No sanctions from Nassau Board of Ethics in nearly 5 years

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The Nassau County Legislative and Executive Building is seen in Mineola. (Photo by DanTD via Wikimedia Commons)

Since January 2013, three Nassau County legislators have reported to prison, County Executive Edward Mangano has been indicted, and his chief deputy, Rob Walker, has admitted on the stand in another corruption trial that he is under federal investigation.

In the same time, the Nassau County Board of Ethics, a recent object of reform efforts by Democrats and Republicans, has issued no sanctions for violations of the county ethics code.

In response to Blank Slate Media’s Freedom of Information request seeking all decisions in ethics cases from Jan. 1, 2013, to July 10 of this year, the board said any complaints received during that period “did not result in any final decision where the board found that a violation had occurred” and imposed a penalty.

The ethics board is tasked with enforcing the county’s ethics code, which aims to protect against conflicts of interest, bribery, nepotism and other abuses by public officials and employees. It can impose fines of up to $10,000.

The code gives the board five members: the county attorney and four other people appointed by the county executive to five-year terms. All but the county attorney are unpaid.

But the board has been at less than full strength for more than four years.

Mangano never appointed a replacement for Stephen Turman after his resignation in May 2013. And Albert D’Agostino, whom Mangano appointed to the board that year, resigned on May 7 of this year, he said in an interview.

“In general terms, it suggests it’s the kind of ethics commission the elected officials want — one that is not causing trouble and examining their behavior and potentially sanctioning them,” said James Svara, the author of several articles on government ethics and a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government.

Mangano did not respond to questions for him emailed to a county spokeswoman, including those asking why the seats remain vacant.

The Board of Ethics did not provide the number of complaints alleging ethics violations it has received since January 2013 in response to Blank Slate Media’s Freedom of Information request.

But board member John Ryan, a Floral Park attorney, estimated that it deals with five or fewer each year.

The other two current members are Chairman Owen Smith, an attorney from Roslyn Harbor; and County Attorney Carnell Foskey, also a Mangano appointee.

Ryan was appointed in June 2010 and Smith in August 2012, according to county Legislature records. Their five-year terms expired in June 2015 and August 2017, respectively, and they have not been reappointed.

The board has no dedicated staff, though two to three employees from the county attorney’s office work with it regularly, Foskey said in an email.

Investigating allegations of wrongdoing is only part of the Board of Ethics’ role in county government, said Steven Leventhal, a Roslyn attorney who serves as the board’s counsel. It primarily advises county employees and officials on ethical issues, he said. It also administers the county’s financial disclosure program.

The board does not address “the broad universe of matters that are generally thought of as scandalous for government officials,” Leventhal said.

Any ethics complaints containing potentially criminal allegations are forwarded to local or federal prosecutors or other appropriate agencies.

“It has a relatively limited role, and it can issue advisory opinions, it can hold hearings, it administers the disclosure requirements,” Smith said in an interview. “But it’s very much a structured role, and I think it’s been serving that role.”

No matters relating to Mangano, Walker, former GOP state Sen. Dean Skelos or former Democratic county Legislator David Denenberg — the subjects of some of Nassau’s most prominent corruption cases — have come before the board, Ryan said.

Mangano pleaded not guilty last October to federal charges stemming from an alleged bribery and kickback scheme involving a county contract. Skelos, the former state Senate majority leader, was convicted in 2015 alongside his son in a case that also involved a Nassau contract. Denenberg served 90 days in prison after pleading guilty to scamming a legal client. Walker has been charged with no crimes, but is reportedly the subject of an investigation related to a contract awarded to a firm that donated to his political club.

Foskey declined to say whether any of those four have or had pending cases before the board. But he said the board “has made no determination” that any of them violated the county ethics code or other laws under its purview.

Public information about the board is scant.

Its section of the county website advertises meetings and has links to ethics guidance and financial disclosure instructions. But there is no list of the board’s members, specific contact information or instructions for filing an ethics complaint.

The county Legislature in July unanimously passed a bill, pushed by Republicans, aimed at making the board more active and visible.

The law empowers the board to start its own investigations and gives it independent funding and staff, including an executive director, which Foskey said will boost efficiency and “inspire public confidence in the Board of Ethics.”

It also requires the board to submit an annual report to the Legislature and sets a 60-day deadline for filling vacancies.

“There’s going to be a much bigger presence for the Board of Ethics, and people [who] may not be aware that they exist and handle these types of complaints may now be aware,” county Legislator Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), the deputy presiding officer, said.

The law also places restrictions on the board’s membership that would disqualify Ryan and Smith, both Republicans, from serving. Smith is a vice chairman of the Nassau County Republican Committee; and Ryan is on the county payroll as counsel to the Board of Elections’ Republican commissioner.

No more than two of the county executive’s four appointees can be from the same political party under the new rules. They also say members cannot work as public employees; hold public or political party offices; run for public office; have business with or lobby before the county; or donate to any political campaign for county office.

The board’s composition could change significantly after voters choose the next county executive in November’s election.

Democratic county Legislator Laura Curran of Baldwin and Republican former state Sen. Jack Martins of Old Westbury are running to replace Mangano, who is not seeking a third term.

Martins proposed several reforms to the Board of Ethics in May. He played a role in developing the bill the Legislature approved, Nicolello said.

Republicans and Democrats agreed that a robust ethics board is key to preventing corruption, but Curran and Legislator Kevan Abrahams of Freeport, the Democratic minority leader, said more protections are needed.

“I haven’t seen their work product to demonstrate that there’s a level of commitment that’s actually going to [provide] transparency and oversight,” Abrahams said.

Svara said the new law could make the board one that holds officials accountable and helps them make ethical decisions, but only if the changes are faithfully implemented.

“It’s really going be up to that group, supported by their board director, that will have to determine whether they take the responsibility seriously and demonstrate initiative on their own,” Svara said.


A LIMITED SCOPE

Even if ethics cases involving Nassau’s recent corruption scandals had come to the Board of Ethics, they may not have come under its purview.

The board only has jurisdiction over potential violations of the ethics code and state municipal law — not criminal law — by county officials and employees and no one else, Foskey said in his email. If it was tipped off to criminal activities, it would let prosecutors address them to avoid interfering with any criminal investigation.

“The primary goal of the Board of Ethics is not one of law enforcement,” Foskey wrote. “Rather, the Board’s primary goal is to prevent ethics violations before they occur.”

Most of the board’s activity deals with advisory opinions in response to ethics questions from county officials, many of which relate to potential conflicts of interest, board members said. Smith, the chairman, said the board usually issues about two opinions at its meetings, which are generally held monthly.

The new ethics board law requires the board to issue advisory opinions within 45 days of receiving a request.

The board could previously only investigate possible ethics violations after receiving a complaint. But under the new law, it can initiate an investigation with a majority vote.

When the board receives a complaint on which it can act, it notifies the alleged violator and hears testimony from witnesses in a series of hearings before making a decision, Leventhal said.

Being too cavalier with investigations could make officials and employees afraid to seek advice when facing ethical quandaries, board members said.

“To turn it into an aggressive anti-corruption agency is, in my view, to undermine its function as an educational and advisory agency,” Leventhal said.

 

EMPTY SEATS

Mangano has left two ethics board seats vacant, leaving the board with the bare minimum three members for more than four months.

When the board found in 2013 that a public works commissioner who approved a contract for her sister’s firm had not broken the law, Stephen Turman, then the board’s only Democrat, resigned in protest and called the board’s investigative process a “fabrication,” Newsday reported at the time. He has not been replaced.

D’Agostino, a Valley Stream attorney and frequent Republican donor, resigned this May because the post conflicted with his work schedule, he said.

Mangano did not respond to questions about why he has not appointed replacements for either person, or whether he plans to replace them before his term ends. Turman did not return two phone messages left at his Garden City law office.

Without all its members, the board has fewer eyes on the county and leaves sitting members with a heavier workload, said Svara, the public ethics expert and professor.

“[H]aving a full commission and having a capable, active, independent director of the commission are the constructive steps that will hopefully lead to more action,” Svara said.

The new law seeks to prevent such long vacancies by requiring that the county executive fill seats no more than 60 days after they become open. The Legislature must now approve all four of his or her appointees; one was previously not subject to legislative confirmation.

The three current members are tied to the Nassau GOP and Mangano.

Foskey was Mangano’s parks commissioner before he replaced John Ciampoli as county attorney. Smith served as a deputy to Francis Purcell, the former Republican county executive, in the 1980s. Ryan, also reportedly a member of the Town of Hempstead’s ethics board, works as an attorney for the Village of Floral Park and other municipalities.

D’Agostino said his fellow board members always performed their duties responsibly.

“I always felt that it acted in a very efficient and diligent manner, and if somebody was the subject of a review, it was done on a fair and equal basis,” he said.

 

HOPE FOR REFORM

Some lawmakers reacted to the dearth of sanctions issued by the Board of Ethics with surprise, given Nassau’s recent scandals. But they said much of the public is likely unaware of the board’s existence and function.

Republicans say the reforms they championed in the Legislature — part of their election-year anti-corruption efforts — will turn the board from a perceived nonentity into a vehicle for reform.

In addition to the stipulations of membership, independent staff and deadlines for decisions, the new law includes provisions to improve the board’s visibility and outreach.

The board must now publish a schedule of meetings and a written summary of its investigative procedures on its section of the county website, along with guidance documents, educational resources and instructions for filing an ethics complaint.

The law also tasks the board with holding training sessions and distributing the ethics code to all county employees.

Lawmakers say the board’s educational and investigative roles are not mutually exclusive.

“It can’t just be a response or reactionary board to people who file complaints,” Martins, the Republican county executive candidate, said. “That is a role of that board, but I want to see a board that is proactive, that is properly staffed.”

But Democrats say the changes do not go far enough.

Abrahams, Curran and other Democrats wanted the board appointments to be shared by the county executive, comptroller and both parties in the Legislature.

With the county executive holding all the appointments, “[w]e’re not going to have the same kind of accountability, which we desperately need,” said Curran, the Democratic county executive candidate.

Abrahams said the changes also do not supplant the need for an independent inspector general, which Democrats have pushed for more than two years.

With all five members and a full staff, the board could eventually make it an ethical priority to actively pursue the public good, not just avoid wrongdoing, Svara said.

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