Nassau comptroller’s office says county Board of Ethics took limited steps to enforce ethics code

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Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman (Photo courtesy of the Nassau County Comptroller's Office)

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman released the first phase of his nepotism audit, which found that the county’s prior Board of Ethics did not educate employees on avoiding ethical missteps and took limited actions to enforce the Code of Ethics.

The Nassau County Board of Ethics is tasked with reviewing potential conflicts of interests in the county government, educating officials and employees on the code of ethics, and preventing ethical missteps by advising county employees before a potential violation. 

The audit released Wednesday morning found that the Board of Ethics hadn’t conducted any investigations during the audit period, despite corruption allegations and arrests related to Nassau County’s contracting process.

The comptroller’s office also found that the Board of Ethics failed to address nepotism broadly or provide advice on nepotism to employees or officials who reported nepotism or were the subject of a nepotism complaint.

The board itself operated with less than the required five members, and also had more than the allowed number of county employees who can serve on the board and included political party officials as members, which is prohibited in the Code of Ethics.

The audit also noted that the longtime counsel to the county’s Board of Ethics had “various other contracts with Nassau County, and represents over 14 other board of ethics and municipalities in Nassau County, which creates potential conflicts of interest.”

The Board of Ethics at the time did not fully review the financial disclosure statements of county employees and contractors, the audit found.

Furthermore, the board failed to penalize employees or contractors who did not submit a financial disclosure statement.

Policies and procedures on how an employee could file a complaint were not made available and neither was guidance pertaining to related employees for employees and officials.

The prior Board of Ethics did little to promote the code of ethics, the audit found. The code was not posted in county buildings and the audit states that little was done to remind employees and officers of ethical laws and guidelines.

The website maintained by the audited Board of Ethics did not meet the requirements of the Code of Ethics, which calls for the website to provide guidance documents, instructional and educational resources and the forms necessary to seek advisory opinions or to file an ethics complaint.

The comptroller’s audit states that an analysis by auditors who have evaluated other board of ethics websites said that Nassau County’s website was the second worst of all reviewed.

The board did not make past advisory opinions available for county employees to review in order to avoid ethical missteps. Neither did the board publish annual reports of the actions it took within the year, as required by an amendment to the code approved by the Nassau County Legislature in 2017.

The audit also found that the county Board of Ethics did not properly observe the Open Meetings Law by sufficiently publicizing meetings. The meetings were also not easily accessible, agendas were not provided, minutes were not approved and executive sessions did not convene properly.

The comptroller’s office made a number of recommendations to the Board of Ethics and some have already been implemented, the audit states.

It was recommended that the board hire a full-time executive director who can implement reforms and “accomplish the educational goals of the Board, fostering a culture of ethics in Nassau County.”

Other recommendations suggest that the board make written procedures available to county employees, investigate possible violations and implement penalties when necessary, review financial disclosure forms, impose sanctions on employees who fail to file a financial disclosure form and provide advisory opinions to aid employees in avoiding ethical missteps.

The board should also immediately advise the county executive of any vacancies within the board so the position can be filled promptly, the audit suggested, adding that the county executive should seek to diversify the board in gender and ethnicity.

Recommendations to update the county’s Board of Ethics website, hold publicly accessible board meetings and to implement an electronic financial disclosure system have already been addressed by the Board of Ethics.

A follow-up review by auditors of the new Nassau County Board of Ethics website elevated the site from second worst to second best.

Two additional sections of the nepotism audit have been initiated. One is a review of the county’s hiring process and the other will evaluate the county’s internal controls regarding conflicts of interest and anti-nepotism policies.  

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