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Feds subpoena records involving Alfonse D’Amato, other political figures in charity probe

Former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato is president of

Former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato is president of a family foundation whose finances are under federal investigation. D'Amato is shown here on Dec. 4, 2015, in Manhattan. Credit: AP / Larry Neumeister

Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed records involving former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and other top Long Island political figures as part of a wide-ranging grand jury investigation into the finances of three prominent local foundations that have given out millions of dollars.

They include the Armand and Antoinette D’Amato Family Foundation, of which D’Amato is president; the Elena Melius Foundation, run by power broker and Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius; and the Kermit Gitenstein Foundation, which Steven Schlesinger, the former counsel to the Nassau County Democratic Party, ran as court-appointed manager until May, when he was removed by a Nassau County judge who issued a scathing critique of his stewardship.

Among the others named in the subpoenas are Nassau Democratic leader Jay Jacobs, Nassau Democratic lawyer Thomas Garry and Dana Sanneman, spokeswoman for D’Amato’s powerhouse lobbying firm, Park Strategies.

The probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s Eastern District was launched after a Newsday investigation raised questions about Schlesinger’s management of the $11 million Gitenstein Foundation, which distributed money to the other two charities.

D’Amato, Schlesinger, Garry and Sanneman all declined to comment. Melius declined to say whether he had received a subpoena, but said, “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Jacobs said he was not involved in any suspicious activities. “I can simply say to you that it’s my understanding that I am not a subject or target of their investigation, but they’re looking for information from me, as well as other people,” he said.

He said he had received a subpoena for all emails related to the Gitenstein Foundation and that he had turned them over to investigators. Other people and charities had received the subpoenas related to the Elena Melius Foundation, he said. Newsday confirmed that several nonprofit organizations that have received donations from the Elena Melius Foundation received subpoenas. They are as far-flung as the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and the Fair Media Council, a watchdog group.

“They cast a wide net,” Jacobs said.

One five-page subpoena, reviewed by Newsday, is exhaustive, seeking at least 50 types of documents, such as emails, instant messages, voicemail, minutes, notes, correspondence, books, registers, account statements, analyses, telephone messages, date books and even electronic records that might have been deleted from email accounts or other directories. It directs recipients to turn over all records by Aug. 23.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman, Nellin McIntosh, declined to comment. However, the language of the subpoena sheds light on its possible focus. It seeks the same records from all three foundations, documenting the transfer of funds and the intended purpose and actual use of any contributions.

Experts in charity law interviewed by Newsday said this indicates that prosecutors will be combing through records for violations of federal laws governing such areas as fraud or tax evasion.

Records show that Melius’ foundation gave a total of $293,000 in grants to more than 170 nonprofit organizations in 2014, among them the FBI Agents Association, an advocacy group for current and retired FBI agents in Alexandria, Virginia; the Pat Cairo Family Foundation, which is run by North Hempstead Republican leader Joseph Cairo; and the Raj & Rajeshwari Foundation, which was run by the family of indicted restaurateur Harendra Singh.

The subpoena also seeks communications between the charities and other individuals, including Anthony Cancellieri, a former Nassau chief deputy county executive and now a vice president at D’Amato’s Park Strategies company; Sherry Mionis, a paralegal at Schlesinger’s firm, Jaspan Schlesinger; and Michael Santeramo, Nassau Democratic Party executive director.

“I know nothing about this,” Santeramo said, adding that he had not been contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Cancellieri and Mionis did not return calls for comment.

Newsday published an investigation in August 2015 raising questions about Schlesinger’s disbursements of foundation money to groups affiliated with political allies and associates, such as D’Amato and Melius, who are regular poker partners of his at Oheka Castle. Schlesinger directed $250,000 to the Elena Melius Foundation; $200,000 to Surprise Lake Camp, where Jacobs has an unpaid seat on the board of directors; and $50,000 to D’Amato’s family foundation for construction of a splash park.

Schlesinger’s $250,000 donation to the Elena Melius Foundation occurred the same week as his wedding at Oheka. Records show that Schlesinger paid for the wedding at the Gold Coast estate with a $75,000 check from his law firm’s account five months later.

A Nassau Surrogate Court judge in 2007 appointed Schlesinger, who was then the Nassau Democratic Party attorney, to oversee the Kermit Gitenstein Foundation after the death of Shirley Gitenstein. She had been the administrator of the family foundation and died with no heir. It was one of the largest fiduciary appointments made by the court.

The court tasked Schlesinger with distributing the foundation’s money in accordance with the charity’s mission — funding Jewish organizations and health care. Schlesinger did make donations to well-known Jewish charities, but also sent money to other charities and institutions on Long Island where he had personal ties, court records show. Schlesinger steered the foundation’s money to Hofstra University Law School, his alma mater, and Touro Law School, where Schlesinger is a member of the school’s board of governors.

Nonprofit experts interviewed by Newsday said Schlesinger’s $250,000 donation to Melius’ foundation the same week that he held his wedding at Melius’ estate should have triggered an investigation. They said it created the appearance that Schlesinger may have received a personal benefit in exchange for the foundation’s money. Melius’ charity had just $7,245 at the time.

In addition to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the state Attorney General’s Office did begin investigating. And in a scathing decision in late May, Nassau Surrogate Judge Margaret C. Reilly removed Schlesinger from his position at the Gitenstein Foundation, criticizing him for spending $8 million of the foundation’s money without court approval. Her ruling called him “unfit” to continue as the foundation’s manager because he had disobeyed court orders and state law.

Earlier this month, Schlesinger fought back, filing a 34-page affidavit that accused Reilly, a Republican, of being biased against him because Newsday endorsed her and in the same editorial mentioned Schlesinger by name and suggested he was part of “the blatant patronage of yesterday.”

Citing her language to the editorial board that it is “time to end the era of congenial insiders,” he alleged she made a “pledge” to Newsday to “take action against me.”

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