Whether the topic of the day’s testimony is former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano’s penchant for cigars and chicken Milanese, former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto’s limo rides or the more staid matters of securities and loan guarantees, the political corruption trial for the once-powerful men draws a crowd.
Courtroom 920 in the Alfonse M. D’Amato United States Courthouse in Central Islip fills daily with regulars, including family members and close friends of the defendants as well as a mix of detractors and others plainly fascinated by the process.
The trial, which began March 12 with a day of jury selection, begins its 10th week on Monday.
The courtroom, tightly packed with spectators while the prosecution’s star witness restaurateur Harendra Singh took the stand for four weeks, has held a slightly smaller, yet dedicated crowd in recent weeks.
Being inside the courtroom — where on any given day there’s a political insider testifying about the practice of awarding government jobs to the politically connected, or a waiter or limo driver revealing tidbits of their interactions with Venditto or the Manganos — offers an up-close view of the vagaries of a trial of defendants with headline-grabbing names.
Grim-faced FBI agents closely flank the witnesses they accompany in and out of the courtroom. The attorneys — both prosecution and defense — object to one another aggressively at times, but then hours or sometimes minutes later, joke with each other.
The defendants sometimes lean over and whisper to their attorneys. And there are the many personal moments, including Edward Mangano comforting his wife Linda Mangano as she cried while Singh, a decadeslong friend of the family, testified about his doctor-father caring for her ailing mother.
Michael Fortunado, wearing a Mets cap, has watched the proceedings in the wood-paneled courtroom a handful of times. He knows the Manganos from the Bethpage Republican Club and volunteered on Edward Mangano’s campaigns.
“They’re really good people,” said Fortunado, 49, who works at a Stop & Shop.
Mangano, 56, of Bethpage, and Venditto, 68, of North Massapequa, have pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and honest-services wire fraud, extortion for Mangano and securities fraud for Venditto.
Mangano’s wife, Linda, 54, of Bethpage, is also on trial, and has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI.
Federal prosecutors allege Mangano and Venditto accepted bribes — including free meals, limo rides and a $450,000 no-show job for Linda Mangano — in exchange for county contracts and $20 million in town-backed loan guarantees for town concessionaire Singh.
Edward Mangano strides into the courtroom before 9 a.m. every day, offering an upbeat “good morning” to reporters.
“Ed Mangano is deeply gratified by the overwhelming show of support he receives on a daily basis, not just from those attending the proceedings, but by the many hundreds of near daily supportive messages he continues to receive from friends, colleagues, and constituents on both sides of the political aisle,” his defense attorney Kevin Keating said in an email.
His parents, Rachel and John Mangano, both in their early 80s, have attended in recent weeks — John Mangano mostly sitting with his arms crossed, sometimes jotting in a small notebook.
When approached in the courthouse cafeteria, Rachel Mangano said: “We’re here to support our son because we love him.”
While Edward Mangano and Venditto mostly steer clear of interacting in the courtroom, they can be seen together some days during lunch lighting cigarettes in a designated smoking area outside of the courthouse.
One of Mangano’s most dedicated supporters is a man who he came up with in politics: Ed Ward, a former deputy county executive and spokesman for Mangano, who sits in the last row of the courtroom nearly every day and takes frequent smoke breaks with his old boss.
Ward declined to comment.
Venditto, meanwhile, arrives most mornings alone, carrying a Nesquik chocolate milk, but sometimes has a small carton of Tropicana orange juice. His wife, Christine, has made a smattering of appearances, entering the courthouse arm-in-arm with her husband, and sometimes reacting with a grimace to testimony not complimentary to him.
Their son, Michael Venditto, a former state senator who lost his re-election bid about two weeks after his father was arrested, has shown up periodically.
“He’s been the greatest father any son could ask for and I support him all the way and love him dearly,” Michael Venditto said.
Most notably, he sat next to his sister, Joanna, as Leonard Genova, his father’s longtime friend and top deputy who has an immunity agreement with the government, testified about coaching Michael on a sports team as a child and being “proud” of Michael when he was elected to public office.
Robert Ripp, a critic of John Venditto who in 2016 was ejected from a town board meeting by police at the direction of Venditto, is a mainstay, sitting in the same third-row seat every day, notepad in hand.
“This is closure for me,” said Ripp, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent for town supervisor. “In a sick sense, it’s gratifying to hear I was right.”
Marc Agnifilo, Venditto’s attorney, said of his client: “He has supporters both in the form of members of his family and people who still have connections to the town of Oyster Bay. I think he still enjoys great popularity in the town.”
There from day one has been former Hempstead Deputy Town Attorney Eugene Ferencik, who spent his 70th birthday in the courtroom. He described John Venditto as a “great man.”
Richard Pietzak, 64, of Amityville, a retired assistant store manager at King Kullen, is a perfect stranger to the defendants, but sits in the back row of the courtroom daily.
Pietzak, who has made a hobby out of trial-watching — attending the trial of former Suffolk County Conservative Party boss Ed Walsh — said he plans to stay until the end, but noted that at times the testimony can be repetitive.
“How many times you gotta listen to different people say the Manganos got free meals?” said Pietzak. “It’s a lot of repetition.”
Linda Mangano, some days carrying 20-ounce bottles of soda, which she drinks throughout the day, has a cadre of close friends who come to court to support her, including a women who declined to be identified but described herself as a 25-year friend.
Linda Mangano, the friend said, bakes nearly every morning and has brought to court crumb cake and carrot cake, which earned rave reviews from the defendants’ team of attorneys who were seen gobbling it during a break. Linda Mangano has often been seen handing out vitamin C drops, especially during the first few weeks when spring had not quite arrived and coughs frequently punctuated testimony.
On the day that the Manganos’ 20-something sons — Sal and Al — came to court, Linda Mangano smiled widely while pointing to them and adjusted Al’s neck tie during a break. But at other times, she has shed tears at the mention of her son Sal, whose 21st birthday gift of a $7,300 Panerai Luminor watch is one of the alleged bribes, Singh testified.
Singh said he bought a $7,300 watch for Manganos’ son as a means of bribing the then-county executive. Singh testified that he got a call from Mangano, who said Sal Mangano was turning 21 and he wanted to buy him a watch for between $2,500 and $3,500. Singh said he interpreted the conversation as a request for him to buy the watch. He said Mangano gave Singh $2,500 in cash for the watch. Singh said he paid the difference.
“In a case like this that draws intense media attention, it’s a very lonely place to be in the spotlight, so I think that Linda does draw a lot of emotional support from her friends who make the time to come to court during this excruciatingly difficult time,” said her lawyer, John Carman.
Jack Umstatter, a retired schoolteacher from Islip, has attended several days of the trial, when granddad duty doesn’t beckon, he said.
“I enjoy observing the attorneys, their strategies, their questions, how they respond,” said Umstatter, 67. “To me, it’s really an interesting chess match.”