A jury decided Tuesday that an Oyster Bay official illegally diverted town resources to help his uncle’s friend with a sidewalk repair, while it acquitted his uncle in the first of three corruption cases Nassau prosecutors have brought against people with ties to the municipality.
The panel found Salvatore Cecere, 51, of West Sayville, the town’s highway maintenance supervisor, guilty of misdemeanor charges of official misconduct and theft of services. They found a former Oyster Bay public works commissioner, Frank Antetomaso, 78, of Massapequa, who is Cecere’s uncle, not guilty of the same offenses.
Prosecutor Robert Cavallo told jurors in his closing argument the case was “not about a sidewalk,” but “about whether we can trust our public servants to do what they’re supposed to do by treating the constituents that they serve equally and fairly under the law.”
He also replayed a wiretapped call between the defendants, a key piece of evidence in the trial.
“Today’s verdict justifies our belief from the beginning that this was a case that should have never been prosecuted,” said Antetomaso’s attorney, Joseph Conway.
Cecere’s attorney, Joseph Ferri, made a motion to set aside the guilty verdict, calling it “inconsistent” with Antetomaso’s acquittal.
But State Supreme Court Justice Charles Wood denied the motion, while saying he didn’t plan to impose any jail time on Cecere at his January sentencing. By law, Cecere could face up to a year behind bars, according to prosecutors.
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a statement the verdict “sends a strong message that the culture of nepotism in the Town of Oyster Bay will no longer be accepted.”
Singas said the town’s taxpayers “have suffered for many years, while those in power routinely helped their friends and families,” and added that her office “is committed to rooting out corruption in this county.”
Prosecutors had alleged Antetomaso, then the principal of an engineering firm with town contracts, called Cecere in August 2016 and asked if the town would repair a friend’s sidewalk, damaged by a dead tree.
They said Cecere told Antetomaso on the wiretapped call that a program subsidizing homeowners’ costs for sidewalk repairs had ended, but he would handle the work as a favor and then arranged for town workers to do so at the property on Greenwood Drive in Massapequa.
Cecere confessed after learning of the wiretap that there were no special circumstances to justify the town doing the work for free, according to the prosecution.
Cavallo suggested Tuesday that investigators didn’t tape Cecere’s alleged confession because it would have spooked him at a time when they believed he could have other information about potential corruption in the town.
Ferri defended Cecere in his closing argument by saying his client “didn’t break the rules,” but “did what he was supposed to do.” He also said there was no “freebie” as the government had alleged because homeowner Philip Vella paid a bill when he got it, although it had been delayed by red tape.
Evidence showed the bill was dated less than a month after the defendants’ June 2017 arrests.
Ferri also emphasized that investigators didn’t make a recording of his client when he spoke with them, saying there was “no confession” and the lack of other evidence added up to “reasonable doubt.”
Both Ferri and Conway pointed to the testimony of Oyster Bay’s deputy highway commissioner, John Bishop, who said Vella got no special treatment and that Cecere had to act as he did when he learned of what Bishop called a tripping hazard.
But Cavallo said Tuesday that Bishop “wasn’t credible” and had “an agenda” to protect Cecere or the town.
“I don’t know the reason,” the prosecutor added. “Is it because he just got promoted to that position very shortly after some political donations?”
Cavallo also pointed out that Antetomaso said on the wiretapped call the sidewalk was raised, but not a tripping hazard. The prosecutor claimed the repair bill went out after the arrests because the town needed “to scramble and make right what was wrong.”
But Conway argued that if investigators had checked town records before making arrests, they would have found documentation of the sidewalk job and “nothing devious.”
Conway also said the wiretapped call, in which his client didn’t ask for any favors or make any demands, showed Antetomaso was innocent.
“Zero. That’s the evidence they have,” Conway said of prosecutors.
An Oyster Bay spokeswoman said in an email after Cecere’s conviction that the municipality “will pursue immediate termination” of the employee. The town didn’t comment on Antetomaso’s acquittal.
With Ted Phillips