Progressive Coalition protesters decry county's Sandy contracts

From the LI Herald:

Protesters from the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a nonprofit social and environmental advocacy group, claimed at a June 4 rally in Mineola that County Executive Ed Mangano received $144,000 in campaign contributions from private companies that did restoration work for the county after Hurricane Sandy.

The coalition based the allegation on an Associated Press report from mid-May that analyzed Mangano’s contributions from contractors that were “hired to cut trees, repair infrastructure and haul debris” for 11 weeks following the storm. According to the report, 23 Sandy contractors donated to Mangano’s campaign in the weeks after they were hired, and many of the companies received no-bid contracts because the county was in a state of emergency.

At noon on June 4, 18 protesters, most from the Progressive Coalition, gathered on the steps of the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building to decry what they described as Nassau’s “pay-to-play” political system and called for New York state to pass campaign finance reform that would prohibit contributions in exchange for contracts.

“Basically, this is legalized bribery,” said Lisa Tyson of North Bellmore, the Long Island Progressive Coalition’s director. “In a baseball game, if someone gave money to the umpire to call them safe, that would be illegal. We need to make these contributions illegal as well.”

County Legislator Dave Denenberg, a Democrat from Merrick, stood with the protesters, saying that Mangano created the “appearance of impropriety” when he accepted campaign donations from companies doing Sandy recovery work. Denenberg also led protesters in chants of, “What do we need? Fair elections! When do we need them? Now!”

County exec reacts

In an email, Brian Nevin, a Mangano spokesman, accused the Progressive Coalition of playing partisan politics. “It’s ironic that this group never protested Tom Suozzi over the eight-year period in which he accepted millions in campaign contributions,” Nevin wrote, referring to Mangano’s predecessor, a Democrat. “However, they randomly decide to attack these contributions, which are lawful and properly reported with the state.”

Nevin also accused Denenberg of accepting illegal campaign contributions. “This is nothing less than political grandstanding by a legislator who accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from firms whose contracts he approved,” Nevin wrote. “We are calling for an investigation into Dave Denenberg for driving taxpayer dollars to not-for-profits that illegally donate to his campaign.”

Asked for clarification, Nevin said that the Nassau County Republican Party is calling for a probe into Denenberg’s campaign finances because of five campaign donations that he received between 2010 and 2012 — three from two local Little Leagues totaling $2,500, and two from local fire departments totaling $500.

Nevin said that Little Leagues and fire departments are barred by federal tax code from contributing to election campaigns because of their nonprofit status, and he alleged that Denenberg secured county taxpayer dollars for the fire departments after receiving campaign donations. Nevin said that GOP attorneys were filing a complaint with the New York State Board of Elections, seeking an investigation.

Denenberg denied the accusations, and called Nevin “a bully.” “Instead of answering questions about $144,000 from Sandy contractors in the 11 weeks after Hurricane Sandy, he likes to divert the issue with baseless allegations,” Denenberg said.

He added that his office informs all donors that their contributions are not tax-deductible, and said that he was proud that he had secured community revitalization funds for the fire departments.

“I absolutely got money for them, and every legislator has followed suit,” Denenberg said. “They got money from me for equipment … But there’s no quid pro quo. I have no idea what the tax status and liability is of contributors.”

Democratic spokesman Michael Florio said that Republican legislators have taken campaign funds from local nonprofits, including fire departments and Little Leagues. “If Mangano wants to move forward with an investigation into contributions from fire departments,” Florio said, “then he’ll have to investigate members of his own party as well.”

Mangano and Denenberg are running for re-election in November.

Contracts under fire

Nassau County had paid $93 million to Sandy contractors as of April 25, according to a report by Maurice Chalmers, director of the County Independent Office of Legislative Budget Review. The report listed eight companies that were each paid more than $1 million.

County contracts for Sandy cleanup and restoration work have come under fire in recent months. Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, a Democrat, began pressing the Mangano administration for information about Looks Great Services Inc., a Huntington company due to receive $70 million from the county for Sandy work, after Looks Great crews cut down 111 trees in Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove one month after Sandy. Nassau Democrats requested that County Comptroller George Maragos, a Republican, appear before the Legislature’s Rules and Finance committees to answer questions about payments to Sandy contractors, but Norma Gonsalves, a Republican and the Legislature’s presiding officer, blocked the requests.

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, both Democrats, and the U.S. Department of Labor have launched investigations into how the county awarded Sandy contracts, how it provided oversight of projects and whether private workers were paid prevailing wages.

Newsday reported that Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, the county Department of Public Works commissioner, secured a $250,000 contract for a company that her sister owns, without disclosing that they are related.

Tyson and Denenberg complained at the June 4 protest that the full Legislature did not vote on many of the county’s Sandy contracts, as the Legislature is normally required to do with contracts worth more than $25,000, because a state of emergency had been declared.

Richard Landau, a Merrick resident whose house was struck by boats during the storm, also spoke at the rally, detailing his unsuccessful attempts to obtain government assistance to repair $125,000 in damage to his home. Twice, he said, Mangano promised to call him and his wife about their home reconstruction, but the county executive never did so.