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Nassau County lawmakers question contracting fix

Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey is seen in

Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey is seen in Mineola on Jan. 29, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Aides to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano told county lawmakers this week that lowering the threshold for legislative approval of contracts — to $1,000 from the current $25,000 — will stop the issuing of hundreds of pacts for amounts just below the limit.

Some lawmakers are unconvinced, however.

The Nassau County Legislature on Monday unanimously approved the new $1,000 approval threshold for personal service agreements. In recent years, Nassau frequently has awarded contracts in amounts just under $25,000, including one for $24,999, to politically connected companies without competitive bidding.

County Attorney Carnell Foskey testified that the new law, coupled with Mangano initiatives such as increased disclosure of companies’ lobbying activities and political contributions, will make the contracting system more transparent.

But Legis. Carriè Solages (D-Elmont) asked whether lowering the threshold for a legislative vote would simply result in an increase in the number of contracts worth $999.99.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s $25,000 or $2 million — we need meaningful reform,” Solages said.

Votes still will be required for agreements that bring vendors to more than $50,000 in contracts in a particular year. Foskey said it would be impractical to award 50 sub-$1,000 contracts to avoid public scrutiny.

“When it was $24,000, you could do two contracts that didn’t go to the legislature,” Foskey told legislators Monday. “But in this situation, it’s just not practical.”

GOP lawmakers criticized Democrats for using the threshold debate to also press for a proposal to appoint an independent inspector general with subpoena powers to vet contracts. Democrats say the position, which would need a legislative supermajority to fill, would blunt the county executive’s influence over contracting.

“I don’t know that we necessarily even have the authority to require a supermajority in this case,” said Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence). “In my view, we’re having a political fight.”

Republicans also said the county investigations commissioner has many of the powers of an inspector general. Foskey currently is performing the commissioner’s duties; Mangano, a Republican, has announced plans to hire a new person for the job.

Also during the contracting debate Monday, Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) asked Foskey about a $24,500 promotions contract that Foskey, when he served as county parks commissioner, awarded to Hauppauge-based BluChip Marketing in 2013.

The contract came under scrutiny last month after a television report said Mangano and BluChip’s president had traded racy text messages. Nassau police later said the messages were “a hoax.”

“I’m not going to discuss particulars of BluChip because I’m not familiar with the contract,” Foskey told Abrahams.

Abrahams noted that Foskey had signed a memo justifying the lack of competitive bidding for the BluChip agreement, but Foskey said he couldn’t address the issue because he didn’t have the contract in front of him.

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