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How to curb corruption in Nassau County contracting

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano participates in a

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano participates in a debate in Woodbury on Oct. 29, 2013. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Last summer, the Nassau County district attorney issued a report of an investigation into county contracting procedures and made several recommendations to ensure the process is free of corruption. One was to create an independent inspector general, appointed by the county executive and subject to confirmation by a supermajority of the county legislature. Since then, the legislature’s Republican majority has resisted the proposal.

But is the creation of a new watchdog even necessary? Existing law gives three individuals the power to guard against and root out corruption. The county charter requires the comptroller to review and approve contracts and to audit all bills, tasks the commissioner of investigations with examining financial and other records of the comptroller and treasurer, and gives the commissioner of investigations the power to issue subpoenas and take testimony under oath to accomplish that mission. Also, the state constitution and laws empower the district attorney to investigate, subpoena witnesses and apply for search warrants and wiretaps.

Of the three, the commissioner of investigations is the one best suited to serve as the first line of defense against corruption. Unfortunately, Nassau County has been without a dedicated investigations commissioner since 2011, when the position was folded into that of the county attorney in a cost-cutting move that can only be described as penny-wise, pound-foolish. An aggressive and effective commissioner of investigations could quickly pay for him or herself by eliminating waste, fraud and corruption in contracting.

Milton Lipson, Nassau’s first commissioner of investigations (then called the commissioner of accounts), was aggressive and effective. Lipson, a retired Secret Service agent and attorney, was appointed in 1962 by then-County Executive Eugene Nickerson. Lipson sued the county so his office would be funded; the Board of Supervisors resisted the position and refused to fund it. More than 40 years later, his obituary credited him with uncovering the use of North Hempstead public employees and equipment by private contractors, favoritism and padding in Oyster Bay road contracts, and insider land deals in Hempstead.

County Executive Edward Mangano must appoint a dedicated and independent commissioner of investigations — a modern-day Lipson. An aggressive commissioner of investigations can begin to restore public faith in government by rooting out corruption in the contracting process and investigating other areas of county government. That is not to say that additional measures aren’t required to police public contracts. While the county has introduced contractor disclosure forms suggested by the district attorney, they are worthless without someone reviewing them. The comptroller can and should perform this function; the charter requires that he review all contracts and requests for payment. Placing this task in the comptroller’s office would also allow for accountability — the buck would stop at the comptroller’s desk.

Finally, the district attorney should continue with the criminal investigations that have been reported over the past year and bring criminal charges where appropriate. The district attorney must play an important role in anti-corruption efforts in Nassau County to give those efforts real teeth.

Nassau doesn’t need new laws, it just needs public servants with the will to use those already available. It needs all three watchdogs to work together toward a common goal. All these changes can be made with immediate benefit and little additional expenditure, and without partisan squabbling. Nassau deserves as much, and the people demand as much.

Michael Scotto, a former chief of the Manhattan DA’s Rackets Bureau, was a Democratic candidate for Nassau district attorney last year.