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Judge to hold hearing on alleged jury bias in Oyster Bay corruption trial

Salvatore Cecere arrives at Nassau County Court in

Salvatore Cecere arrives at Nassau County Court in Mineola on Sept. 20, 2018. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A judge will hold a hearing after finding that “significant questions” exist about whether an Oyster Bay town official got a fair trial, as the defense tries to have Salvatore Cecere's corruption conviction thrown out amid jury bias allegations.

A Nassau County jury in November found Cecere, 51, of West Sayville, illegally diverted town resources to help his uncle's friend with a sidewalk repair. The panel convicted the Oyster Bay highway maintenance supervisor of misdemeanor charges of official misconduct and theft of services.

But State Supreme Court Justice Charles Wood wrote in a May 9 decision, in response to a defense motion, that newfound allegations "raise significant questions" about whether Cecere "received a fair trial from an impartial jury."

The judge said Cecere, who is awaiting sentencing, is entitled to a hearing at which three jurors will be called to testify. The hearing has not been scheduled.

The ruling followed a February motion by the defense alleging jury bias that asked Wood to set aside Cecere's guilty verdict.

"We're pleased by the decision and optimistic that after the hearing that Mr. Cecere will receive a new trial," defense attorney Joseph Ferri said Monday.

The defense argued in its motion that a male juror was biased, including because he had a dispute with his own municipality about a dead tree and lifted sidewalk that the judge found was disturbingly similar to the subject matter of Cecere's trial.

Cecere's lawyer claimed jury deliberations were tainted because that juror withheld information about his own circumstances from the prosecution, defense and judge, and then brought it up during deliberations.

Wood's ruling said the defense also cited alleged statements by at least two jurors during deliberations that Cecere "did not testify because he knew he was guilty," which would be a violation of the defendant's right to remain silent.

The defense got an unsolicited call on the day after the verdict from a different juror, who made allegations about various improprieties, the judge wrote.

An affidavit shows that the female juror said she "could not sleep" after surrendering her "sincere belief" that Cecere was "not guilty" of the accusations after hearing the statements of those two jurors.

She added that the juror who had his own tree problem also said corruption was prevalent in Oyster Bay and that this was "just how they got things done."

The Nassau District Attorney's Office opposed the defense's motion, arguing that trial evidence proved Cecere's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and saying the motion sought to "invade the sacred jury deliberative process," the judge's decision says.

The judge also wrote that the district attorney's office corroborated the existence of the similar tree issue involving a juror after the bias allegations arose, and said the prosecution should make two of its investigators available to testify at the hearing.

Town of Oyster Bay officials said they began pursuing Cecere's "immediate termination" after his conviction. But town spokesman Brian Nevin said Monday that a disciplinary hearing for Cecere, who remains a town employee, won't be held until after his sentencing "so that the hearing officer has all information available prior to rendering a decision."

The same jury that convicted Cecere acquitted his uncle, Frank Antetomaso, of the same charges. 

Prosecutors said Antetomaso, 79, of Massapequa, a former town public works commissioner, called Cecere and asked on a wiretapped call if the town would repair a friend's sidewalk that was damaged by a dead tree.

They said Cecere told Antetomaso 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 it.

The prosecution said Cecere confessed after learning of the wiretap — part of a widespread investigation into alleged corruption in Oyster Bay — that there were no special circumstances to justify the town doing the work for free.

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said after Cecere's conviction that the verdict sent a message that Oyster Bay's "culture of nepotism … will no longer be accepted." 

Her office declined to comment Monday.

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