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Contractors bypass Nassau disclosure law

Nassau County executive Edward Mangano, outside the federal

Nassau County executive Edward Mangano, outside the federal courthouse in Central Islip after being released on $500,000 bail, after being charged with corruption on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. Credit: James Carbone

Despite a law requiring Nassau contractors to reveal their campaign contributions, dozens have given nearly $200,000 that never appeared on disclosures — most of it to political party committees with close ties to top county officials.

A Newsday analysis of county and state records found that since the law took effect last April 1, 52 companies that received at least one contract put before the county legislature for approval donated a total of $183,000 not captured by the new forms, which are limited to county officeholders and candidates.

Two-thirds of that undisclosed money — $120,000 — went to the party organizations that were exempted from the law to some criticism, including the Nassau Republican Committee, which funds the campaigns of legislative majority members, and the Hicksville Republican club, run by County Executive Edward Mangano’s chief deputy, Rob Walker.

The rest of the contributions, largely to Mangano, were made in the days and weeks after the companies had submitted their forms.

Contractors file when they are first awarded work by county departments. Because it can take lawmakers months to receive the disclosures, they often do not know about any money given in the interim.

Further, the law does not require that the forms be updated, and state Board of Elections campaign finance reports that would allow officials to cross-reference disclosures are posted as infrequently as twice a year.

All told, the loopholes have helped create a system where only a portion of the money contractors give to influence Nassau politics are known at the time legislators vote on their agreements.

Only 16 of the 186 for-profit companies that received contracts since last April disclosed qualifying donations, totaling roughly $47,000.

“The problem with these regulations is political money is like water — it’ll find a way in if there’s a way in,” said Brian Adams, a professor of political science at San Diego State University who has studied how money is raised for local campaigns.

“And there often isn’t the political will for the full disclosure of anything,” Adams said.

Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) has called for the inclusion of party committees in the disclosures. He called the law “a first step, but there should have been two or three additional steps in the last year, and that hasn’t happened.”

Aides to Mangano declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement from County Attorney Carnell Foskey defending the law.

Foskey said the purpose of the disclosures is mainly to ensure that “those who make financial contributions to county officials with contract-approval authority do so freely and without expectation of a governmental benefit or fear of reprisal.”

Law passed after probes

The law, which the 19-member county legislature passed unanimously in December 2015, came after months of county contracting scandals.

In May 2015, federal prosecutors in Manhattan indicted then-State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) on charges that included improperly influencing the award of a Nassau contract to a company that employed his son, Adam. Dean and Adam Skelos were convicted in the case. They are appealing.

At about that time, Mangano came under investigation by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn for his relationship with a local restaurateur who had received an emergency county contract to feed workers in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. Mangano was indicted last year on charges including receiving bribes and kickbacks. He has pleaded not guilty.

Walker also was the focus of a federal probe into a $12 million county contract awarded to a company that donated to his political club on the same day in 2014 that Walker finalized the pact with his signature.

Prosecutors haven’t disclosed the status of that case. Walker’s attorney, Brian Griffin, said Walker “has complied with all legal obligations and acted in an appropriate and transparent manner.”

In response to the controversies, Mangano initially proposed limiting or banning vendor contributions to county officials, as had been suggested by a panel he formed to examine potential reforms.

“The goal is to increase transparency and confidence in the system,” Mangano said then.

But the legislature’s GOP majority balked, citing free speech concerns, and only the current disclosure law was enacted.

Though Mangano’s panel suggested including the money given to political clubs, the enacted law only requires companies and their principal officers to list contributions they have made since April 1, 2016, to candidates for county executive, clerk, comptroller, district attorney and county legislature. Contractors do not have to list the amounts or dates of contributions.

Signers must attest that the information is “to his/her knowledge true and accurate.” Vendors who do not file cannot receive county contracts.

Foskey said companies that don’t file accurate disclosures risk losing current and future contracts, and could face “potential criminal liability” under existing statutes for filing false instruments.

He also defended the fact that the law does not require contractors to report donations to political party organizations, several of which are significant contributors to local candidates. The Nassau GOP Committee typically spends more in total on behalf of county legislative candidates than the candidates spend on their own campaigns.

And since Mangano took office in 2010, the Hicksville Republican Club, which is run by Walker, received many of its contributions from county vendors who also are significant Mangano donors. The contributions amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Walker for years has approved departments’ requests to award contracts; until recently, his was the final signature on most agreements.

“Contributions to political parties are outside of the scope of this form because political parties are not in the contract-approval process,” Foskey said.

Frank Zarb, the former Nasdaq chairman who led Mangano’s commission on contracting reforms, neither endorsed nor criticized the administration’s response to the panel’s recommendations.

“A trusted system for processing contracts is an important element of good government,” Zarb said in a statement. “So it is a subject which is sure to get continued attention in the future.”

279 contracts examined

Newsday reviewed 279 contracts or amendments, involving 186 individual vendors and totaling more than $236 million, that since April 1, 2016, were placed on public meeting agendas of the legislature’s Rules Committee. The committee approves all agreements worth more than $1,000 on behalf of the full legislature.

Because Nassau County keeps no searchable public database of the vendor disclosures, the forms were pulled by hand from contract packets, which often run 100 pages or more. The forms were cross-referenced with the state’s campaign finance database, which covers activity through mid-January of this year.

The 16 vendors who properly disclosed contributions gave a combined $47,000, nearly all to Mangano. Twelve of those vendors were among the 52 who contributed the total of $183,000 that was not captured on the disclosures.

Of the $183,000, $60,000 went to the county GOP committee. Walker’s Hicksville club received about $20,000, and another $40,000 went to the more than 60 other local Republican clubs, some of which are led by county legislators or other members of Mangano’s administration.

The Newsday review didn’t consider contributions to town political party committees, as they primarily fund town candidates.

Much of the rest of the $183,000 — $40,000 — went to Mangano’s campaign after the county contractors had submitted their most recent public disclosure forms. Often, those contributions were made before legislators received the contracts.

About $22,000 went to other county officials or candidates, including $9,500 to District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat, and Democrats who are running this fall for county executive and comptroller. Legis. Laura Curran (D-Baldwin), a county executive candidate, received $2,800, while Nassau Comptroller George Maragos, a Democrat who also is running for executive, received $1,600. Comptroller candidate Jack Schnirman, the Long Beach city manager, received $8,200, records show.

Among other findings of the Newsday review:

  • Several vendors did not list contributions the disclosure law requires.

Gibbons, Esposito & Boyce Engineers, of Uniondale, was awarded a $1.6 million contract last fall to inspect and manage reconstruction of West Shore Road in Oyster Bay. On July 12, the company signed its disclosure form claiming no reportable political donations. However, state records show the firm had given Mangano’s campaign $1,100 on June 8.

Robert Ervolina, the Gibbons executive who signed the form, called it “totally my mistake.” He said he did not realize that his partner had attended a golf fundraiser for Mangano weeks earlier, and that office staff may not have immediately logged the expense as political.

“It’s a new form for us, and we’ve got to make sure it’s right,” Ervolina said, adding that he backs the disclosures. “I think the more open and honest everybody can be, the less people can be concerned.”

Infosys International, of Plainview, which received an $800,000 information technology contract that was approved by county legislators in December, reported no contributions on its disclosure form signed in September. In June, the company had given Mangano $1,500, state records show.

Raj Mehta, the company CEO who signed the form, said in an interview that “it was probably an oversight on our part.”

After Newsday sought comment from the Mangano administration about the disclosure issues, Foskey on March 21 sent letters to Gibbons and Infosys representatives demanding a “full explanation of this discrepancy” within 10 days.

GOP legislators also have started a review, forwarding the contracts to the county’s investigations commissioner.

  • Some vendors reported making no qualifying contributions on their forms. Later, though, the companies or their affiliates gave county politicians and political parties thousands of dollars before lawmakers voted on their contracts.

LandTek Group, an Amityville construction company that has received $10.3 million in county contracts since 2014, reported no contributions on a disclosure form signed March 31, 2016, the day before the law took effect.

On June 6, 2016, about a month before the company’s debris removal agreement reached lawmakers for a vote, one of its affiliates, Site Pro Industries, gave Mangano $5,000. Another LandTek affiliate, Islip Yards LLC, gave $200 to legislative presiding officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) and $800 to the Nassau GOP Committee between April and June 2016.

In August, shortly after the Rules Committee approved the contract, Islip Yards gave $2,275 to Walker’s Hicksville club.

Michael Ryan, principal owner of LandTek and its affiliates, did not return a call and an email seeking comment. In December, Ryan filled out another disclosure for a new contract and listed no contributions.

LandTek was one of only two vendors that since April 1, 2016, have made more than $15,000 in political contributions not captured by the disclosure forms, including money from affiliates and principals to county officials, and to the exempt political party committees and clubs, state financial disclosures show.

Only LiRo Engineers, of Syosset, gave more, $16,575.

  • Ten of the 16 companies that properly reported contributions in the new disclosures did not list the date and the amount, leaving legislators without an easy way to distinguish major donors from minor ones.

A. Vournou Construction Management Group of Syosset and the Mineola law firm of Lynn Gartner Dunne & Covello each disclosed properly that they contributed to Mangano. But neither listed the amounts: $10,000 for Vournou and $100 for the law firm.

Lawmakers divided

As the vendor disclosure law nears its anniversary, county legislative leaders are split by party affiliation on whether it goes far enough.

Gonsalves still supports the law, and asserted that contractors’ political giving has no impact on legislators’ votes, said a spokeswoman who declined to make her available for an interview.

When it was enacted last year, Gonsalves said, “not everything is perfect, but I will tell you, the contract process right now is a lot more perfect than it has been in a long time.”

However, Abrahams said he would support consideration of a ban or limit on vendor campaign contributions, as Mangano’s panel had suggested. New York City, Orange County and the Town of Greenburgh in Westchester County are among municipalities in New York that have passed such measures. New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois also have done so.

Gonsalves has expressed “serious constitutional and First Amendment concerns,” about a ban or contribution limits.

But an advocate who has helped craft some of the state “pay to play” bans said courts across the nation have upheld them consistently.

“It is . . . constitutional to ban campaign contributions for vendors,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a Washington nonprofit that focuses on ethics and campaign finance issues.

“But if they just want to address half the problem by having a disclosure system, it’s got to be easily and publicly accessible,” Holman said of Nassau. “The county has made almost no effort to try to address their problem here.”

Nassau’s contactor disclosure law:

On April 1, 2016, a law took effect in Nassau County requiring county contractors to disclose political contributions that they or their corporate officers made to the campaign committees of county officeholders and candidates. Newsday analyzed each of the 279 contracts to for-profit companies submitted to the county legislature for approval since that date.

Of those contracts, which were worth a combined $236 million:

  • 186 companies received at least one contract
  • 16 companies reported on forms filed with their contracts that they had made about $47,000 in contributions to a qualifying county office holder or candidate
  • 52 companies gave an additional $183,000 that did not appear on the new disclosure forms they had to submit. Most of that money — $120,000 — went to political party organizations not covered by the disclosure law. The rest of the donations did not appear because they were made in the days and weeks after the companies had submitted their forms.

Source: Nassau County contracts; New York State Board of Elections

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