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Nassau employees questioned no-bid contract for film marketing

Karin Murphy Caro of BluChip Marketing is seen

Karin Murphy Caro of BluChip Marketing is seen in Bohemia on July 27, 2011. Credit: Jason Andrew

When Nassau County hired a marketing company in 2013 to promote its film industry, officials justified the no-bid contract by saying the firm had “unique expertise” and offered services that “cannot be provided by any staff currently employed by the county.”

Privately, this assertion was challenged from the start — by county parks department staff.

Internal emails obtained by Newsday show that County Executive Edward Mangano’s top deputy first recommended the parks department meet with Karin Murphy Caro, who heads Hauppauge-based BluChip Marketing and whose contracts with Nassau have attracted scrutiny from county prosecutors.

Carnell Foskey, then Mangano’s parks commissioner, urged his employees to make Caro feel welcome as they drew up a contract for $24,500, just below the threshold requiring a legislative vote, for the company to market and attract local film projects.

But parks employees balked. Mary Studdert, the department’s press liaison, noted in an email to Mangano chief deputy Rob Walker that the county already had an in-house film office director, Debra Markowitz, to handle those duties. Markowitz, for her part, suggested that there was no room for Caro on an upcoming county bus tour of filming sites — prompting a rebuke from Foskey.

“Debbie I strongly suggest that if Karin wants to ride on the bus you find room,” Foskey wrote.

In more than 100 such emails related to BluChip Marketing’s two no-bid contracts in 2013 and 2014, parks department officials often questioned the quality of the company’s work, pointing out errors in promotional materials and noting the cancellation of planned events due to low public interest.

The emails, provided recently by the county in response to a Freedom of Information Law request, provide an inside look at the birth, and execution of, Nassau contracts awarded without competitive bidding in amounts just below the $25,000 threshold for a vote by the county legislature’s Rules Committee.

After Newsday reported that Nassau had issued hundreds of these types of contracts since 2011, often to politically connected vendors, Mangano and county lawmakers agreed this year to lower the approval threshold to $1,000.

Newsday has reported that the parks department was responsible for almost all the no-bid contracts just below $25,000. The contracts routinely awarded nearly identical contracts for film-promotion to individual companies billed as having “unique” skills.

The BluChip agreements, funded by county hotel/motel tax revenues, came under scrutiny in February, when Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas’ office issued subpoenas for records pertaining to the contracts.

Singas’ move followed news media reports that Mangano, a Republican, and Caro had traded sexually suggestive text messages. Both strongly denied the report, and a Nassau police investigation subsequently called the messages a “hoax.”

Brendan Brosh, a district attorney’s spokesman, said last week that the office’s “broad inquiry” into county contracts was continuing, but, “We will not comment on the status of specific investigations.”

Newsday in February requested all of BluChip’s documented work product. Nassau’s parks department provided several hundred email messages from an approximately year-and-a-half-long period between county and BluChip employees, and between county employees regarding the company.

The earliest, dated Feb. 27, 2013, concerned Caro’s introductory meeting with the parks department.

Studdert wrote to Walker that, “per your request,” parks department leaders had met with Caro about promoting Nassau’s film industry. “We would like to have her attend the film tour this coming Monday and Tuesday. Carnell asked that I speak to you ... regarding introducing Karin to Debbie Markowitz beforehand.”

Studdert, however, expressed concern that “Karin’s potential role with the county would be similar to Debbie’s role.” Walker replied that he didn’t think it would be an issue.

Caro didn’t respond to a request for comment about the emails. Walker said he didn’t recall how he came to recommend Caro to the parks department. But he noted that he often receives requests from other officials, including county legislators, for potential use of hotel/motel tax revenues and simply forwards them to parks officials.

On Feb. 28, Eileen Krieb, another parks official, tried to make arrangements to get Caro on an upcoming county-led bus tour of filming locations. Markowitz replied that Caro “can join any location/tours she likes, but there is no more room on the bus.”

Krieb responded that Foskey “has requested that you work out arrangements to make her [Caro] feel welcomed.”

In an April 18 memo, Foskey justified the lack of bids for BluChip’s film promotion contract by noting that the services were “specialized, unique” and “cannot be provided by any staff currently employed by the county.”

Walker finalized BluChip’s contract on June 5.

The emails show that Caro’s firm largely worked on matters unrelated to the contract’s stated purpose. On May 10, a BluChip employee described several events they were helping with, including a local restaurant tasting to support the county’s Games for the Physically Challenged.

When the company in June 2013 submitted a flier for the “Taste of Nassau” event, one parks employee called it “dark and unfriendly.” Krieb replied, “I agree!! But who are we to have an opinion!!”

In July 2013, BluChip distributed a news release to promote a “Fields of Honor” fundraiser for county veterans in which community members could buy American flags installed outside the county executive and legislative building in Mineola. Proceeds were to go to benefit veterans causes.

The release said mistakenly that the county executive building was in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow.

“Ugh,” wrote Mangano’s spokesman, Brian Nevin, in an email to Studdert.

Newsday reported this year that BluChip sold only 43 of the 1,500 flags — for a net loss to the county of $1,335.

Caro has said previously that her company worked “very, very hard” for the county, citing the veterans fundraiser and “Taste of Nassau events.”

In February, when the BluChip contracts first came under scrutiny by Singas’ office, the county provided a statement that said the company “coordinated and marketed several successful events,” also citing the veterans fundraiser and the Games for the Physically Challenged.

Nevin didn’t respond when asked, in light of the emails, if the county remains satisfied with the company’s work.

BluChip’s contract expired in August, and the county moved to issue a new $24,000 agreement for general marketing and promotions. It was finalized in July 2014.

That June, BluChip was cited by New York State for a failure to provide disability insurance, making the company ineligible to receive government contracts for a year.

BluChip spent much of the second contract period working on another “Taste of Nassau” event scheduled for September 2014 to benefit the Games for the Physically Challenged.

But the emails show that county parks officials were critical of the company’s marketing work for the event, which ultimately was canceled due to low public registration. BluChip employees failed to contact weekly newspapers and websites that often reprint county news releases, county officials said.

A company employee wrote that he thought the county and a nonprofit that benefits the parks department, Friends of Nassau Recreation, were handling local media outreach. Kristen DiCerbo, who was working on the event for the county, replied, “it was understood you would be handling all of the marketing.”

DiCerbo forwarded her exchange to county parks employee Lindsey McKeever, punctuating her comments with an abbreviation for ridiculous: “Ridic!!! They still haven’t even booked entertainment.”

After the Taste of Nassau cancellation, the BluChip employee said he did not have time to contact the participating restaurants. In a reply copied to numerous county officials, DiCerbo said: “I’m sorry, but let me understand this a bit more clearly ... BluChip was the initial and only contact to restaurants for this event. The event was postponed last week ... And now we find out that the restaurants haven’t even been called or notified properly of the postponement. How does that make the county look?”

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