An ex-Hempstead Village trustee admitted Thursday to taking bribes after a half-dozen indictments put him at the center of a web of corruption that prosecutors say reached the municipal police force’s highest ranks.
Perry Pettus, 63, pleaded guilty in Nassau County Court to more than a dozen charges that included bribe-receiving, grand larceny, conspiracy, official misconduct and tampering with both public records and a witness.
He admitted to an extortion scheme that preyed on Hispanic business owners, traffic ticket-fixing and mortgage-related fraud.
By his plea, Pettus also implicated four co-defendants criminally, including two top police officials.
Nassau Supervising Judge Teresa Corrigan said she would give Pettus a prison term of two to six years when she sentences him in September at the earliest.
She said the punishment was aimed at being "fair and just" but that was "no easy task" when balancing "the two sides of Perry Pettus" — someone who had done both good and harm in the community.
Prosecutor Lisa Berk told the judge Pettus brazenly used his government role to "enrich himself," and exploited “victims that he thought would never have the courage to come forward and tell us what he had done."
Pettus deferred comment after court to his attorney, James Druker.
“There’s some bad in the best of us and there’s good in the worst of us," Druker said. "In this case, I think Perry was a good person but the bad side of him landed him here today and he’s accepted his responsibility and he’s going to pay the price for it.”
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a statement that Pettus betrayed his constituents, and she also called on Hempstead Village to clean up abuses in government.
“Perry Pettus betrayed the trust placed in him as a public official, shook down business owners for bribes, and abused his authority over the police department to help friends and punish those who didn’t pay. His admissions today underscore the need for the Village of Hempstead to take corrective action to ensure that these abuses in government and the police department cannot happen again, because the public deserves a government that works for the people, not the powerful,” she said.
Hempstead Village Mayor Don Ryan reacted with a statement saying that while Singas' investigation continues, he remains "confident in our board of trustees and village departments, including the men and woman who protect and service this village."
He added, "Our residents can remain assured that we are committed to our mission of delivering high-quality public services, practicing ethical responsibility and continuing our ongoing efforts to improve the safety and quality of life for everyone in Hempstead."
Pettus' plea follows a litany of arrests since last July in which investigators led him in handcuffs into the same Mineola courthouse where he appeared Thursday.
His co-defendants have included Police Chief Paul Johnson and Deputy Police Chief Richard Holland, along with a police sergeant and a Latino businessman who prosecutors said has a financial interest in four village bars and restaurants. All of the co-defendants pleaded not guilty.
In July, prosecutors accused Pettus of pocketing more than $25,000 in bribes by extorting two local Hispanic restaurateurs with the help of businessman William Mendez, 48.
The two threatened to drive the victims out of business if they didn’t pay protection money, according to Singas' office, which said Mendez demanded money from the restaurateurs and passed it to Pettus.
Prosecutors say Pettus paid Mendez back by making sure his businesses got favorable treatment from the village, including by fast-tracking his business permits and licenses.
Mendez' attorney Bruce Barket said of Pettus' plea Thursday, "People say all kinds of things to get deals."
Voters first elected Pettus to the village's board of trustees in 2002. He is Hempstead’s former deputy mayor and prosecutors said he also owns a local auto garage. Pettus didn't seek re-election to his trustee seat before the March election.
In October, prosecutors accused him of witness tampering and forging financial documents, alleging in part that he falsified records to get a mortgage for a home he and his wife bought in North Carolina.
In November, prosecutors alleged Pettus took a cash bribe of at least $1,000 from Holland, 47, in exchange for a vote to promote Holland to police deputy chief.
Before the vote, Pettus and Holland, then a police lieutenant, allegedly met in a parking lot before Holland passed cash wrapped in a newspaper to Pettus as a bribe, according to Singas' office.
Prosecutors alleged most recently that Pettus was involved in ticket-fixing with Johnson, Mendez and police Sgt. Joseph Savino, 51.
Prosecutors said Johnson, 55, illegally tossed four traffic tickets in May 2018 at the request of Pettus, who was acting for Mendez.
Days later, Pettus was among those who interviewed Johnson, then a lieutenant, for a promotion before voting in June 2018 to name him acting police chief.
But on Thursday, Johnson's attorney, Ronald Bekoff, called Pettus "a known liar," adding: "Desperate men do desperate things. Pettus would say anything to make his sentence easier."