Three years ago, district attorneys in New York called on the State Legislature’s leaders to strengthen bribery and official-misconduct statutes, and reform transactional immunity laws. They ignored our recommendations, and while both Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have since been convicted of federal corruption charges, ethics reform remains stalled in Albany.
In the wake of last year’s scandal surrounding AbTech Industries’ $12 million contract with Nassau County, I proposed reforms to prevent, identify and punish corruption in Nassau County. The county executive and legislative majority rejected my call for an independent inspector general and stronger financial-disclosure procedures.
Last week, County Executive Edward Mangano and Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto were charged with taking bribes and kickbacks from a businessman with millions in government contracts.
They are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but it is inexplicable that a five-year drumbeat of front-page indictments has not moved lawmakers to take action to avert government corruption. The need for reform is urgent, so the public must force reform with its votes: public officials who stonewall ethics reforms and an overhaul in government business practices are unworthy of the public’s trust.
While personal integrity of those in public office must be paramount, the Nassau County Legislature can immediately adopt reforms to fight wrongdoing. The ideas are not new. I have proposed them before and drafted legislation based on best practices in well-run governments.
Nassau’s government operates using antiquated paper-based systems that are a fraudster’s dream. Vague, unclear, handwritten financial-disclosure forms completed by public officials to identify conflicts of interest are siloed in one agency, while contract and vendor paperwork is scattered across other county offices. The lack of modern, comprehensive, searchable databases cripples effective oversight.
We need not look far for examples of how to do this better. For more than a decade, New York City and state governments have collected financial-disclosure and vendor-vetting information online so the government officials’ financial interests can be cross-checked with vendor databases to identify conflicts. In 2016, it is nonsensical that Nassau County — with a multibillion-dollar budget and a larger population than 10 states — has not taken basic steps to modernize its contracting and financial-disclosure procedures to improve efficiency and transparency.
If vendors were comprehensively vetted, AbTech’s relationship with Skelos would have raised red flags, and any gifts from restaurateur Harendra Singh to Mangano and Venditto, if reported in a robust conflict-checking system, would have drawn appropriate scrutiny.
Disclosure also necessitates enhanced oversight, which is why I called for the hiring of a truly independent inspector general, insulated from political influence. The county executive and county legislative leaders were wrong to reject the idea.
Vendors support these reforms because they are frustrated by delayed payments inherent in the current system, and good-government groups seek reform because they know that sunlight on public and campaign finances deters pay-to-play.
Though modern systems and robust oversight come at a cost, they pale in comparison to the high costs of inefficiency, fraud and corruption.
Madeline Singas, a Democrat, is Nassau County’s district attorney.