Perry Pettus, a trustee of the Village of Hempstead, sat ramrod straight at the defendant’s table in Nassau County Court in Mineola during his arraignment late Tuesday morning.
Pettus’ hands, handcuffed behind him, limited the ability to do much more.
With that, Pettus, 62 — along with co-defendant William Mendez, a restaurant and bar owner with at least two aliases, prosecutors would say — mostly faced forward through a lengthy conference that lawyers on both sides had with Acting Supreme Court Justice Patricia Harrington at the bench.
Minutes later, Harrington, in unsealing a grand jury indictment, publicly stated charges against Pettus and Mendez, including bribery, larceny, conspiracy and official misconduct.
In short, according to prosecutors, Pettus, a former village deputy mayor, is alleged to have recruited local restaurateur Mendez to act as a Spanish-speaking middleman to extort Hispanic village restaurant owners with threats of code violations and other potential issues to solicit bribes.
Pettus, who had plentiful support from family, who looked on during the proceeding, pleaded not guilty, and — hands freed — walked from the courtroom after Harrington ordered him released on his own recognizance. Mendez, who remained handcuffed, left the court with officers after Harrington set bail.
Another day, another elected official, another allegation of corruption.
But this time, a few things were different.
This arraignment was in a state, rather than federal, court.
The prosecution is being handled by the office of Madeline Singas, Nassau’s district attorney, rather than federal prosecutors who, over the past few years, have handled the bulk of Long Island-related government corruption cases.
One of the more disturbing allegations by prosecutors is that on April 26, “Pettus informed Mendez, via telephone, in sum and in substance, that Pettus had ordered employees of the Village of Hempstead to ticket a business.”
Another is that on May 24, “Pettus, over the telephone, in sum and substance, ordered members of the Hempstead Police Department to issue tickets to a business located across the street from one of Mendez’s businesses.”
And a third: “Pettus allegedly disclosed confidential police investigation information to Mendez on more than one occasion to benefit Mendez.”
During a news conference on Tuesday, Singas said the investigation is ongoing.
And although she declined to be specific, it follows logically that every ticket issued by the police department and every summons, license revocation, fine and other action taken by village employees that could have impacted businesses in a negative way will, at minimum, fall under scrutiny.
So will any official village action that helped the four restaurants and bars owned by Mendez.
And then there comes the question of whether Pettus’ alleged disclosure of confidential police information had any impact on police investigations, operations, arrests — and, by extension, cases or defendants that ended up in courts.
Tuesday’s arraignment marked the start of the prosecution’s task to prove allegations against Pettus and Mendez.
As the investigation continues, however, it’s likely that prosecutors will keep combing through the minutiae of village operations.