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Nassau lawmakers defend integrity of Inspector General Jodi Franzese

File photo of Jodi Franzese, shown here in

File photo of Jodi Franzese, shown here in Mineola on Dec. 19, 2018. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Nassau County legislators, Democrat and Republican, defended the integrity of Inspector General Jodi Franzese Monday, after Comptroller Jack Schnirman’s office questioned her "independence" for releasing a report critical of Schnirman's handling of a fraud scheme aimed at his office.

Franzese's report, which majority Republicans had requested, said controls in the comptroller's office were "not effective" in preventing the scheme in which the comptroller's office approved the transfer of $2.1 million into a fraudulent bank account. The office sent $710,000 to the account that later was recovered.

Schnirman, a Democrat, responded last week with a broadside.

His spokesman, Brett Spielberg, issued a statement saying, "the largest question this report raises is the independence — or lack thereof — of the Inspector General, who released a benign report solely at the behest of the politicians in the majority of the Legislature … "

Franzese responded that her office had been planning to investigate the matter before Republicans sought a review. She said her office would "not shirk from exploring issues within its mandate for fear that it will be accused of not being independent."

On Monday, as majority Republicans formally unveiled Franzese's report, Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), the minority leader, said Franzese's probe of the fraud attempt was clearly "under her purview."

Franzese "functions at the pleasure of the legislature," Abrahams said. "We can investigate any level of potential criminality, or any issue in any office."

Abrahams said Franzese, "has been very independent, very transparent, and does not leave any stone unturned. She puts the whole report out there so we can digest it."

Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) said Schnirman, "takes great amount of pride in his office and took it personally [when] she suggested some mechanisms were not in place."

Nonetheless, DeRiggi-Whitton said, "I think that her [Franzese's] critique of the system wasn’t personal, it was just what we hired her to do, to scrutinize situations and suggest improvements."

Franzese was hired by a unanimous vote of the legislature in December 2018. A supermajority of the 19-member legislature is needed to appoint an inspector general, or to fire one for cause. Democrats had pushed for an inspector general's office after a series of contracting scandals.

Other county legislators in the Democratic caucus — Joshua Lafazan, of Woodbury; Arnold Drucker, of Plainview; Carrié Solages, of Elmont; and Ellen Birnbaum, of Great Neck — declined to comment. Democrats Siela Bynoe, of Westbury, and Debra Mulé, of Freeport, did not respond to requests for comment.

The legislature's deputy presiding officer, Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence) said of Schnirman: "Instead of saying, oh my gosh, look at all this money that we could have lost, look at all the ways we can fix things and make things better, his reaction was to attack the Inspector General and the report as politically motivated."

In an interview Monday, Schnirman expressed concern that the inspector general is, "appointed by and responsible and [can be] removed by the Legislature."

"There’s a fundamental flaw in the way the legislature created this office that puts the professionals that have been hired in an impossible and unfair position," Schnirman said. "To be blunt, the issue here is that this is a report that they never should have undertaken to begin with."

Franzese said in a statement Monday:

"Our Office, which is independent, nonpartisan, and nonpolitical, issued a factual and fair report which addressed a matter of legitimate public interest. The statutory structure creating our Office fosters the IG’s independence by providing a fixed term and removal only for cause by a supermajority. The OIG and the Comptroller’s office share the goal of making the County better. The County’s interests are best served when its oversight offices regard each other as colleagues."

Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) called Schnirman's comments last week, "ridiculous." Schnirman "audits departments, agencies, and makes his recommendations, and she just did the same thing."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, said in a statement, "As a member of the County Legislature, I worked to establish a nonpartisan Inspector General. My administration has maintained a professional relationship with their office and respects their work of conducting independent investigations."

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