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Singh learned how to make friends in Nassau politics

Harendra Singh said he learned that if you join the machine, the machine will make you strong.

Harendra Singh leaves the federal courthouse in Central

Harendra Singh leaves the federal courthouse in Central Islip on Thursday. Photo Credit: James Carbone

This story was reported by Nicole Fuller, Bridget Murphy and Andrew Smith. It was written by Smith.

Early in his career as a restaurant owner, Harendra Singh said he learned a tough lesson about life in business in Nassau — if you’re not part of the machine, the machine can hurt you.

In testimony Thursday at the federal corruption trial of former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and former Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, Singh described getting harassed by the town when he had a dispute with a diner whose law firm included the brother of then-County Executive Thomas Gulotta. One town inspector said his marching orders were to put Singh out of business, Singh testified.

But Singh said he soon learned the flip side of that early lesson — if you join the machine, the machine will make you strong.

Singh, 59, of Laurel Hollow, is cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty to bribing Mangano and Venditto. Mangano, 55, of Bethpage, and Venditto, 68, of North Massapequa, face charges including conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and honest services wire fraud. Mangano additionally was charged with extortion. Mangano’s wife, Linda, 54, also is on trial, facing charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements. The three have pleaded not guilty.

Their attorneys urged skepticism about what Singh had to say.

“He’s got a lot of talking to do and he’s far from finished, so let’s evaluate him at the end,” said John Carman of Garden City, Linda Mangano’s lawyer.

Kevin Keating of Garden City, Edward Mangano’s lawyer, said, “I think by the end of this trial, it will be quite clear that Singh’s view of the world is completely false.”

Marc Agnifilo, Venditto’s Manhattan lawyer, declined to comment.

During his first day on the witness stand in Central Islip, Singh explained to jurors and Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Mirabile how the Nassau County Republican machine affected him. As a naturalized citizen struggling to make it in the restaurant business, politics wasn’t a concern of his as he opened an A & W restaurant franchise at 150 Hicksville Rd. in Bethpage, on property owned by his parents.

It didn’t do well, so two years later, in 1990, he said he opened his own place there, No Bananas Fine Food and Spirits. Its success led to trouble, he said. A lease agreement with a neighboring diner allowed the diner to use 10 of No Bananas’ parking spots, but the diner was using more than 70, Singh said, so his father sued the diner.

The diner was represented by the Mineola law firm of Gulotta and Stein, run by Frank Gulotta Jr., the county executive’s brother. Frank Gulotta later became a judge.

Almost immediately, Singh said he started getting visits — and violations — from Oyster Bay Town inspectors.

“The diner had a powerful firm,” Singh said. “They were politically connected. That was the main reason we were being harassed.”

One inspector, Frank Nocerino, bluntly explained to Singh how the machine was going to crush him.

“I’ve been sent here by my boss,” Nocerino said, according to Singh. “I’m going to come here every day and give you a summons.”

The goal, Nocerino said to Singh, was to shut him down. Singh said he was “confused” and “disturbed” by what was happening, so he reached out to a building inspector he knew, Gary Blanchard, who introduced him to town board member Leonard Kunzig.

Singh said he listened while Kunzig called Nocerino and told him to cut it out. The summonses stopped right away, but Singh said his family had spent $600,000 fighting the diner, its powerful law firm and the town.

Kunzig then gave Singh another lesson about life in business on Long Island.

“If you want to live in peace, you better join the Bethpage Republican Club,” Kunzig said, according to Singh. “You basically do the things that people want you to do . . . the people in power . . . Republicans in Oyster Bay.”

Singh said he took that advice to heart. Kunzig became a close friend and in 1993 introduced him to Mangano, a young Bethpage attorney.

Kunzig and Mangano were part of a group of “young rising stars in the Town of Oyster Bay” that Singh said he befriended. They routinely had lunch together, and Singh said that when Mangano ran for the county’s new legislature in 1994, he campaigned for him.

Singh said his friend was “inspiring,” but he also made clear that he was useful as an elected official: “I would have a connection and my life would be peaceful.”

Around that time, Singh became aware that the Town of Oyster Bay had become disenchanted with the operator of its Woodbury golf course restaurant. He asked Mangano to speak to Venditto, who was then the town attorney. The supervisor then was Democrat Lew Yevoli, but the otherwise all-Republican town board enabled Venditto to run the town, Singh said.

Singh submitted what seemed like a winning bid to run the golf course concession in 1996, but another firm — represented by a well-connected Republican lawyer — won instead.

“This time is not my time,” Singh said Mangano told him.

The following year, as he rebranded his restaurant HR Singleton’s and saw it do well, he said he donated $5,000 to Venditto’s winning campaign for town supervisor. Mirabile asked why he donated.

“If you know the people, the right thing would be done,” Singh explained. “You are one of the family members.”

In 1998, Singh got a three-month emergency contract to run the golf course concession.

Later that year, he signed a three-year contract, with options to extend it to seven years. Over the years, he cemented himself at the golf course with a series of contract extensions that eventually stretched to the middle of this century. In all these negotiations, he said he negotiated details with Deputy Supervisor Leonard Genova and signed the agreements with Fred Mei, the deputy town attorney.

The contracts also allowed Singh to renovate and expand the facility, now known as The Woodlands.

“The significance was . . . we will build the facility and it would be far more profitable,” Singh said. “We will be there forever.”

Even so, Singh said he constantly looked for more. “We wanted to make sure our investment was secure,” he said.

In 2004, Mei presented Singh with another opportunity, to get the concessions at Tobay Beach. Town officials deliberately wrote a vague request for proposals, so other businesses would not submit competitive bids, he said.

“Is it fair to say you had inside information when bidding on this contract?” Mirabile asked.

“Yes,” Singh replied.

As at the golf course, Singh testified he invested money in renovating and expanding the food concessions at the beach, making them more profitable for himself.

At the same time, Singh’s empire of restaurants had expanded throughout Nassau County and into Long Island City, where he bought The Water’s Edge, overlooking Manhattan. His email addresses — therestaurantmogul@yahoo.com and therestaurantmogul@gmail.com — reflected his ambition, he said.

He said he continued cultivating his friendship with Mangano, who in May 2009 got the Republican nomination to run for county executive. Mangano dropped by HR Singleton’s to discuss the news, Singh said.

“We had coffee, maybe a light lunch, and I gave six checks for $1,000 each from each of my six companies,” he testified. A couple of hours later, Mangano called and said he was looking for space for his campaign headquarters in the Hicksville-Bethpage area.

“I said we had a vacancy next to HR Singleton’s,” Singh said, adding that he knew Mangano was aware of that. “If he wanted to look at it, I would speak to my mom.”

Mangano, as was usually the case, did not ask for the space directly, Singh said.

“That was the style of Ed,” Singh said. “He didn’t ask directly. He would hint at things he wanted, and you understood that.”

Singh rented the space first to the campaign and later to Mangano’s Bethpage Republican Club at heavily discounted rates. Yet he said he didn’t complain when Mangano’s organizations paid late or less than they’d agreed. It was in his interest to keep Mangano happy, he said.

“He was my friend,” Singh testified. “He was the newly elected county executive, and I knew I would need things. . . . I expected help whenever help was needed.”

That help might take the form of smoothing over possible problems with county fire marshals or health inspectors, or getting an inside advantage to get county concession contracts, he said.

Singh said he was not lenient with other tenants. If they didn’t pay on time and in full, they got evicted. “They were not elected officials,” he said.

Singh did other favors for Mangano’s organizations at that spot. He said he paid $10,000 to build offices and a conference room, even though the lease said that was the tenant’s responsibility. And he set up a house account to allow campaign and party officials to eat at HR Singleton’s.

Eventually, Singh said he presented a bill of $57,766.20 to the Friends of Ed Mangano, but Mangano complained that it was too much and paid only $15,000 of it. Singh again said he saw the loss as “an investment.”

“If he was not the county executive, I would not have given a discount,” Singh testified.

But the good times did not last forever, for either Singh or Mangano.

By January 2010, Singh said his businesses were struggling and he had trouble getting loans he needed to make improvements at his town concessions. Singh said he thought the town could guarantee his loans and floated the idea while visiting Mangano at his home.

Mangano paged Venditto, who still used a beeper. Venditto called back immediately, and Mangano explained the problem and the solution. Venditto was “very keen to help,” Singh said.

Mirabile asked why he brought the idea up with Mangano instead of directly with Venditto.

“He had a lot more juice,” Singh said of Mangano. “I wanted to make sure this loan happened because it was a lifeline on my businesses.”

Later that month, Mangano brought Singh as a guest to a $1,000-per-person victory party at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury. Mangano encouraged him to talk to Venditto about the loan guarantees at the party, so he said he did.

“I’m going to try my best to get it done,” Venditto said, according to Singh. He then followed up over the next few weeks with Venditto, Genova and Mei at various times to make sure he could afford to expand the kitchen and add three banquet rooms at The Woodlands, and build another restaurant at the beach.

But in April, the loan guarantee plan hit a snag when the town’s outside counsel said the Oyster Bay wasn’t permitted to guarantee private loans. Desperate, Singh said he again turned to Mangano and asked him to get the town to find another law firm to give more favorable advice.

“I informed him that we have to figure out a way to get this thing done,” Singh testified. “He suggested that maybe his former law firm . . . we can use them.”

Eventually, Singh got his loan guarantees, with the endorsement of a different law firm, prosecutors have said.

Around the same time, Mangano told Singh that he had financial problems of his own. Because he had to give up his private law practice when he became county executive, he was making about $114,000 less. Mangano asked Singh to give his wife, Linda, a job.

Singh said he jumped at the chance, despite his financial problems, because he wanted to be sure Mangano continued to work for the loan guarantees.

He said he hired Linda Mangano as “director of marketing.” Other than sending out an email blast to promote Water’s Edge and organizing a ladies luncheon there, Singh said she did nothing to earn her paycheck.

Now and then, Singh said Edward Mangano would thank him for arranging Linda’s job and said he wanted to be sure she did something for her paycheck.

“I said, ‘Sure, have her come at 9:30 tomorrow,’” Singh said. Mirabile asked if she came. “Linda Mangano would not show up,” Singh replied, other than once when he showed her around the office.

Initially, Singh said he paid her $100,000 a year, because that’s what Edward Mangano requested, and then for the last two years of the arrangement he paid her $125,000 a year.

Singh said he’d wanted to make her a contract employee, so that he wouldn’t have to withhold her taxes or pay Social Security taxes on her wages, but Edward Mangano didn’t like that idea.

“He said he would prefer her to be on a payroll,” Singh said. “He wanted to be sure the taxes would be paid.”

Mangano added that he and his wife filed taxes separately. As a public official, his tax returns were disclosed publicly, and he didn’t want anyone knowing that Singh had given a job to his wife.

For the same reason, he asked that she be employed by the Water’s Edge in Queens. “Ed did not want me to pay her from a company in Nassau County,” Singh said.

Singh is expected to testify Monday about how the town loan guarantees eventually came through, and about a further string of bribes he paid to Mangano, including vacations, hardwood flooring for the couple’s bedroom and a $7,000 watch they gave to their son. He also is expected to testify about laundering bribes he received from other county contractors.

Days after he pleaded guilty to bribing Mangano and Venditto, his former friends and patrons were arrested themselves.

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