Laura Curran and Jack Martins, the major party candidates for Nassau County executive, are touting anti-corruption proposals with far more detail than those of any candidate for the office in recent memory.
At debates, forums and fairs, and in television ads and mailers, Curran, a Democrat, and Martins, a Republican, frequently have presented ethics reform as their top issue — a response to recent corruption scandals involving top state, county and town officials from Nassau.
County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of receiving bribes and kickbacks from a local businessman in exchange for favors. He is not seeking re-election.
Former GOP Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto has pleaded not guilty to federal charges related to the same case.
Former North Hempstead Democratic chairman Gerard Terry, who once held six taxpayer-funded jobs, pleaded guilty to state and federal tax evasion charges.
Former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was convicted of federal corruption charges relating in part to the awarding of a Nassau County contract. His conviction was overturned, but prosecutors intend to retry him.
“Voters are very angry about corruption and they want to hear the candidates recognize this problem and what they plan to do about it,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focuses on ethics and campaign finance issues. “But then the big issue is following through after they get elected.”
Curran, a Nassau County legislator from Baldwin, and Martins, a former Mineola mayor and state senator from Old Westbury, have attacked each other’s plans as “window dressing” or for merely checking “a box.”
However, the similarities between their proposals generally outweigh the differences.
The candidates are pushing a mix of ideas that would build on legislation passed after the recent corruption scandals, several of which involved the awarding of county contracts.
Some, like campaign finance reform, have been blocked by county leaders, while the county and towns have enacted others, including overhauls of local ethics boards.
Both want to modernize the county’s Code of Ethics to require more extensive financial disclosure from elected officials, boost vetting of county hires to prevent nepotism and conduct more rigorous reviews of government contracts to identify conflicts of interest.
They also agree on the need to create a public online database of all county contracts, strip pensions from elected officials convicted of corruption and institute term limits for countywide and legislative office holders.
Green Party candidate Cassandra Lems has said at debates she would support many of the anti-corruption proposals of Curran and Martins.
But Curran’s and Martins’ plans are not identical — and they are focusing on those differences in public appearances with just two weeks to go before Election Day.
Curran’s plan includes tougher restrictions on taxpayer-funded mailings and limits or prohibitions on campaign contributions from county employees and vendors.
Curran also calls for all 19 county legislators to review each county contract of more than $1 million. Currently, the Nassau County Legislature’s seven-member Rules Committee issues final approval of all pacts — including those worth tens of millions of dollars.
She would bar her political appointees from contributing to her campaigns, and pledges not to hire political leaders’ family members.
“I think the biggest difference between me and my opponent is my plan actually tackles the culture of corruption,” Curran said in an interview. Martins, she said, “kind of checks off a box.”
Martins would change the county charter to allow indicted elected officials to be recalled from office through a public referendum.
Martins also argues instead of creating an independent inspector general’s office, with multiple employees — as Democrats have called for — Nassau should give the existing county commissioner of investigations and the procurement director more power to conduct independent investigations. Martins wants to require legislative approval for their appointments, ensuring they do not answer only to the county executive.
“As a Republican I am looking to fix the system as it currently exists — to improve it and use the resources that are there,” Martins said. “Democrats will leave the broken system where it is and just bring in another layer of government in the hope that added layer will actually work.”
Curran and Martins would increase funding and staffing for the county Ethics Board, which investigates complaints of misconduct by county employees but has issued few public findings or reports in recent years.
But they differ about how to constitute the five-member board.
Curran wants the county executive to appoint two board members, one of whom would be backed by county employee unions. The county legislature’s presiding officer, minority leader and the county comptroller would make the other appointments.
Martins would have no more than two individuals from either party on the board. They would be appointed by the county executive, confirmed by the legislature and serve five-year terms.
Martins calls Curran’s plan “window dressing” and argues it would “just rearrange the chairs on the Titanic.”
Curran, however, said her plans to reconstitute the board would go farther than Martins’ by retraining employees on the county ethics code and encouraging them to report wrongdoing. “His plans just don’t go deep,” Curran said of Martins.
But while Curran and Martins have picked apart each other’s proposals, experts said it remains unclear whether voters will focus on the nuances.
Michael Dawidziak, a consultant who works primarily for Republicans, said voters won’t drill down too deep into the specifics of the respective ethics proposals and will largely make their selection based on which candidate they trust more.
“I think voters are likely pretty confused in terms of the candidates’ ethics plans,” Dawidziak said. “After a while, the plans all blend together. It’s about trust and liability. If you get voters to trust you, it goes a long way.”
NASSAU ETHICS PROPOSALS
Laura Curran (D)
- Independent inspector general to oversee probes of county contracts.
- Require county employees to disclose whether they are related to county contractors.
- Limit the county executive, comptroller and clerk to two four-year terms, and county legislators to six two-year terms.
- Revise Nassau’s “Whistleblower Law” to encourage employees to come forward with allegations of waste and mismanagement.
Jack Martins (R)
- Provide the county’s commissioner of investigations and procurement director, who oversees outside vendor contracts, with increased staff, funding and investigative powers.
- Enhanced vetting to prevent nepotism and improper instances of simultaneous employment with multiple governmental entities or county contractors.
- Limit countywide officials to two four-year terms and county legislators to five two-year terms.
- Change the county charter to allow indicted elected officials to be recalled from office through a public referendum.