Nassau Legislature OKs reforms to Board of Ethics

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The Nassau County Executive and Legislative Building is seen in Mineola. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

The Nassau County Legislature unanimously approved several reforms to Nassau’s Board of Ethics on Monday, continuing the Republican majority’s effort to take a tough anti-corruption stance.

The changes place restrictions on the board’s membership and give it additional powers, responsibilities and independence, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said Monday.

“What this does I think is as much as humanly possible makes it that the board members who are serving will be as nonpartisan as they can,” Legislator Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said.

Under the new law, no more than two of the board’s five members, including the county attorney, can belong to the same political party. Four of the members — rather than three, as the current law provides — are to be appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the Legislature.

None of those members can hold or run for public office; work as public employees; have business with the county; lobby before the county; hold a political party office; or donate to any political campaign for county office.

The new law gives the board dedicated staff members, including a new executive director, and requires that it issue opinions about ethical issues no more than 45 days after they are requested. The board must also produce an annual report outlining its activity.

County officials from both major political parties have proposed reforms to the Board of Ethics following the arrests of several officials, including Republican County Executive Edward Mangano, on corruption charges.

The reforms are Republican legislators’ latest election-year effort to address public corruption following Mangano’s arrest last fall on federal charges stemming from an alleged bribe and kickback scheme. In May, the Legislature passed a measure banning certain convicted felons from ever holding or seeking public office in Nassau.

Steven Leventhal, an attorney who is the counsel to the Board of Ethics, said the board’s primary role is to educate county officials and employees on proper government ethics to “prevent ethics violations before they occur” and investigate possible violations when necessary.

“The Board of Ethics really doesn’t involve itself in conduct that is criminal in nature,” Leventhal told the Legislature Monday. “There are other government agencies … that are charged with that responsibility.”

Though they voted for them, Democratic county legislators questioned whether the reforms go far enough.

They have proposed spreading the power to appoint ethics board members among different county officials, including legislators. Legislator Laura Curran (D-Baldwin), a Democratic candidate for county executive, said leaving appointment power to the executive was the GOP bill’s “fundamental flaw.”

Some Democrats said the board should have more resources, including more power and staff to conduct proper in-depth investigations, despite its inability to pursue criminal charges.

The county’s commissioner of investigations can assist the ethics board under the law passed Monday. Legislator Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) said the board should have its own investigative staff to assure independence.

“There are levels of ethical violations that just may not reach criminality, but they’re certainly very troubling to us, and we need to be kept abreast of them,” Legislator Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview) said.

Jack Martins, the Republican county executive candidate, praised the new reforms but pushed for more, such as giving the Legislature the power to remove a sitting county executive.

“This is the necessary first step to restore Nassau County voters’ trust in government,” Martins said in a statement Tuesday.

County Comptroller George Maragos, the other Democratic county executive candidate, also said the Legislature’s reforms do not give the ethics board sufficient power to protect taxpayers from corruption.

“The Board of Ethics Reforms are toothless and to not go far enough,” Maragos said in a statement.

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