Schnirman report critical of county ethics panel

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Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman released a report on April 10 that was sharply critical of the county’s ethics panel and its failure to investigate ethics violations and to levy sanctions. The 119-page report was only the first chapter in his office’s continuing audit of nepotism in Nassau County, which was to include sections on the county’s human resources policies and its civil service commission.

Until the 2017 elections that brought the administration of Democratic Executive Laura Curran to office, the Board of Ethics “conducted no investigations and levied no sanctions on anyone for any reason during a three-year period, which happened to he the height of government corruption locally,” Schnirman. “At a time when the county executive and the previous chief deputy county executive were under indictment, it is unbelievable that the prior Board of Ethics found no reason to open any investigations,” he said.

Officials from the Town of Hempstead and the Town of Oyster Bay were also under indictment during the same period.

“This isn’t just about putting together a ‘gotcha’ list of names to make headlines,” Schnirman said while conspicuously avoiding any such naming. “A strong code of ethics is the cornerstone of reform … Its about getting real results that protect the people.”

Nepotism is defined in the Nassau County Administrative Code as the hiring and supervision of relatives. According to the code, “no officer or employee of the county shall hire or induce others to hire a relative.” In addition, county employees are enjoined from directly supervising or evaluating relatives, except with the written approval of the ethics panel or under certain narrowly defined parameters.

The auditors found that “no investigations were conducted, and no enforcement actions were undertaken for violations of the county’s Code of Ethics for the audit period [2015-17 inclusive], the same time at which corruption allegations and arrests related to Nassau County’s contracting process [sic] were taking place.” At the same time, “over 700 individuals were required to file financial disclosure statements,” and while many were not eceived, no penalties were assessed. In addition, rather that reviewing such filings, counsel to the board “sampled” such forms as were filed.

Schnirman also said the five-member board did not have a full complement during the audited period, and the board was often unable to meet because it lacked a quorum. In other cases, members of the board were also political party officials, in violation of county law. Finally, the board “lacked gender and occupational diversity.”

The board also “failed to broadly address nepotism or potential nepotism, even after being asked for specific nepotism advice, when nepotism was self-reported or was the subject of complaint.”

Schnirman also cited the panel for its failure to communicate policies in the workplace, both via posters and a website. “It had the second-worst ethics website in the state,” Schnirman said. Only Westchester County was worse, he said: They didn’t have a website at all — a situation that has since been remedied.

Schnirman recommended the appointment of an executive director as a first step in improving the panel’s procedures, implementing reforms and accomplishing educational goals.

Next, he recommended actively conducting investigations and implementing appropriate enforcement actions. Third, he recommended a series of procedures aimed at making filing financial disclosures simpler and more transparent. Finally, he recommended amending the county charter to clarify the board’s authority and ensuring that the board is fully staffed.

Schnirman credited County Executive Laura Curran for her efforts in attempting to improve investigations and enforcement. He pointed to her efforts to fill empty positions on the ethics panel with independent members, where positions had previously been staffed “with political leaders or conflicted county employees.”

“Everyone agrees that Nassau County needs and strong Board of Ethics willing to confront the challenges years of corruption have caused,” Schnirman said.