After Ed Mangano won election as Nassau County executive in 2009, his longtime friend, Bethpage restaurateur Harendra Singh, crowed to his employees, "I've just hit Easy Street!"
Singh boasted often of his access to Mangano and other influential public officials, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees of Singh's sprawling restaurant business. And proof of his connections was apparent, they said, as Singh openly cultivated those relationships.
Singh told his restaurant employees to give Mangano and other top Nassau and Oyster Bay officials complimentary meals and drinks, including on occasions when the bill was several hundred dollars. When the Nassau fire marshal or health department found violations at his restaurants, Singh told employees a phone call from him would make the problems disappear. And after Mangano became county executive, Singh paid Mangano's wife a six-figure salary for a part-time job that employees said they never saw her perform.
"That was his whole MO -- wining and dining politicians," said George Schramm, a former head waiter at one of Singh's restaurants.
On Wednesday, Singh's largesse with at least one public official landed him in a federal courtroom in Central Islip as he faced charges of bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence and impeding the Internal Revenue Service.
Among the allegations in the federal complaint is that Singh gave an Oyster Bay official $50,000 in 10 separate checks made out to "Cash," paid for the official's $36,000 BMW lease, and funded a trip for the official and a relative to Asia. Those bribes were allegedly in exchange for that official, identified by sources as former Deputy Town Attorney Frederick Mei, illegally arranging for the town to guarantee $20 million in private loans obtained by Singh.
An official close to the case said the federal investigation is continuing. There was no indication during Singh's courtroom appearance that the federal case would extend to county officials, and Mangano has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Nassau Deputy County Executive Ed Ward disputed what the Singh employees told Newsday and said Mangano has paid for his meals. Ward declined to provide receipts.
Singh pleaded not guilty Wednesday, and he was released on a $5 million bond secured by property and has been ordered to stay in home detention with an electronic monitor. He is allowed to make visits of up to three hours a day to his restaurants but was ordered to properly pay his employees and federal income taxes.
Singh's arrest represented an abrupt shift in what had been an uplifting personal narrative of an Indian immigrant who started out working at an Arby's and went on to found a multimillion-dollar restaurant empire. His restaurants range from Water's Edge, an elegant establishment in Long Island City, to H.R. Singletons in a Bethpage strip mall, his company's headquarters. Singh and his family live in a $3 million Laurel Hollow home, complete with an indoor basketball court and movie theater. Last year, he and his wife, Ruby, reported a net worth of $21 million, according to records obtained by Newsday.
Beneath that glittering facade, however, was "a life of lies," according to Eastern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Mirabile.
Business and court records obtained by Newsday, as well as the interviews with employees -- among them top managers, office administrators and chefs -- portray Singh's business dealings as chaotic and secretive. Top managers scrambled to pay bills and stave off lawsuits and enforcement actions. Even though Singh's companies have included as many as 15 restaurants that were taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, according to employees and court records, employees and suppliers were paid late, if at all. One former office administrator said she "cried every day" as she decided which of Singh's employees to pay and who would have to wait.
At the same time, employees said they witnessed co-workers who asked to be paid being fired on the spot.
Eric Budowksy worked as a manager at the Greens in Melville, where Singh provided catering service up until January. In the late summer of 2013, Budowsky said he complained to Singh about employees' checks being three weeks late. It cost him his job.
Budowsky said Singh told him: "You work for me, not my employees. I'm letting you go."
Former employees have filed complaints against Singh with the U.S. Labor Department. Labor officials do not comment on complaints or ongoing investigations, but records show that in September 2010, the Labor Department secured a consent judgment against Singh. It compelled him to pay required overtime, keep accurate wage records and pay $88,010 in unpaid wages to 38 employees.
Singh's employees have also filed at least two class-action lawsuits against him and his companies over unpaid wages. One of those cases, Geancarlo Carlin vs. Singh Hospitality Group Inc., is scheduled to return to court on Thursday. Singh's attorney, Joseph Conway, said at the arraignment that the case was "close to being concluded." The other case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
While Singh instructed employees not to charge Mangano or other top county officials for meals and drinks, the class-action lawsuits over unpaid wages accuse him of charging employees for meals they didn't eat. Some of those employees made as little as $10 an hour, a former manager said.
Evelyn Torres worked as a bartender and hostess for four years at Poco Loco, which is now closed. She said the late paychecks and meal charges were a constant source of pressure and said she could never understand why it was happening.
But now, she said, "It all makes sense. This is what he was doing with our money."
Singh's financial troubles did not seem to affect his ability to take care of the public officials he courted. He was known -- especially in the Indian community -- to remind people of his ties to Nassau County's political power structure.
"Singh always bragged about his political connections, he always did," said Indrajit Saluja, publisher and editor of The Indian Panorama, a weekly Indian newspaper published in New York.
Newsday reported last month that records obtained by the newspaper show Singh and his employees arranged and paid for vacations for Mangano and his family to the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos. A July 18, 2013, email Singh sent to his travel agent illustrates how he expected Mangano to be treated: "Please send a pre paid car for Mangano as he is important."
Conway said last month that Mangano and Singh vacationed together and split the costs. "It was not unusual for both of them to book and make payments to or for each other," Conway said.
Singh's relationship with the Mangano family goes back many years, according to Mangano's criminal defense attorney, Kevin Keating of Garden City. Concerning the vacations, Keating said last month, "There is absolutely no story here."
The records obtained by Newsday do not indicate whether Mangano reimbursed Singh for the vacations. Mangano has not answered questions concerning the trips, and his office has not yet provided Newsday with Mangano's schedule for the dates that coincide with the vacations.
Nassau's acting district attorney, Madeline Singas, announced after Newsday's report that her office planned to investigate whether Mangano or Singh violated any laws.
Besides the apparent vacations with Singh, Mangano was a frequent presence at his restaurants, according to current and former employees who spoke to Newsday before Wednesday's federal indictment.
The employees, who spoke in separate interviews, said Singh instructed them to give free meals to Mangano and other top Nassau County and Oyster Bay officials. Because the employees weren't always able to identify less well-known officials, or describe specific meals or events that weren't paid for, Newsday is not identifying each official named.
But Singh made sure that his employees knew the county executive. Ruben Gomez, a former manager at Water's Edge, said Singh once berated a hostess after she failed to recognize Mangano and treated him "like a nobody."
Ten of Singh's current and former employees said Mangano routinely ate for free at Singh's restaurants. The employees said Mangano liked the omelets at the Chow Down Diner in East Meadow, slices of pizza at the Besi Pizzeria and that he would have complimentary dinner and drinks with Singh at H.R. Singletons. Mangano and his wife, Linda, sometimes joined Singh and his wife for dinners at the Woodlands, a catering facility at the Oyster Bay golf course, or at Water's Edge.
Schramm, the former head waiter, was among the employees who said there were times that Mangano "didn't get a check, no."
"It's too bad because he's a helluva nice guy," Schramm said of Mangano. "I know him well, but I wish he would have limited his involvement with him [Singh]."
Current and former employees said they saw Mangano as often as two or three times a week. During his campaign for re-election in 2013, Mangano had his headquarters in the same strip mall as H.R. Singletons. When it came to campaign-related expenditures, Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said, "Bills for meals and rent were presented, paid for and disclosed on campaign filings.''
Two former Singletons employees said they saw Mangano and campaign workers every day during the campaign and that they never paid for meals. Sometimes, they said, Mangano complained about putting on weight.
"We never gave him a check," said a waitress who worked at the Chow Down Diner, which is now closed. "It was all comp."
One former waiter recalled a $300 dinner for Mangano and three others at Thom Thom, a Singh-owned restaurant set up by well-known chef Tom Schaudel in Wantagh.
"Mr. and Mrs. Mangano always got comped," said one of Singh's restaurant managers, who asked not to be named.
Nassau County law bars officials from accepting gifts that total more than $75 in a 12-month period from any individual or company directly or indirectly doing business with the county. Penalties for violating the county code include forfeiture of pay, suspension, fines of up to $10,000 per violation or removal from office.
In addition, state law prohibits municipal employees from directly or indirectly accepting any gift of more than $75 "under circumstances in which it could reasonably be inferred that the gift was intended to influence him, or could reasonably be expected to influence him, in the performance of his official duties . . . "
David Grandeau, an attorney who oversaw numerous corruption investigations when he ran the state's Temporary Commission on Lobbying, said if what Singh's employees are saying about Mangano is true, free meals constitute a "gateway violation" against county code.
Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk legislative counsel who helped write the county's ethics code, said, "I don't even need a state or local law to tell me that as a public official, you shouldn't take free meals or other gifts. It creates a perception that you can be rewarded or influenced in the use of taxpayer assets."
Nevin defended his boss in an email: "Let me be clear, no meal or friendship will ever compromise Ed Mangano's ethical beliefs."
Hired Mangano's wife
Shortly after Mangano took office as county executive in 2010, Singh hired Mangano's wife in a part-time role to handle marketing and advertising for his business. Unlike other employees, Linda Mangano "always got her check on time," according to a former Singh office administrator, who asked to remain anonymous.
The office administrator said Linda Mangano was paid $4,000 every two weeks, and her check -- known internally as "the LM check" -- was delivered personally to Singh, who instructed employees not to talk about it.
Six of Singh's current and former employees, including the former office administrator, said they never saw Linda Mangano at work, either at the Woodlands, where she was technically assigned, or at the company's Bethpage headquarters or other sites.
They also said they never were shown any advertising or marketing materials she produced and that other employees in the company handled those tasks.
"She was only there when she had a family dinner," said Kulikam Messia Justin, a former manager at H.R. Singletons, Singh's flagship restaurant.
Linda Mangano did not respond to calls for comment.
As required by law, Ed Mangano disclosed his wife's job with Singh between 2010 and 2014 on county financial disclosure forms.
Deputy County Executive Ward confirmed that Linda Mangano earned $104,000 a year working for Singh on a "project basis." Ward declined to explain what the work entailed except to say Linda Mangano did "whatever duties that were assigned to her."
Ward said he did not know whether she performed those tasks from home but that she put in the required number of hours.
Though Singh had several lucrative public contracts with the Town of Oyster Bay, he received only one contract from Nassau County. After superstorm Sandy hit Long Island in October 2012, Nassau County paid a Singh company, Raj & Raj Realty, $238,200 through a no-bid "emergency purchase order" for hot meals for public officials.
Sabatino said that in light of that contract, the Mangano family's ties to Singh, including the hiring of the county executive's wife, raise ethical questions.
"It creates the appearance of impropriety because it looks like the job was given to influence the award of a contract," Sabatino said.
Mangano spokesman Nevin wrote in an email that the county's Office of Emergency Management, not Mangano, decided to hire Singh after superstorm Sandy.
"The County Executive had no personal involvement," Nevin wrote.