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State lawmaker wants all local governments to vet contract vendors

Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) speaks during a news

Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) speaks during a news conference on Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

A state lawmaker, prompted by recent controversies in Nassau County, wants to force local governments to vet their potential contract vendors more closely.

Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said he will introduce a bill that would require all municipalities to participate in the state comptroller's "vendor responsibility system," which helps identify state contract bidders with issues such as criminal records and past bankruptcies, or establish a similarly detailed database on their own.

"It's pretty clear that the 'Wild West' attitude that is being used in a lot of these localities is not working," Gianaris said. "There needs to be accountability and there needs to be a screening process before a contract gets awarded."

Nassau County already distributes detailed questionnaires to many prospective vendors, requesting information about issues including past criminal and financial problems. But those forms do not get filled out for every type of contract -- and no computerized database yet exists to easily cross-check the information, though county officials say they've been developing one.

"We've been working on improving the contract process for a couple of years now," said Gregory May, an aide to County Executive Edward Mangano who has led efforts to digitize county procurement review. "The framework is in place."

Contracting procedures in Nassau came under scrutiny after the May federal indictment of former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his son, Adam. The charges partly relate to the awarding of a $12 million county contract to AbTech Industries, a company that employed Adam Skelos.

Both Dean and Adam Skelos have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, extortion and bribery.

Acting Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat, issued a report in July that called the county's paper-based procurement system "a recipe for corruption" due to its inability to quickly detect conflicts of interest.

Singas, who is running for election in November against Republican Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, said her office found vendors doing business with Nassau despite criminal records or being barred by other municipalities.

Mangano, a Republican, last month named a panel that he said would independently review the county contracting system and suggest reforms. But May said the administration since 2011 has overseen a task force including nonprofit leaders to overhaul technology that Nassau uses to log contracts.

"Assuming we are not doing anything, or are continuing with a less than satisfactory system, I don't think is fair to the county executive or anyone in the administration," May said.

Singas and Gianaris -- who sits on the Senate's ethics and rules committees and chairs the Senate Democrats' campaign committee -- point to New York City's "Vendex" system of reviewing bidders as a model. That system requires vendors on contracts of more than $100,000 to fill out a lengthy questionnaire, centralizes information for use by departments and allows problem companies to be flagged.

The state comptroller's office keeps similar records for state vendors. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill requiring all state agencies to use it.

Gianaris' bill requires local governments to use the system or create their own for all contracts of more than $10,000.

Scott Reif, spokesman for the Senate GOP, said the majority would review the bill when it's filed -- but noted that they believed Gianaris has "a capacity to inject politics" into issues.

"But as a rule we've always supported more and greater transparency," Reif said, "especially when it comes to the use of taxpayer dollars."

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