oktoberfest', 'Ed Mangano invites you to the Gingerbread Workhouse', and 'Ed Mangano presents Youth Soccer Clinic.'"
Friends noted that flyers for the events had "Nassau County Executive" before Mangano's name.
"This clearly illustrates that the former County Executive was acting in his capacity as a County official promoting a County Event,” the nonprofit said.
The parks department wrote in its response to the audit that the new conservancy and parks commissioner "verbally agreed to and adopted the policy of not allowing endorsement or enhancement of elected officials at Conservancy sponsored events.”
A jury in 2019 convicted Mangano on federal corruption charges, including federal program bribery. Mangano has appealed and is awaiting sentencing.