When Long Island was shortchanged by a lack of federal stimulus dollars for transportation projects, local roadway contractors and elected officials complained bitterly. And that's no surprise, since cash from publicly funded projects keeps both groups afloat.
There's a lot of money in roads. They're expensive to build, costly to maintain and a major chunk of most municipal budgets.
The Town of Brookhaven's highway department has a 2009 budget of about $64.5 million, nearly 40 percent of the town's total expenditures of $165.2 million. A handful of companies have received millions for paving Brookhaven's roads in the last few years. And it's those same companies that are the biggest contributors to the town highway chief's campaign fund.
Since 2006, Glen Kazel, a Yaphank road contractor, has given more than $15,000 to Friends of John Rouse, Brookhaven's highway superintendent. Kazel has gotten at least $6.4 million in town contracts since 2004.
East Moriches-based Rosemar Construction and its affiliate Garone Asphalt Paving are two other generous Rouse contributors, giving more than $10,000 to the highway chief's campaign in the last few years. Rosemar has received about $8.5 million from the town for its work on Brookhaven's roads since 2004.
Rosemar principal Bob Garone and the companies he owns have given Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's campaign fund more than $36,000 since 2006. In 2007, Rosemar beat out five other contractors for a project to widen a 4-mile section of County Road 39 in Southampton.
Levy said Rosemar won the contract by being the low bidder. But though Rosemar's winning bid was lowest at $12.8 million, bonuses earned the company closer to $15 million, about a million dollars more than the highest bidder offered to do the job for in the first place.
Garone didn't return calls requesting comment.
While he denied any quid pro quo in giving the CR 39 contract to Rosemar, Levy acknowledged that the county's campaign contribution system is flawed and benefits mostly those already in office.
"It's totally slanted in favor of the incumbent," Levy said. The county executive said he's championed public campaign financing for 20 years, getting closest in 2002, when he pushed a contribution reform measure in the county Legislature.
"The challenger could get money with no strings attached," Levy said. "We couldn't get it passed. "
Lisa Tyson, executive director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, said accepting campaign funds from companies that elected official do business with is akin to legalized bribery and can make political contests extremely one sided.
"They legislate on what will make their contributions the largest," Tyson said. "This system only strengthens the machine-type politics that we've been trying to get away from. "
Mitch Pally, an attorney with the Weber Law Group in Melville, said the pay-to-play system on Long Island won't change until publicly funded campaigns are mandated by the government. Pally's firm has given more than $151,000 to candidates and political committees since 2006.
Albany seems to be heading towards some kind of campaign finance reform. In June the state Assembly passed a bill that would create a voluntary public campaign finance system for statewide, legislative and constitutional convention delegate races in New York.
The law would allow candidates to receive a $4-to-$1 match of public funds for contributions of $250 or less from state residents. Participants would agree to strict spending limits and campaign contribution limits of $2,000.
That type of legislation might ease the election year burden for Long Island's road contractors, which as a group, gives more to campaigns here than most other industries.
Marc Herbst, the president of the Long Island Contractors Association, said his members are bombarded with requests from candidates running for public office, especially at this time of year. He said the incumbents end up with most of the trade group's money because "the challengers rarely reach out. "
Just yesterday 99999LICA held a seminar on strategies to make political contributions work for its members. Billed as "Politics 101," the event was just one part of a strategy by LICA to "develop a strong, coordinated game plan that will ensure public office holders, and those who seek public office, understand its industrywide positions," according to a letter sent to its members.
LICA recently sent a questionnaire to Long Island highway superintendents and town supervisors to gauge their desire for infrastructure investment and said they will make the results public.
"We don't advocate that our members contribute," Herbst said. "We may tell them which candidates support our positions. "
Last year, LICA touted incumbents, including Reps. Steve Israel and Tim Bishop, state Sens. John Flanagan and Chuck Fuschillo, and Assemblymen Marc Alessi and Bob Sweeney.
LICA has given more than $332,000 to candidates and political committees since 2005.
About $21,000 of LICA's money went to Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi's campaign in the last two years. Suozzi's campaign also gets plenty from individual contractors. Hicksville-based Carlo Lizza & Sons Paving and three Lizza family members gave $70,000 to Friends of Tom Suozzi since 2007.
In January, Carlo Lizza & Sons Paving was awarded a $3 million contract for the Nassau's Department of Public Works to resurface "various county roads," one of several jobs the county gave the firm. Lizza also got a piece of federal stimulus funds by winning a $5.75 million state Department of Transportation resurfacing contract just last month.
A spokeswoman for Suozzi's campaign said he was too busy to speak with LIBN about the pay-for-play issue.
Despite its prolific contributions, Herbst is quick to point out that road construction is "one of the most transparent industries" with municipal contracts going to the lowest responsible bidder. Herbst adds that his members don't seek out politicians to finance.
"We only go where we're invited," he said.
And this time of year, there are a lot of invitations for political fundraisers such as the bi-annual bash at Stonebridge Golf Links and Country Club in Smithtown thrown by Huntington road chief William Naughton. Naughton, who's headed the town's highway department for the last 21 years, bagged more than $150,000 in corporate campaign contributions since 2006, much of it from companies who do business with his department.
Kings Park Asphalt and its related companies have given more than $15,000 to the campaigns of Naughton and four Huntington Town Board members since 2006. The company has received $27.86 million from the town for highway department work it's done in the last six years.
Naughton didn't return calls requesting comment, but Huntington spokesman A.J. Carter said the choice of contractors used on town roads "is up to the independently elected highway superintendent," and subject to "competitive bidding and all other legal requirements. "
Unchallenged in his last couple of elections, Naughton is again running unopposed for a four-year term. When he wins, he'll continue to collect his $136,222 salary while he controls the highway department's $20.5 million annual budget. Known for having his name painted on wooden traffic barricades, Naughton now has department employees putting up the following signs put up throughout the town: "Local roads matter to transportation, to schools, to families, to seniors, to emergency services, to you. William Naughton, Superintendent of Highways. "