Inside Andrew Cuomo’s questionable friendship with indicted Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano

Andrew Cuomo’s two terms as governor and face of the New York state Democratic Party have, in large part, been defined by forging alliances with the opposite side of the aisle.

In some cases, Cuomo’s political détente with Republicans has borne fruit – his horse-trading for several key GOP state Senate votes pushed same-sex marriage across the finish line in 2011 – and in other cases his palling around with the elephants has proven to be a weighty albatross (see: his tepid efforts to help Senate Democrats regain power in 2014) as he has tiptoed toward progressivism in the last two years.

But unlike Cuomo’s relationship with Senate Republicans such as Dean Skelos (convicted last year on corruption charges) and John Flanagan, which he could at least justify under the guise of government functionality, the roots of his friendship with recently indicted Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano are far more complicated and perplexing.

Mangano, along with his wife, Linda, and Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, was charged in October with 13 counts of corruption for allegedly accepting bribes and kickbacks in exchange for funneling $437,000 in county contracts to a local restaurateur named Harendra Singh. In exchange, Singh allegedly provided lavish gifts to the Manganos, including vacations to Niagara Falls, Florida, St. Thomas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands; new hardwood flooring for their bedroom; a $3,624 massage chair; a $3,372 ergonomic office chair; and a $7,304 watch. Linda Mangano also received more than $450,000 over several years for a no-show “food taster” job at one of Singh’s restaurants.

Mangano’s tenure as county executive has been marred by irresponsible fiscal stewardship, near blatant flouting of campaign finance laws and a pay-for-play contracting system largely rubber-stamped by hand-picked Cuomo allies.

What began for Cuomo as an association of convenience, competitiveness and expediency steadily evolved to full-on enabling of Mangano’s ethically murky behavior, particularly as it pertains to Nassau’s finances and contracting process, which a county district attorney in 2014 called “a recipe for corruption.”

While not nearly the inspirational liberal orator that his father was, many of Andrew Cuomo’s political calculations can, in some ways, be traced back to Mario Cuomo’s three terms as governor. His relationship with Ed Mangano is no different.

In 1994, seeking a fourth term, Gov. Mario Cuomo lost to a little-known Republican state senator named George Pataki, in large part because of voters in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. Pataki beat Cuomo by 4 percentage points – roughly 120,000 votes statewide – and won Nassau and Suffolk by just 112,000 votes. Political observers say that Cuomo the elder felt betrayed by Long Island voters, and the sting of that defeat apparently extended to his son.

When Andrew Cuomo ran for attorney general against Republican Jeanine Pirro, he, too, had trouble making headway with Long Island voters. While Cuomo would win the general election with 58.3 percent of the vote, his combined margin of victory in Nassau and Suffolk counties was less than 5 percent – a mere 28,635 votes.

Despite his lack of success in Long Island, Cuomo had the red carpet laid out for a gubernatorial run in 2010, a stage where he had failed embarrassingly in 2002. While Cuomo was all but assured election against an unpopular and unorthodox Republican candidate, Carl Paladino, he became obsessed with running up the score. He knew the key to a far-reaching legislative mandate was winning over suburban voters, and so he began making overtures to Nassau County Republicans, including Mangano, who was one year into his first term as county executive after defeating Democratic incumbent Tom Suozzi.

Mangano and Cuomo, according to sources with knowledge of their relationship, were simpatico from the start – both lawyers by trade, car-obsessed, with Italian heritage. It also helped that Cuomo had a rocky relationship with Suozzi dating back decades, both personally and politically.

When Cuomo was running for governor in July 2010, Mangano joined him at a campaign stop in North Merrick, their first public appearance together, and touted Cuomo’s proposal for a statewide 2 percent property tax cap, an idea that Suozzi had long advocated as county executive. A year later as governor, Cuomo signed the property tax cap law in Lynnbrook with Mangano beaming at his side – another twist of the knife for Suozzi.

Several months after their joint appearance, in October, Mangano employed what would come to be known as a classic Andrew Cuomo tactic – the non-endorsement endorsement. Paladino took the stage at a Republican rally in Hicksville and called Nassau County “the most important county in the state of New York for this election.” Mangano left the stage without shaking Paladino’s hand. When asked later whether he supported Paladino, Mangano replied, “I’m here to support all our GOP candidates.”

Mangano was elected in 2009 largely on a typical conservative campaign platform of fiscal responsibility and tax cuts, but he also inherited a precarious fiscal situation in Nassau, with a structural deficit of $170 million, which called his austerity platform into question. Under Suozzi, and with the help of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state-controlled fiscal monitoring board created in 2000, Democratic county lawmakers began balancing the books.

But upon taking office, Mangano repealed Suozzi’s energy tax on homeowners and a 13 percent property tax hike, a massive loss of revenue that blew a $176 million hole in the $2.6 billion county budget. Despite the glaring fiscal issues, Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo was quick to shoot down the notion that NIFA should take control of the county’s books, saying he would “look to the county executive first” and that “I don’t think the state should be dictating to a county” what it should do with its finances.

By January 2011, battle lines were emerging in the Nassau fiscal fight. Mangano’s camp had let it be known that they felt the NIFA board was “politically tilted” because of its previous cooperation with Suozzi, according to Newsday. Never mind the fact that NIFA board member George Marlin, a Conservative Party activist and vocal supporter of Mangano’s 2009 campaign, was among those warning that the county was “on the edge of a fiscal abyss.” Despite weeks of contentious back-and-forth, NIFA voted unanimously that same month to take control of Nassau’s finances. The takeover gave NIFA control over the budget and all decisions related to borrowing, and veto power over all county contracts.

NIFA’s decision threw a major wrench in Mangano’s autonomy over the county government, leading him to sue NIFA to block the takeover. In the meantime, the county executive leaned on his relationship with Cuomo to ease NIFA’s restrictions in any way possible.

Because NIFA is an extension of the state, Cuomo was able to exert influence, even though he inherited many of the board members from his predecessors. In October 2011, Newsday reported that Mangano and NIFA Chairman Ronald Stack met separately with a top Cuomo aide two weeks before NIFA allowed Mangano to borrow up to $450 million over four years to help balance the budget.

Entering 2012, NIFA continued to scrutinize the county’s spending, rejecting a contract with Morgan Stanley to privatize the county’s sewer system after Mangano dragged his feet in forwarding a copy of the contract to the board, forcing them to download it from the county legislature’s website.

By this time, Mangano had an open line of communication with the Second Floor. Cuomo’s top aide, Larry Schwartz, had more than once urged the NIFA board to “relax its vise” on the Mangano administration, Newsday reported.

Mangano’s relationship with Cuomo would only grow stronger after Superstorm Sandy devastated Long Island in October 2012. With Nassau County ground zero for Sandy recovery, Cuomo made frequent appearances alongside Mangano, presenting a united, bipartisan front and praising each other’s leadership. Cuomo helped funnel millions in federal disaster recovery funds to Nassau County, and even issued an executive order waiving competitive bidding requirements for contractors to expedite the recovery process, eliminating a key aspect of the contracting bureaucracy.

Months later, after an event where he announced $40 million in reimbursements for Nassau to cover losses from the storm, Cuomo would share a telling anecdote about his relationship with Mangano in the wake of the storm. “As I was walking in, he put out his hand. He said, ‘Governor, as always, good to see you. How much is the check for?’” Cuomo said. “And I smiled because sometimes it is about the money, and the finances are very important here.”

While Cuomo’s leadership during Sandy helped Nassau bounce back relatively quickly, this particular decision would provide Mangano the perfect opportunity to reward the benefactors of his re-election campaign.

“As I was walking in, (Mangano) put out his hand. He said, ‘Governor, as always, good to see you. How much is the check for?’ And I smiled because sometimes it is about the money, and the finances are very important here.”

– Gov. Andrew Cuomo

In February 2013, Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections that Mangano and his deputy, Rob Walker, were breaking state campaign finance law by illegally soliciting campaign donations through the Hicksville Republican Club, which Walker controls, and using the money to make lavish expenditures such as a luxury suite at MetLife Stadium.

A July 2013 City & State investigation found that donations to the club in 2012 had more than tripled from the previous year, from $111,835 to $363,255, with tens of thousands of dollars coming from a variety of companies that would later receive lucrative county contracts for Sandy cleanup and debris removal. One month later, the state attorney general’s office issued subpoenas to look into Mangano’s re-election campaign, the MetLife skybox and a Sandy contractor, Looks Great Services, that had exceeded campaign finance donation limits and received $70 million in county contracts for repair work.

While the reports of subpoenas and allegations of political graft might have further emboldened the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, by the time Mangano’s 2013 re-election campaign was heating up in September – against Suozzi again – Cuomo had reshaped the board to effectively rubber stamp Mangano’s fiscal agenda.

The resignation of board members Thomas Stokes and Robert Wild in 2012 left two open seats for Cuomo to fill, with Stack’s term as chairman also expiring at the end of that year. Cuomo immediately replaced Stokes with John Buran, a banking executive who had made a $125 contribution to Mangano in March 2011. And in September 2013, Cuomo filled three other vacancies on the board, appointing his Sandy Recovery czar Jon Kaiman – a local town supervisor with a limited financial background – as NIFA chairman, as well as Paul Annunziato from Morgan Stanley – the same company NIFA had previously flagged in Mangano’s sewer privatization effort – and Lester Petracca. With these three new appointments, plus Buran, Cuomo appointees now made up a majority of the board.

This stacking of allies paid immediate dividends for Mangano, and subsequently Cuomo as well. Mangano would win re-election in 2013, owing in large part to the governor’s lack of involvement on behalf of Suozzi, a fellow Democrat. Cuomo repaid Mangano’s favor of tepidly endorsing Carl Paladino in 2010 by doing the same in 2013, mentioning Suozzi only briefly among a long list of Democratic candidates he was supporting at a late-October rally in Albertson – even though Suozzi was there. The day before that endorsement, Mangano debuted a TV ad in which Cuomo praises him while signing the property tax cap bill in 2011. At the event the next day, Nassau Democrats were livid, and demanded that Cuomo denounce the ad and tell Mangano to take it down. Sources familiar with the situation say that Cuomo declined.

“The result was that the endorsement game was worth spit,” one Nassau Democrat recalled. “He explicitly gave permission to Mangano to run (the ad).”

When Cuomo ran for re-election, his years of assisting Mangano behind the scenes paid off. Mangano crossed party lines to endorse Cuomo in October 2014, helping Cuomo win Nassau County by 8 percentage points over his Republican opponent, Rob Astorino.

Meanwhile, Cuomo’s hand-picked NIFA chairman, Jon Kaiman, proved a far more malleable administrator than his predecessor, rarely scheduling regular NIFA meetings and negotiating deals out of expediency rather than fiscal prudence. A 2015 Newsday report found that since 2013, the year that Kaiman took over, the board shot down a single contract over $50,000, with two of the approved contracts surfacing in criminal probes. Many of these large contracts received automatic approval because of the lack of scheduled meetings.

Most notably, NIFA didn’t schedule a meeting in October 2013 to review a $12 million contract with AbTech Industries, a pact that was central to the federal corruption case that led to the convictions of state Sen. Dean Skelos – then the majority leader – and his son, Adam. Another contract for Sandy cleanup was automatically approved by NIFA in August 2014 with a company called VIP Splash. The contract would later be the subject of a Nassau County investigation after it was discovered that the company donated $2,925 to the Hicksville Republican Club – run by Mangano’s deputy, Rob Walker – the same day that the county added an $8 million amendment to the contract.

The authority has been even less stringent in scrutinizing Mangano’s budgets. Rather than raise taxes to increase county revenue, NIFA has allowed Mangano to borrow money hand over fist to cover payroll obligations and even union raises. By 2014, the $176 million county deficit that Mangano inherited in 2009 had grown to $189.2 million. And even with spending cuts in the ensuing years, NIFA projects that the county will still have a $99.5 million deficit for fiscal year 2017. This, of course, did not stop Mangano from giving himself a $17,000 pay raise months before the FBI showed up on his doorstep on Oct. 20.

Cuomo has yet to comment on his ally’s indictment, but the implications and disastrous results of his seven-year alliance with Mangano are clear. Mangano is one of several people in the Cuomo orbit to get indicted in the last three months. Former aide Joe Percoco – who Cuomo referred to as a “third son” to Mario at his father’s funeral – was charged with soliciting bribes in exchange for state contracts, and Todd Howe, an ex-Cuomo aide-turned-lobbyist, pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is cooperating with federal authorities. Together, Howe and Percoco conspired with another Cuomo associate, SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros, to rig the bidding process for the Buffalo Billion, one of Cuomo’s signature economic development initiatives.

While Cuomo has steadfastly denied any knowledge or involvement in the allegations against Howe, Percoco and Kaloyeros, and has supposedly commissioned an internal investigation into their actions, at best these allegations paint him as a leader who turns a blind eye to corrupt dealmaking right under his nose.

At a time when Cuomo appears to be finally taking statewide ethics reform seriously after years of kicking the can down the road and blaming the Legislature for lacking the “appetite” to get it passed, it’s easy to wonder how much of Mangano’s behavior could have been avoided had the governor’s hunger for a “mandate” not taken precedent over sound fiscal management of one of New York’s most populous counties. Instead, Cuomo’s coziness with Mangano and his former aides is an indelible stain on his credibility in leading this renewed charge toward good government.