Jodi Franzese fought City Hall and vows to bring the same investigative spirit to Nassau County as its first ever inspector general.
As senior inspector general in New York City’s Department of Investigations, Franzese led a probe that showed city officials were involved in a decision to convert a Lower East Side hospice for people with HIV/AIDS into luxury condos.
Her July 2016 report relied on thousands of city documents and records, and interviews with 50 people, including Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The condo conversion came after a developer paid the city to lift a deed restriction requiring the building to be used as a nonprofit residential health care facility.
“It was a huge fight and it was totally on the cover on all of the papers. But we just had to put our heads down and do our job,” Franzese said. “We kept pushing through. People were yelling at us — no one likes oversight, I get it.”
In her new role in Nassau, which began Jan. 3, Franzese will launch the first independent Nassau government agency since the Office of Legislative Budget Review in 1996.
The inspector general's office — which is separate from the county executive — will review, investigate and research contracts with county vendors to ensure political relationships don't influence the contracting process.
County legislators who created the position say Franzese will have “broad powers,” including the ability to issue subpoenas and interview officials under oath.
In an interview, Franzese she won't be afraid to use such tools make sure taxpayer money isn’t wasted.
“Even the presence of a watchman can change behavior,” said Franzese, 47, of Massapequa.
Franzese's salary is $150,000, according to budget estimates, and her office will receive more than $550,000 for staff. Six new hires should be enough to get the office started, she said.
The appointment of an independent inspector general in Nassau follows several indictments of elected officials in cases involving county contracting.
Former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre, was charged with illegally influencing the awarding of a $12 million county contract to a stormwater company that employed his son, Adam.
Skelos was convicted in a retrial in July after his 2015 conviction was overturned on an appeal, and last week began serving a sentence of 4 years and 3 months in prison.
Former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and his wife, Linda, were indicted on federal charges in October 2017.
Prosecutors allege they received bribes and kickbacks from restaurateur Harendra Singh, a longtime friend, in exchange for helping Singh obtain contracts and loan guarantees by the Town of Oyster Bay.
Edward Mangano faces seven felony counts, including program bribery, honest-services wire fraud, extortion and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Linda Mangano faces five felony counts, including conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI.
They have pleaded not guilty and their case is scheduled to be retried this month after a mistrial was declared in May.
Also, Mangano's former chief deputy Rob Walker, a former state assemblyman from Hicksville, is awaiting a federal trial scheduled for April for allegedly taking $5,000 in cash from an unnamed Nassau County contractor, according to prosecutors.
Walker pleaded not guilty to charges of obstructing justice and making false statements to the FBI.
In a report in July 2015, Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas called the county’s process for awarding contracts "a recipe for corruption."
Singas found the county’s paper-based contracting system had "serious systematic deficiencies." For instance, she said, there was no easy way to cross-check officials' financial disclosure and campaign finance disclosure statements for conflicts of interest with vendors.
Singas later pressed county legislators to create an independent inspector general's office to deal with contracting conflicts.
The GOP-controlled county Legislature agreed to create an inspector general’s office in December 2017, following a pressure campaign by Democrats who declined to provide the votes to authorize county borrowing for expenses other than public safety.
"Unfortunately, we would have liked to see an IG sooner rather than later, which might have prevented some of the financial indiscretions that have been alleged," said Minority Leader Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport).
Abrahams said a watchdog is important to have no matter who the county executive is because "it protects the institution." He said Democrats are confident Franzese "will be able to stand up to any of the pressures of that office."
Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said creation of the inspector general's office had bipartisan support.
However, Nicolello during the Mangano administration spoke out against hiring an IG. “If you’re worried about public corruption, the last thing you want to do is create an office with virtually unlimited powers in this county,” he said in May 2017.
Asked recently why he changed his mind, he said he "wanted to have a clean slate going into 2018," when he became presiding officer and Democrat Laura Curran took over as county executive.
Franzese was selected after a monthslong, national search that yielded about 30 prospective candidates. She emerged early as a finalist because of her work in New York City, county legislators said.
At the city Department of Investigation, Francese managed employees including investigators, attorneys and data analysts who conducted confidential investigations into allegations of corruption, official misconduct and fraud.
Franzese's former boss Mark Peters, who left his post as DOI's commissioner in November, called Franzese "a great investigator. She’s smart. She’s tenacious. She's thorough and Nassau is lucky to have her."
Under the Nassau County charter, updated last spring to include the inspector general's position, Franzese is authorized to "eradicate fraud" and other abuses by elected and appointed county officers, employees and agencies and county vendors, contractors and subcontractors.
However, the IG won't have the power to probe the county legislature or the legislature's independent Office of Budget Review," according to the charter.
In a statement, Curran said she looked forward to working with Franzese to "continue to make Nassau County a model for compliance and good government."
Curran, who in the final days of her 2017 campaign ran on an anti-corruption platform, said “restoring ethics, trust and transparency in county government has been the cornerstone of my administration."
Singas spokesman Brendan Brosh called Franzese's hiring "an incremental step forward."
"We look forward to partnering with Ms. Franzese and her staff in the future,” Brosh said.
Franzese, who has a law degree from St. John's University, said she began to hone her skills during her 17 years working as a prosecutor in the Suffolk County District Attorney's office, first taking on child-abuse cases and then moving on to white-collar crimes.
Keri Herzog, Suffolk DA's deputy bureau chief for child abuse and domestic violence, said Franzese has "impeccable integrity" and a "very analytical" mind.
“When you first meet her, you might not realize what kind of legal brain is at work there. She’s also probably one of the funniest attorneys I’ve ever worked with,” Herzog said.
Franzese, a mother of three who is married to Frabrizio Spagnolo, an evolutionary biologist, said she was excited to put her skills to use in her own county. Born and raised in Brooklyn and Queens, she has lived in Massapequa since 2003.
She isn't affiliated with a political party and has no intention of allowing politics to influence her work, she said.
“What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong,” Franzese said. “I was raised that way.”
Education/career: Juris Doctor from St. John's University School of Law, May 1996; law Associate, Minerva & D'Agostino, P.C., Valley Stream, 1996-1998; prosecutor, Suffolk County District Attorney's office, 1998-2015; senior inspector general, New York City Department of Investigation, September 2015 to December 2018.
Family: Married with three children