The Town of Oyster Bay’s government was awash with “unscrupulous public officials” whose alleged crimes included involvement in “bribery, money laundering and a crooked multi-million dollar property deal,” Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said Thursday as authorities unsealed indictments against eight people with ties to the municipality.
Former Town Supervisor John Venditto was among those who pleaded not guilty to corruption charges.
Authorities unsealed three separate indictments in Nassau County Court that prosecutors said related to a trio of schemes: a real estate deal connected to a prominent paving company whose owners now face bribery charges, a case of preferential government hiring, and a theft of town services.
Singas said the 14-month investigation by her office included “extensive use of court-authorized wiretaps,” and resulted in 220 criminal charges after the discovery of evidence detailing “a shocking and interconnected web of public corruption” at the town’s highest levels of government.
“Our investigation uncovered a culture of government corruption that we allege benefited those in power, their friends and families at the expense of Oyster Bay taxpayers,” Singas said.
“It is my hope that this prosecution will send a message to government officials in Nassau County and Nassau County voters that we must do better.”
Venditto — who already is facing separate federal corruption charges – surrendered to prosecutors just before 7 a.m. He is now charged with corrupt use of position or authority, a felony; three counts of official misconduct, a misdemeanor; and conspiracy in the sixth degree, a misdemeanor. If convicted of the top count, he faces up to 1 1⁄3 years to 4 years in prison. In another indictment, he was charged with two counts of defrauding the government, a felony; two counts of official misconduct, a misdemeanor; and conspiracy in the fifth degree, a misdemeanor. If convicted of the top count, Venditto faces up to 1 1⁄3 years to 4 years in prison.
“The Town Supervisor allegedly turned over the keys of town government to an unelected self-dealer, and the charged conduct marks an outrageous betrayal of the public trust,” Singas said in a statement.
The others arraigned Thursday were: Frank Nocerino, 65, of Massapequa, the town’s recently retired public safety deputy commissioner and ex-parks commissioner; Frank Antetomaso, 77, of Massapequa, the town’s former public works commissioner; Richard Porcelli Sr., 70, of Ronkonkoma, who is Venditto’s longtime campaign manager; Salvatore Cecere, 50, of West Sayville, a town highway maintenance supervisor and Antetomaso’s nephew; Carlo Lizza & Sons Paving Inc. CEO and president Elia Aly Lizza, 69, and his wife Marisa Lizza, 61, both of Oyster Bay Cove, along with the Old Bethpage-based paving company itself.
All of the accused entered not-guilty pleas, with the exception of former town planning and development commissioner Frederick Ippolito, who is dead. Ippolito was charged with 178 crimes, including dozens of counts of felony bribe receiving and misdemeanor official misconduct charges.
The former Syosset resident died June 4 in federal prison at age 78 while serving a tax evasion sentence connected to $2 million in outside consulting fees federal officials said he collected from the Lizzas — including some while a town commissioner — but still was named in two indictments dated June 21.
It was a circumstance his estate’s Garden City attorneys, Brian Griffin and Daniel Russo, later decried as “just plain wrong,” but one Singas’ office said resulted from a special grand jury voting on certain charges before Ippolito’s death. It’s expected the charges will be dropped after the court gets a copy of his death certificate.
Venditto served as Oyster Bay’s supervisor from 1998 until resigning in January following his October arrest in the federal case.
The 68-year-old Republican from North Massapequa didn’t comment on the charges Thursday, but held his head high and smiled while wearing handcuffs as law enforcement officials led him and six other defendants from one Mineola building to another for arraignment before Westchester-based state Supreme Court Justice Charles Wood.
After the judge released him on his own recognizance, Venditto left court and told reporters: “My lawyer already spoke for me but thank you all for the opportunity. I really appreciate it.”
His attorney, Josh Kirshner, said after court that Venditto “plans to fight the charges and we’re confident that he will prevail.”
The Lizzas and their company face among the most serious charges in the case, with husband and wife each charged with 19 felony counts of bribery, 18 felony counts of rewarding official misconduct in the second degree, and two felony counts of defrauding the government in addition to one count each of a misdemeanor conspiracy charge.
Prosecutors have alleged the couple paid Ippolito about $1.6 million in bribes from 2009 to 2016 so Ippolito, as a town commissioner, would help facilitate the construction of a Hicksville senior citizen housing development that would have been known as Cantiague Commons.
Editorial: Public’s trust betrayed in Oyster BayTaxes are high on Long Island. Some of that may be because the powerful steal from the taxpayers. Worse, they steal our trust.
Singas said those funds were some of the same monies at issue in Ippolito’s federal case – with a $400,000 difference because Nassau prosecutors focused on Ippolito’s return to a period of government employment that started in 2009. Before that, he had been a full-time Lizza employee.
Had the Cantiague Commons deal gone through, the Lizzas would have made $22 million in commissions and fees and Ippolito would have made $2 million, Singas said.
The controversy started in 2003 when a Lizza family member proposed rezoning the site of one of their asphalt plants at 455 West John St. in Hicksville to change from a light industrial permit to a residential one so they could construct the senior housing center, Singas said.
The board rejected the proposal until Ippolito, who had returned to Oyster Bay government as the commissioner of planning and development, used his influence over Venditto and lifted roadblocks to make the deal happen, Singas said.
Ippolito gave his approval and recommendation for the town board to pass the rezoning, according to the district attorney.
Meanwhile, Ippolito was working both sides of the deal, according to Singas, even working with Lizza’s contractors to help develop Cantiague Commons.
Then on Dec. 18, 2012, the board passed a series of resolutions, which included the new zoning districts, the construction of the senior center, and authorized the purchase of another plot of land, 50 Engel St., a two-acre lot where the Carlo Lizza & Sons asphalt plant was located, for $2.5 million, Singas said.
Venditto pushed for the purchase of the land, even though there was no use for the property and the family had offered to donate the land in 2011, Singas said. As part of the deal, the board members were promised that the environmental contamination of the land would be remediated before the town took ownership of the property.
Venditto signed the contract to purchase the property, but the deal included clauses that said the property was not fully remediated and limited the Lizzas’ liability to only $100,000, even though cleanup estimates were at $1.3 million, Singas said.
The district attorney described the land as blighted and said heavy industrial equipment littered the area, with five 10,000 gallon oil tanks buried underground, two of which were leaking.
“This left the town on the hook for an unknown financial disaster ... this contract was a sweetheart deal and a giveaway to the Lizzas and a crime against the people of Oyster Bay,” Singas said.
Garden City attorney John Carman, who represents Elia Aly Lizza’s CEO, said Thursday that his client and his client’s wife “engaged in no wrongdoing,” saying federal officials had “exhaustively scrutinized” the transactions in question and “concluded that there is no case.”
Mineola attorney Marc Gann, who represents Marisa Lizza, also said federal authorities did an extensive probe and “found nothing” with which to charge his client and her husband criminally.
Antetomaso, a partner in Mineola engineering consulting company Sidney B. Bowne & Son – which was involved in plans for the Hicksville housing project — faces misdemeanor charges of official misconduct and theft of services. He is also facing a conspiracy charge for allegedly passing information between Elia Aly Lizza and Ippolito after Ippolito’s federal indictment.
Antetomaso’s attorney, Nancy Bartling of Mineola, said Thursday that her client had “dedicated his life to the citizens of Oyster Bay,” and would defend himself vigorously against the charges.
Cecere’s attorney, Joseph Ferri of Garden City, said his client was wrongfully accused because of “who he’s related to,” and hadn’t committed any crimes.
The district attorney said her office’s probe began in the wake of Ippolito’s federal case. She said while Ippolito eventually lost his government post, her office’s investigation showed Venditto “allowed him to continue to exercise great influence over the activities of town government.”
Singas said that included Ippolito’s involvement in allegedly orchestrating the illegal hiring and firing of a town parks department employee who was the son of a woman with whom Ippolito had a romantic relationship.
In that alleged scheme, Porcelli, the deputy executive leader of North Massapequa’s Republican club, faces two official misconduct charges and a count of conspiracy — all misdemeanors.
His Melville attorney, Francis Casale Jr., said Thursday he was sure his client would be exonerated.
Nocerino faces a single misdemeanor charge of official misconduct for his alleged involvement in the matter involving the parks department employee.
His attorney, Christopher Devane of Mineola, said after court that his client was innocent of the charge, and “clearly was caught up in the D.A.’ s quest to get Venditto.”
In another of the alleged schemes, Antetomaso and Cecere face official misconduct and theft of services charges – all misdemeanors.
Singas said Antetomaso was caught on a wiretap asking Cecere to remove a dead tree from his friend’s yard and repair his sidewalk.
The highway maintenance supervisor knew the town’s discounted sidewalk program had ended months earlier, but still had town workers do the job for free as a favor to his uncle last October, Singas said.
The judge released each defendant without setting monetary bail amounts, while ordering some to turn in their passports or abide by travel restrictions.
Venditto has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges that last October also ensnared Republican Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and his wife, Linda. The Manganos also have pleaded not guilty. A federal judge previously set a tentative trial date for January 2018.
In that case, federal authorities have alleged Venditto and Edward Mangano took bribes from a Long Island restaurant owner in exchange for Nassau County contracts and the Town of Oyster Bay guaranteeing millions in loans. They face charges including conspiracy, bribery and honest services wire fraud.
The restaurateur, whom sources previously identified to Newsday as Harendra Singh, allegedly gave Linda Mangano a lucrative, no-show job. She faces charges that include conspiracy to obstruct justice and making false statements in that case.
With William Murphy