Editorial: Taxpayers pay cost of party patronage

The Island Now

Tom Van Riper performed a public service last week when he defended Nassau County Republican Chairman Joseph Cairo’s decision to collect multiple paychecks while leading the party.

“Other political leaders have done this, Democrats and Republicans,” said Van Riper, a Nassau County Republican spokesman.

In his comment, Van Riper helped explain – if unwittingly – why Nassau County nearly went broke in 2000 and why the county, one of the wealthiest counties in the state, still requires state supervision of its finances.

Van Riper is correct. This is a game played by both Democrats and Republicans.

Gerard Terry, the former Town of North Hempstead Democratic chairman, was sentenced late last month to three years in prison for federal and state tax evasion.

Terry lied to the state and the IRS about more than $1 million in income – at a time he held at least six government positions – including two in the Town of North Hempstead where his wife also had a job.

But two wrongs don’t make a right. And Nassau County has the red ink to prove it.

Van Riper was not done with his lesson on “the Long Island way.”

Cairo, he said, had spoken to county GOP lawyers about serving as county GOP chairman while he was the $198,000-a-year head of the county Off-Track Betting Corp. and was running a Valley Stream-based law firm.

After the county GOP chairman’s consultation with county GOP lawyers, Van Riper said, “he does not feel there’s any legal or ethical conflict at all.”

Whew. That certainly clears things up. The GOP party chairman concerned about a conflict of interest consults with GOP lawyers and then clears himself of any conflict of interest.

It is worth keeping in mind that as Republican Party chairman Cairo has the power to help elect county judges. Who are lawyers. Like he is, with his own law firm.

He may also help fill positions at the county Board of Elections, the Nassau County OTB and many other government agencies.

Are the people he hires and helps hire the best qualified? Or the most loyal party members? Or the best qualified, loyal party members?

Also worth noting is that this party leader who helps elect county judges has had his own legal problems.

In 1995, he resigned his job as county Republican elections commissioner after his disbarment as a lawyer. Cairo admitted diverting $394,000 from two clients.

Cairo recently told the New York Post his misuse of client funds was “something that happened” 25 years ago, when he was 47. A youthful indiscretion, some would say.

“I think people who know me know the type of person I am,” he added.

One thing we all know is that Cairo is the type of person who would divert $394,000 of two  clients’ funds.

This is not even the first time that a county GOP chairman has served as president of the Nassau County Off-Track Betting Corp.

Cairo’s predecessor as Republican party chairman, Joe Mondello, also at one point served as a president of the Nassau County Off-Track Betting Corp.

Does anyone believe that this is a mere coincidence?

Or that Nassau County OTB has been operating in the red and required a state bailout in 2016 and in April missed a deadline to pay $3 million to Nassau County under a revenue-sharing agreement for video lottery terminals at Aqueduct Racetrack.

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county’s financial control board, says the delay in the $3 million payment has increased its concern about whether OTB can make another payment of $20 million due by next March 31.

And County Executive Laura Curran sought state approval for NIFA to issue $400 million more in long-term bonds to pay commercial tax grievance settlements. Which would extend NIFA’s role in the county to 2041.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said patronage is a “political way of life” on Long Island.

“It is what greases the wheels of political organizations, provides their foot soldiers, provides their donations,” Levy said.

Not to mention annual deficits and millions of dollars in government waste.

Patronage is by no means limited to Long Island. In fact, it’s as American as apple pie.

But few other counties in the country, let alone counties as wealthy as Nassau, have faced bankruptcy and require state supervision of their finances for 40 years.

When she was running for county executive, Laura Curran said she believed the county was paying a 4 percent corruption tax.

We wonder what the county pays for patronage.

Perhaps there is nothing illegal about what Cairo is doing. But it is unethical.

And neither Cairo, nor any other political leader, ought to be in a position to use his standing for his own benefit.

Or use taxpayer money for political advantage.

That would be a much improved “Long Island way.”

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