Over the past six months, Democrats in the Nassau County Legislature largely have held firm to their pledge to abstain from voting on all contracts that come before them until Republican leaders heed their calls to reform the contracting system.
But the Democrats have consistently exempted one group of agreements: those for departments run, in whole or part, by fellow Democrats.
The three Democratic lawmakers on the seven-member, GOP-led Rules Committee, which decides all contracts, have either abstained or voted against 144 of 170 contracts, covering tens of millions of dollars, that have come up since December. The agreements — which passed anyway because Republicans vote as a bloc — cover everything from police uniforms to nonprofit drug treatment programs to engineering studies for public works projects.
The 26 contracts the Democrats voted for included all 10 that came up for Democratic District Attorney Madeline Singas’ office and all three for the county board of elections, which is run jointly by Democrats and Republicans. The others they supported typically covered no-cost or grant-funded services.
Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said his caucus is distinguishing between contracts overseen by County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, and those for the independently run offices of district attorney and the board of elections or the county clerk and comptroller, both led by elected Republicans. He noted that those departments have not had pacts become the focus of publicly known criminal investigations.
“This is not a Democrat versus Republican issue for us,” Abrahams said, adding that lawmakers also supported the two comptroller’s contracts considered since December. “These other agencies have a separate process and their process appears to be independent from the administration’s.”
But Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said the Democrats’ exceptions show their contracting reform campaign is more about politics than principle. She noted that all departments follow the same procurement guidelines.
“It’s proof of their partisanship, and it’s disingenuous because the DA’s contracts go through the exact same process that the Democrats claim is ‘corrupt’ for everyone else,” Gonsalves said.
Nassau’s contracting practices have drawn scrutiny since last year, when former state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was indicted on federal corruption charges that included influencing the awarding of a county contract to a firm that employed his son, Adam.
Dean and Adam Skelos were convicted in December and are appealing.
Democrats began abstaining from contract votes after testimony by Mangano’s chief deputy, Rob Walker, during Skelos’ trial. Walker acknowledged that he was under separate investigation for his role in awarding contracts to political contributors.
Newsday has reported that the probe centers on a $12 million storm cleanup contract with a company that made a political contribution to Walker’s Hicksville GOP club on the same day Walker executed their county contract.
Abrahams said Democrats will press on with their protest until Mangano and the legislature support creation of an independent inspector general’s office to investigate contracts. Singas has also pushed for such an office.
Mangano last month hired a new investigations commissioner to handle most of the duties of an inspector general. Democrats objected because the commissioner will answer solely to the county executive.
“Until we know that there’s an independent resource reviewing all contracts, we just don’t have the comfort level,” Abrahams said.
The full legislative seven-member Democratic minority more recently started voting against county borrowing for capital projects for the same reasons. Unlike contracts only considered by the Rules Committee, approval for borrowing needs a supermajority of 13 votes.
The Democrats’ action has blocked the $275 million capital budget from going forward, since there are only 12 Republicans.
“Their Washington-style political obstruction is compromising public safety,” Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said of legislative Democrats votes against borrowing, citing initiatives such as replacement of police vehicles that are part of the capital plan.
Paul Sabatino, a former legislative counsel in Suffolk County who worked under both major parties, said it was easier for Nassau Democrats to abstain or vote against contracts to make a statement because they know they will still get passed and government won’t grind to a halt.
“If you’re going to vote ‘yes,’ you have to be able to make the distinction — and if there’s no distinction on substance, you may lose credibility, and as a public official the most valuable asset you have is credibility,” Sabatino said.