It was the ninth day of deliberations and the jury was making progress toward a unanimous conclusion.
A vote Thursday morning on former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano’s fate — tied to a contract to supply bread and rolls at the Nassau County jail — seemed to signal a verdict was in sight in the federal corruption trial, with jurors leaning 11-1 toward conviction, according to four members of the panel interviewed by Newsday.
Meanwhile, his wife Linda Mangano was likely cruising toward an acquittal on allegations she lied to federal authorities about a $450,000 no-show job they said she got from restaurateur and Oyster Bay Town concessionaire Harendra Singh and conspired to cover it up — one of a slew of bribes the government alleged were traded for county contracts and $20 million in town loan guarantees for Singh.
But a note to the judge from jury foreman Marc Tambassopoulos, an NYPD officer from Hicksville, just before 1 p.m., saying he couldn’t continue to “carry-out” his duties as a juror and asking to be dismissed, caught some jurors by surprise — and ultimately resulted in a declaration of a mistrial by U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack.
“My reaction was like, ‘Mistrial? For what?” said juror No. 4, Anika Smith-Watson, a nurse from Queens. “We were like, ‘What? A mistrial? What are you talking about?’ We were surprised as hell.”
Earlier that day, some jurors said, the panel had bandied about the possibility of asking to deliver a partial verdict of not guilty on all charges for Linda Mangano, but there was still one juror who wanted to review evidence.
And some jurors objected to giving another partial verdict — as they had a week earlier when they acquitted former Town of Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto of any wrongdoing in the alleged loan scheme — and wanted to deliver verdicts on both the Manganos at the same time.
“If we had more time, Linda could’ve been a free woman,” said Kristin Cox, an alternate who replaced an ill juror two days before the mistrial. “When she finds out it was that close, how is that going to feel?”
The jury, in their secret deliberations, had already unanimously decided against convicting Edward Mangano of conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and extortion based on the alleged Oyster Bay loan scheme or on a county emergency food services contract awarded in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, jurors said. The days after Sandy were too hectic for the county executive to worry about getting Singh a contract, jurors said.
Azrack had already given the jury an Allen charge — instructions to keep deliberating — just one day earlier after the foreman sent a note declaring the group deadlocked. So, Smith-Watson said, she figured as they lined up to go back into the courtroom Thursday afternoon, that the judge would just render another Allen charge.
Cox, a lab technician from Bethpage, called the mistrial outcome “extremely frustrating” and said she uttered an expletive to herself upon hearing it.
“We’ve given up a lot in 12 weeks and for it to be worth almost nothing, it’s heart-wrenching,” said Cox, 47. “We didn’t realize someone was going to abruptly drop out. We felt it was safe in waiting at least until the end of the day.”
Speaking outside the Alfonse M. D’Amato United States Courthouse in Central Islip on Thursday after the mistrial was declared, Tambassopoulos explained why he asked to be excused..
“Certain people would not change their viewpoint no matter what,” the jury foreman said. “And I just didn’t feel comfortable sitting on a jury and giving a verdict either way that I didn’t feel comfortable with. And people weren’t willing to compromise or go through certain things of evidence or understand what other jurors were saying so it was just tough, a tough atmosphere.”
Tambassopoulos, who wouldn’t give a numerical breakdown of how the jury was leaning on the Manganos, said he believed they were innocent and that the jury was leaning toward acquitting the pair. He said the panel was “more split” on the former county executive — in contrast to the 11-1 split on Edward Mangano cited by four other jurors in the separate interviews conducted in the days after the trial.
Tambassopoulos, 29, has not answered several phone calls and text messages from Newsday since that interview.
Juror No. 7, a senior operations manager for a car-rental company who lives in Queens and said he commuted up to three hours each day to the trial, spoke to Newsday on the condition his name would not be published. He said he was disappointed that a mistrial was granted, saying nine days of deliberating was not unusual given that there were three defendants and multiple charges.
“He didn’t ask the group,” said juror No. 7, of Tambassopoulos. “He just took it upon himself to do that. . . . We said, ‘Hold on, don’t send the note yet.’ But he got up and just did it.”
Federal prosecutors say they intend to retry the Manganos on all charges.
When the jury of seven women and five men was seated back on March 12, a chilly winter afternoon, they were told the trial would take about six to eight weeks. But it stretched to 12 weeks, taking an enormous toll on members of the panel. One juror scrapped a previously planned Mexican vacation, another dealt with a sick relative and another missed a work trip to Las Vegas. Some jurors battled colds — the sound of coughing punctuated days of testimony — while others dealt with long commutes, trekking to the Central Islip courthouse from Brooklyn and Queens.
The windowless conference room where the jury labored during those nine days was not free of conflict.
“We were arguing, yeah, but we almost became a small family,” said James DiSilvestre, an insurance broker from Huntington, who was juror No. 11. “You’re nice to strangers but you can get into it with your family.”
The five jurors interviewed by Newsday rejected assertions by Kevin Keating, the lead defense attorney for Edward Mangano, that it had become a “toxic” environment, with “name-calling” and “cursing,” based on a note to the judge from the original juror No. 5 asking to be dismissed on Tuesday. The judge sealed the contents of the note from public view and the juror was replaced that day by Cox, after rejecting Keating’s request for a mistrial.
DiSilvestre, 41, said some jurors swore at times out of frustration, but the tenor of discussions never turned hostile.
“There was passionate conversation,” he said. “At certain points, yeah, it did get heated. But you crack a joke and everything goes back to normal.”
Tambassopoulos, too, said the same thing during his courthouse news conference: “Nobody fought with each other. There wasn’t a toxic environment.”
Rather, the jurors interviewed by Newsday described a panel that bonded during their time together, discussing their jobs and family lives. During deliberations, when they couldn’t go to the cafeteria on the first floor of the courthouse for lunch, and had to eat in the conference room where they deliberated, they dined on deli food provided by the court. The chocolate pudding sometimes offered was a wildy popular item.
Smith-Watson, 38, who sat on the front row of the jury box, said she’s been texting in the days since a mistrial was declared with a bulk of her fellow jurors who’ve dubbed themselves “the Mangano jury” and are planning to meet up for dinner soon.
“We came to understand that we are going to butt heads; we are going to disagree,” said Smith-Watson. “But as far as we’re cursing each other out, calling each other names, that didn’t happen.”
Cox likened the interaction during deliberations to quarrels she had with her sister growing up that ended by dinner time when the pair were back to being best friends.
“Nobody was holding grudges,” said Cox, who said she and some of the other jurors were planning a group dinner.
‘On the same page’ on Venditto
The one thing the jurors took little time to settle? The fate of John Venditto on the loan-guarantee and securities fraud charges.
Prosecutors alleged Venditto signed off on the loan guarantees for Singh in exchange for bribes that included free limo rides for himself and various family members and free meals at Singh’s restaurants. Prosecutors also alleged Singh built a conference room in the basement of his flagship restaurant H.R. Singleton’s in Bethpage for Venditto, a smoker, to hold meetings in private and so he didn’t have to go outside to light up.
About an hour or two after the prosecution and the defense rested and the jury began deliberating, the panel discussed the evidence against Venditto and unanimously agreed he was not guilty — no heated debate or prodding required, jurors said.
“We were all kind of on the same page, so we just moved on,” said DiSilvestre, who said he had never heard of Venditto before the trial.
The jury never asked for a single piece of evidence relating to Venditto.
For DiSilvestre, the evidence emphasized by Venditto’s defense attorneys — Marc Agnifilo and Joshua Kirshner — rang true: Frederick Mei, a deputy town attorney who pleaded guilty to receiving bribes from Singh and was cast by the defense as a “rogue attorney” colluding with Singh in secret, swapped a page from one loan agreement and was present when a Singh employee forged Venditto’s name on a loan document. In addition, Leonard Genova, Oyster Bay’s town attorney and deputy supervisor who got immunity from the government in exchange for his testimony, signed for the two last loans and testified that he didn’t read the documents before signing.
“The first one was the legitimate one,” DiSilvestre said of the loan guarantees. “The second one, they swapped out the pages. The third and fourth, they weren’t kept in the comptroller’s office . . . How did you put the Town of Oyster Bay $20 million in debt and the only bribe you’re getting was limo rides?”
Also key to his thinking Venditto was innocent, DiSilvestre said, was Venditto turning down a proffer — an agreement with the government exempting a cooperating witness from criminal charges — and instead coming in for an interview with the FBI and federal prosecutors with no strings attached. It also struck him that Venditto told Genova to tell the truth when he spoke to the FBI, according to testimony from Genova.
“When he came and spoke with the FBI, he said, ‘No, I don’t want one’ . . . he didn’t want a proffer,” said DiSilvestre. “That was a point in his favor . . . . These things hit home for me.”
Any notion of guilt on Venditto’s part was erased for Tambassopoulos by “the whole placeholder agreement and the forged documents,” he said.
“It seemed more like Singh and Mei were the real masterminds behind the whole thing,” Tambassopoulos said of the loan guarantees.
Cox blamed Genova and Mei for the loan guarantees and deemed Venditto “innocent,” not just “not guilty,” she said. “I think, honestly, he was a victim of putting too much faith in the people working for him.”
To Smith-Watson, the much-talked about April 28, 2010, meeting — which prosecutors claimed was called to figure out a way to do the loan guarantees, after an outside lawyer for the town said they were illegal — attended by Venditto, Mangano, Singh and multiple attorneys, was “legal.”
Perhaps the government’s case would have been bolstered by corroborating witnesses who didn’t have agreements with the government, DiSilvestre said, adding that he would have liked to hear from Steven Marx, Venditto’s executive assistant who was on emails and in meetings in which the loan guarantees were discussed, according to evidence and finance officials who testified.
“I just think their witnesses on the John Venditto side weren’t strong,” said DiSilvestre, of the government’s case. “When you sign non-prosecution agreements, you take it with a grain of salt, what they’re saying.”
DiSilvestre also said Genova had a “defensive” posture on the witness stand under cross-examination by Keating and Agnifilo, and sounded “rehearsed.”
‘Heated’ discussion on Linda Mangano
After Venditto was decided, the jurors shifted focus to Linda Mangano, feeling that her part of the case was smaller and would be, perhaps, decided more quickly. But discussions about her were sometimes contentious.
“Anytime we discussed Linda, not in the beginning but towards the end, it really got heated,” said DiSilvestre. “Some people felt strongly that she was not guilty. There were not many guilties for her.”
DiSilvestre said he found testimony from Special Agent Laura Spence — who helped interview Linda Mangano three times — credible, but he wanted to see the 302s, which are FBI interview reports that were not part of the trial’s evidence, but were referenced in testimony.
Cox said she viewed the alleged false statements by Linda Mangano as “really more exaggerations.”
“We never knew what the questions were, so it was hard to take anything in context,” said Cox.
Still, DiSilvestre vacillated on Linda Mangano.
“At the beginning, I thought she was guilty,” he said. “But then towards the end I switched to not guilty. Then the morning of [the mistrial ruling], we got the evidence of the call logs, and I was thinking of changing it back to guilty again.”
Juror No. 7 said he planned to vote not guilty on all charges for Linda Mangano, saying some of the answers she gave were subjective.
“One of the issues was that we didn’t have the questions the government asked her,” he said.
Singh, the self-described “restaurant mogul” who spent 13 days on the witness stand — during which he lamented his blood sugar was low and shed tears when his elderly parents were mentioned — was another questionable source in the minds of jurors.
“I wasn’t going to take anything he said at face value,” said DiSilvestre.
Keating emphasized the decadeslong friendship between Singh, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to bribing Mangano and Venditto as part of a cooperation agreement with the government. He explained away the many gifts — office and massage chairs, a $7,300 Panerai Luminor watch for one of the Manganos’ sons, wood flooring for Edward and Linda Mangano’s bedroom and trips to Turks and Caicos, Florida and upstate — that Singh lavished on the Manganos as simply gifts from a friend, not bribes.
And that was effective, said Tambassopoulos: “To me, they were best friends of 30 years and if I’m friends with somebody for 30 years and I’m rich and I want to give my friend a present, to me it’s just a gift, a birthday gift. How you gonna say that’s a bribe?”
DiSilvestre also wasn’t much moved by the prosecution on that point.
“The gifts, the chairs, I didn’t really put much stock in the chairs,” said DiSilvestre. “The flooring, that’s a little weird gift to somebody. I didn’t know what to make of that.”
And all the prosecution’s witnesses about the Manganos and Venditto getting free food from Singh — and Edward Mangano and top Nassau officials getting “special food” at the Office of Emergency Management during Sandy, DiSilvestre said: “They wasted their time with that. That’s just Singh being a big shot.”
But didn’t it put a bad taste in the jury’s mouth — top officials feasting on shrimp and steak while the regular workers got sandwiches?
“We never really thought of it that way,” said DiSilvestre. “It’s just Singh being Singh. He’s gotta show he’s the big guy.”
The jury was getting close to convicting Edward Mangano on the bread and rolls contract, DiSilvestre said, because prosecutors had good witnesses to corroborate what Singh said.
“Linda Mills, I thought she was phenomenal,” DiSilvestre said, referring to the longtime Nassau County purchasing employee who testified about the contract. “She verified what Singh said. She’s a legitimate witness who has no reason to lie, same thing with [purchasing department employee Michael] Schlenoff, just telling their story. So when you have a legitimate witness, now I can believe Singh.”