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Nassau County needs to do more to prevent future scandals

County Executive Edward Mangano with legislative presiding officer

County Executive Edward Mangano with legislative presiding officer Norma Gonsalves on June 13, 2014. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The people of Nassau County are sick of business as usual, but the elected officials are fighting change. In a poll in February, 84 percent of Long Islanders agreed that corruption among local elected officials is a serious problem, and one they are not willing to ignore. Eighty-one percent said that corruption must be ended once and for all because it damages our democracy and costs taxpayers financially. But in scandal-rocked Nassau County, Republican officials are betting that half-measures and short memories can make scandals fade away.

They’re wrong, and the moves the county has made are not enough. The county’s new law on disclosure of political contributions from county vendors may be helpful, but it does not go far enough. It covers only contributions to candidates for office. It does not cover donations to political parties or clubs, or made by people living at the business owners’ homes, like spouses. Those holes are too big.

Nassau officials weakly contend that more disclosure is exists elsewhere. It shouldn’t take a team of detectives to figure out whether vendors are handing out money in return for a juicy municipal contract. County Executive Edward Mangano says he’ll sign a fuller disclosure law if the county legislature, led by Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves, will pass one. She won’t, though, which makes it a lot easier for him to support such a law.

The best protection of taxpayer dollars and the best guarantee of honest government would ban direct political contributions by vendors to elected officials and candidates and clear disclosure of donations to political parties and clubs. But Mangano says he won’t support that unless public campaign financing is created, which it won’t be.

This controversy was kicked up by actual corruption: Former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son are about to be sentenced on federal felony convictions related to a $12 million contract with Nassau County. A Newsday investigation last year showed hundreds of county contracts awarded for just under the $25,000 limit. That cutoff means legislative approval was not needed, and the contracts were not subject to competitive bidding. Some of those contracts appear to have been awarded to people with none of the special skills that the no-bid process demands, unless you count friendship with county officials as such a skill.

Last month, the county announced two hires that could help, an investigations commissioner and a procurement compliance director. But both are at-will appointees of Mangano. And the panel Mangano created to tamp down the outrage over the Skelos scandal asked that the new overseers have more independence. So have Democratic Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and the legislature’s Democratic minority.

Mangano, a Republican, says such a position would demand changing the county charter, which would have to start with the legislature. Gonsalves, who is accused by the state Board of Elections of violating campaign finance disclosure laws, says the independent inspector general recommended by the panel isn’t necessary, and remarkably, she boasts that the process is now cleaner and more transparent than ever.

The improvements aren’t enough. — The editorial board