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Nassau corruption trial: What’s the standard for guilt?

Can defendants be found guilty if they’re hardly ever present at the scene of a crime?

Former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and former

Former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and former Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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

A question the jury may have to wrestle with in the federal corruption trial of former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and former Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto is whether someone can be found guilty if he’s hardly ever present at the scene of a crime.

In a typical criminal trial, presence is one of the most basic things prosecutors strive to prove — that the killer was at the murder scene, that the drunken driver was in the car, that the robber entered the store. But in a case like this, many of the allegations by federal prosecutors are that the crimes took place behind the scenes, at times without the defendants present.

Attorneys for Mangano and Venditto are seeking to capitalize on that, often emphasizing in their questioning that their clients weren’t present at critical points.

The reverse, however, is true for the third defendant on trial, Mangano’s wife, Linda: Her no-show job and what she told federal authorities about it are at the root of the charges against her.

Edward Mangano, 56, of Bethpage, and Venditto, 68, of North Massapequa, pleaded not guilty to charges that include conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and honest-services wire fraud, extortion for Mangano and securities fraud for Venditto.

Linda Mangano, 54, of Bethpage, pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI.

Prosecutors have argued that bribes paid by politically connected restaurateur Harendra Singh led to Mangano and Venditto working to make sure the Town of Oyster Bay guaranteed loans he sought in order to expand his businesses at town-owned facilities. Singh ultimately got four such loans, but prosecutors have shown Mangano and Venditto to be present at only one meeting, on April 28, 2010, before the first loan closed.

Venditto’s attorney, Marc Agnifilo of Manhattan, has tried to capitalize on his client’s absence from meetings to discuss subsequent loans that the town backed for Singh.

Barry Edelstein, a managing partner at Structured Growth Capital, which helped arrange the two NDH loans for Singh, testified last week that Oyster Bay officials understood they were backing Singh’s $20 million in loans to make capital improvements to town-owned properties. Edelstein and Scott Haber, president of lender NDH, testified about a meeting on Aug. 10, 2011 with town officials.

Agnifilo focused on who was present at the meeting — and who was not.

“Obviously Fred Mei” was there, Edelstein said, referring to the deputy town attorney involved in all the deals. In his testimony, Mei admitted accepting bribes from Singh that included cash, vacations and lease payments on a BMW M3, his “dream car.”

“I met him on more occasions that I met anyone else,” Edelstein said.

Next, Edelstein recalled Venditto’s assistant, Steven Marx. Singh testified he bribed Marx with a trip to Las Vegas.

Edelstein recalled others who were at the meeting and said, “I remember distinctly Mr. Singh saying the town supervisor approved this.”

But Edelstein, like Haber, said he never met Venditto himself.

Neither did Howard Kurtzberg, vice president and general counsel for NDH. He described meetings with numerous town officials, but never with Venditto — even when Haber demanded to meet Venditto in person.

Kurtzberg said he and Haber “felt uncomfortable” when Singh failed to reach critical construction benchmarks connected with the loans. During cross-examination by Agnifilo, Kurtzberg said he and Haber wanted to meet with Venditto.

“This request is a requirement,” Haber wrote in an email to Singh. “Kindly arrange this meeting as soon as possible.”

Haber later wrote to Kurtzberg: “Needless to say, he offered to set up a meeting with the Town of Oyster Bay commissioners and not the town supervisor.”

Later, at an April 2, 2013 meeting at which NDH officials expressed concern about Singh’s performance and his failure to report his progress, Kurtzberg said Marx made himself available to them — even though they wanted access instead to Venditto.

Kurtzberg told Agnifilo he never met Venditto or talked to him on the phone. NDH officials dealt instead with Mei and other appointed officials.

During questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Mirabile, Haber said that wasn’t necessarily unusual. She asked him how often he met with a top executive at a company when he was closing a deal.

“Very slim, and other than by accident, we never meet,” Haber said.

Mangano’s attorney, Kevin Keating of Garden City, sought to establish with these witnesses that the NDH loans were “a town matter” and Mangano was not involved with them.

And it was an assistant of Mangano’s, rather than the county executive himself, who most vocally pushed for the November 2012 decision to give Singh an emergency contract to supply food for rescue workers at the Office of Emergency Management’s command center after superstorm Sandy.

The county jail had been supplying food, but witnesses testified that a state inspector put a stop to that after servers were spotted washing utensils in a men’s restroom. Command center manager John Maguire said he was told to follow emergency procurement procedures and reached out to caterer Butch Yamali, who had numerous food contracts with the county.

Maguire said that a short time later, OEM employee Laura Munafo — Mangano’s former executive assistant — came into his office.

“She walked in and said, ‘Who the [expletive] are you to pick the caterer?’” Maguire recalled.

He said he replied that he didn’t “give a [expletive]” who the caterer was but said rescue workers were going to “[expletive] themselves” if sanitary food wasn’t provided.

Maguire said Munafo then told him “Butch gets enough” and stormed out of his office. She later announced, “We’re going with H” — a reference to Singh.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Tierney asked Maguire whom Munafo was speaking for.

“The county executive,” Maguire said.

“Do you think Harendra Singh’s friendship with Ed Mangano had anything to do with the awarding of this contract?” Tierney asked.

“Yes,” Maguire said.

Former OEM employee Heather McNeill testified that Mangano didn’t need to be present at OEM to impose his will as long as Munafo was there.

McNeill said Munafo had a “close personal relationship” with Mangano and referred to him as “Ed” during her frequent phone calls with him. Tierney asked how she knew that.

“She would leave it on speakerphone and scream quite loudly,” McNeill explained.

Mangano was a frequent presence at the command center in the days after the storm, but he was not there when Singh got the contract, McNeill said.

For Linda Mangano, her absence from work was more of an issue than her presence. Singh has testified that he gave her a no-show job as a way of bribing Ed Mangano. As they have throughout the trial, prosecutors elicited testimony from several Singh employees about never seeing her doing any work.

One exception was Joseph Scalice, manager of the Singh-owned Water’s Edge in Long Island City in 2010.

Scalice said that shortly after he started there, he began communicating with Linda Mangano by email.

“We were working on a project to reintroduce the Water’s Edge to the New York City and Long Island City communities,” said Scalice, explaining that the once three-star restaurant had lost its luster because of lax management.

Singh introduced him to Linda Mangano and told him to work with her, and Scalice collaborated with her on two projects. One was that reintroduction; the other was an event to celebrate powerful Queens women.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz asked Scalice to estimate how much work Linda Mangano put into the two projects.

“This was probably three or four days worth of work,” he said. “I can’t fairly say how much time she put into it.”

During cross-examination by Linda Mangano’s attorney, John Carman of Garden City, Scalice said Singh told him Linda was Ed Mangano’s wife, but that meant nothing to him.

“I worked mostly in the city,” Scalice said. “I didn’t know who they were, and I didn’t need to know who they were.”

By the end of last week, Carman didn’t bother trying to hide his disdain for the parade of witnesses who said they never saw Linda Mangano working for Singh.

Carman asked only one question in his cross-examination of restaurant interior designer Karen Dallago, gently suggesting that her testimony was a waste of the jury’s time.

“Did you have to take time away from your work today to come here for this?” Carman asked. Dallago said no, but only because she would have been home sick if she weren’t testifying.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had an incorrect byline.

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