This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Scott Eidler and David M. Schwartz. It was written by Eidler.
Political officeholders, consultants and others who for years operated in the same political sphere as former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, his wife, Linda, and former Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto said their federal corruption trial was a peek behind the curtain into a system that operates on familiarity and whom you know.
The 12-week trial ended in a mistrial Thursday after jurors failed to reach a consensus on the charges against the Manganos. A week earlier, the jury had acquitted Venditto.
The trial offered a rare glimpse into the mixing of politics, friendships and business that permeates Long Island governments, according to observers and participants. The details might have been new, but the portrait of the Republican-controlled Nassau and Oyster Bay government that emerged — special treatment for special people — was familiar.
Cooperating witnesses, including former Oyster Bay Deputy Town Attorney Frederick Mei, testified about the town’s pay-to-play culture. Want to get a job in the town? Mei said residents understood they would need to register with the GOP, attend party fundraisers, and take other actions “in furtherance of the Republican Party.”
Contractors wanting to do business with the town, Mei said, were also expected to sweeten the pot with bribes to top officials. The town, Mei testified, even had a name for the corrupt practices: “The Oyster Bay Way.”
Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works primarily for Republicans, said the trial revelations were far from surprising.
“The system allows people to push the envelope and when confronted to offer the well-worn expression — ‘We’ve always done it that way,’ ” he said.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said Long Island is not unique as the host to recent high-profile corruption cases. But its population and small-town feel make for a frequent mixing of business and personal interests.
“I’m not saying Long Island is that much different than any other level of government from the beginning of time. It’s big, but it’s a small town, a lot of people know each other.
“There’s a lot of influence and power on Long Island, in the best sense, a lot of very successful people,” King said.
“People that you grew up with, people whose kids went to school with you are there in business, and the other person gets elected to office. It could be easy for those lines to be crossed if there’s not strict red lines, and I think that’s what this is all about.”
The trial focused on the dominance of the Republican Party in Nassau and Oyster Bay. At one point, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz described Mangano and Venditto as “the most powerful men in Nassau County,” and referred to “the corrupt Nassau County political machine.”
For decades, political parties on Long Island have held enormous sway in the business of governing, creating relationships that help keep them in power. Leaders select candidates for judgeships, and federal, state, and local offices. Beyond that, faithful volunteers and committee members are often rewarded with patronage jobs.
Republicans, who have a majority on the Nassau County Legislature, control the awarding of lucrative public contracts. And vendors in Nassau, and other municipalities, are frequent contributors to the campaigns of public officials and powerful party committees.
‘Politics run as a business’
Craig Burnett, an assistant professor of political science at Hofstra University, said that when elected officials enjoy a “guaranteed victory so to speak,” or a “safe winning percentage, that gives you a little more leeway with what you do with the public’s money and how the public trusts you.”
Burnett noted that “some of this is uniquely New York in that it’s part of the political culture here, that there’s sort of this expectation that politics is run as a business.”
U.S. District Judge Joan M. Azrack scheduled a June 28 status conference to set a new trial.
A jury on May 24 cleared Venditto, 68, of North Massapequa, on 27 counts that included federal program bribery, honest-services wire fraud and securities fraud.
The charges against Edward Mangano, 56, of Bethpage, included federal program bribery, honest-services wire fraud, and extortion. Linda Mangano, 54, also of Bethpage, was charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and making false statements to the FBI. The jury foreman said jurors had been leaning toward acquittal for Linda Mangano and had been “evenly split” on Edward Mangano.
Jim Morgo, a land-use consultant and a former Suffolk County chief deputy county executive, said he frequently attends political fundraisers for all levels of local government, and some donors are looking to gain access to officials. Morgo said it’s commonly regarded in the political world as an acceptable practice.
“But there’s no question in my mind that others see it differently, and they expect more than simply access,” he said.
Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk chief deputy county executive and longtime counsel to the Suffolk County Legislature, said even with Venditto’s acquittal, the testimony highlighted a system in which officials write bids for preferred vendors and seek favors from contractors.
“It confirms the notion that they’re not operating in the best interest of the taxpayers,” Sabatino, an attorney in private practice in Huntington Station, said of some local officials. “It’s about nepotism. It’s about jobs. It’s about contracts.”
Witnesses, including former restaurateur Harendra Singh, the linchpin to the prosecution’s case, painted a murky picture of Nassau’s contracting process.
Witnesses testified that a 2012 bread-and-rolls contract for the county jail was set to go to a lower bidder until Rob Walker, Mangano’s chief deputy county executive, who is facing unrelated federal corruption charges, intervened and the work went to a bakery run by Singh’s wife, Ruby. The bakery run by Singh’s wife ultimately abandoned the contract, saying it didn’t have the capacity to fulfill the requirements.
Harendra Singh also won a no-bid contract to provide meals to emergency service workers after superstorm Sandy, even though witnesses said the contract was set to go to a competing vendor and Singh was not among one of three companies that a senior county purchasing official recommended for the work.
In recent years, Long Island municipalities have implemented anti-corruption measures such as the disclosure of relationships to other government employees in an effort to prevent nepotism; gift bans for municipal employees dealing with contracts; and the disclosure of contractors’ substantial tax debts.
Last year, the Suffolk Legislature passed a bill that would allow public financing of county campaigns beginning in 2021.
Bill sponsor Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), the legislature’s deputy presiding officer, said the aim is to create more competitive elections. The legislation would increase the value of small-dollar donors from inside a lawmaker’s district by providing a 4-to-1 public match on contributions of up to $250.
“I think what people need to gain trust in public officials again is a sense that they have a role in electing them,” Calarco said. “The reality is there’s a real sense among the electorate that their vote doesn’t matter and candidates are picked by the powers that be.”
A bill by Republican Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) that would restrict the size of donations from county contractors, vendors and public employee unions has failed to receive enough votes to get out of a legislative committee. The measure would limit donations to $2,000 for countywide campaigns or $500 for legislative races.
Some experts and policymakers have suggested changing the state’s gift laws, noting the difficulty federal prosecutors have in prosecuting bribery cases after a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The court unanimously overturned the public corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who along with his wife, Maureen, had been charged with honest-services fraud and extortion related to their acceptance of $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from a Virginia businessman.
The court, in its decision, narrowed what actions could be considered an “official act” that could expose public officials to corruption charges.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the court’s 8-0 decision that “our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute. A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court.”
A New York State bill sponsored in July 2016 by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) would make it a state crime — a Class E felony — for public officials to receive or give any benefit or gift greater than $3,000 because of that person’s position.
“There’s only a corrupt reason to give an elected official such a gift unless you happen to be their best friend from childhood,” Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, said in an interview.
He pointed to the allegation in the trial that Singh gave one of Mangano’s sons a $7,300 luxury Panerai Luminor watch. “I think it’s clear no one is giving Ed Mangano’s son a watch because they like his style and they like his jokes,” Kaminsky said.
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), a former Nassau County executive, said corruption occurs at “all levels of politics.”
Suozzi, a former Glen Cove mayor, referred to past scandals in New York City and the politics of Chicago.
“Lack of competition and politics leads to people making messes,” Suozzi said. “You can’t just have elected officials feeling that no matter what they do, they’re going to get re-elected. It just makes people less likely to follow the rules.”
Old Westbury Village Mayor Fred Carillo, a Republican, is a commercial builder managing his own properties. He said his reaction to the trial was that corruption “is pervasive. People get in there long enough, and it’s hubris. Hubris.”
Asked whether the corruption was a cultural problem within Long Island’s municipalities, he said: “I think it was just the Town of Oyster Bay, and I think it’s two different situations. The Town of Oyster Bay I felt was corrupt, and as far as Mangano, I think he felt he was entitled to some perks. It’s hubris.”
Lewis Yevoli, a Democratic former assemblyman and Oyster Bay Town supervisor who worked with Venditto as his town attorney, said the system could benefit from imposing term limits on political officer-holders. “Constant turnover” is the solution, he said.
The political system, “has to change,” Yevoli said, “because the public is justifiably incensed by everything they read, and they’re right.”