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Mangano-Venditto trial exposed a rotten political system

Edward and Linda Mangano arrive at federal court

Edward and Linda Mangano arrive at federal court in Central Islip on Thursday. Credit: James Carbone

The mistrial declared Thursday in the federal corruption trial of former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and his wife, Linda, was not unexpected.

Following by one week the acquittal of former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, it confirmed that exhausted jurors could not agree whether prosecutors had met the difficult burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that benefits and goodies the three received were directly connected to influencing official government actions taken by Edward Mangano and Venditto.

There is another verdict, however, one dictated clearly by voluminous testimony in the 12-week trial:

The system stinks to its core.

Odious details revealed by many witnesses showed that governance in Nassau and Oyster Bay, as practiced by the Republican Party that controlled the machinery for so decades, was not primarily about the public good but what was good for the party machine. A jury could not unanimously agree that this behavior was criminal, but it’s still wrong.

The code of conduct for insiders was well known — do something for me, I’ll do something for you. For vendors, it often meant making campaign contributions that would clear the path to landing lucrative contracts. For party operatives and their families, it meant slaving for GOP leaders for years to earn the chance to move up the public-jobs ladder to get higher compensation and perks.

Decades ago, when the GOP ruled Nassau like the heady days of the Roman Empire, the system flourished because it was all about perpetuating the party. As the empire began to crumble in the last two decades, the iron discipline that stopped personal enrichment faded. It all became a rush-fest of how-much-can-I-pocket-for-myself.

The pervasiveness of the culture was personified by Mangano, and to a lesser extent, Venditto. Their sense of entitlement infected the way they governed. The case brought by the U.S. Justice Department showed in how friends and contributors were the primary concern of their elected officials.

Mangano and Venditto were accused of accepting bribes — some large, some numbingly banal — from restaurateur Harendra Singh and in exchange ensuring that Singh received two county concessions contracts and more than $20 million in loans guaranteed by Oyster Bay.

Venditto’s acquittal showed one weakness in the case: What did he get in return for his supposed misdeeds? His defense never refuted testimony that he received limo rides, meals, use of a conference room and free or discounted use of Singh’s restaurants for political events. But that paled in comparison with what prosecutors said the Manganos pocketed. And the government’s claim that the official act he performed, signing the guarantees, was considered the machinations of Frederick Mei, the former deputy town attorney who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and kickbacks.

The quid and the quo didn’t quite line up for the jury. So Venditto’s federal ordeal is over, though a separate state corruption case looms.

The case against Linda and Edward Mangano clearly was more problematic for the jury. There was Linda’s no-show $450,000 job, a massage chair and an office chair, a $7,350 watch for one of the couple’s sons, vacation expenses, numerous free meals and other freebies that in all added up to more than $500,000. But the evidence against her of making false statements apparently was too weak for some jurors.

Figuring out exactly what Edward Mangano did as county executive to favor Singh was more vexing. Most of the benefits Singh got were from Oyster Bay. The Manganos said the bankrupt restaurateur really was their friend of 30 years. But then again, how many friends do people in power have who would give them all that for nothing in return? The jury, seven women and five men, couldn’t agree.

Federal prosecutors said they intend to retry the Manganos. That may be difficult because of Venditto’s acquittal. Not all of this trial testimony from other former Oyster Bay officials may be admissible. Retrials are always tougher because the defense knows the prosecution’s strategy and the weaknesses of witnesses.

Nor is this an instance in which a conviction was overturned because of a technical mistake by the judge or, as in the corruption cases of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a result of the U.S. Supreme Court handing down a much tougher hurdle for prosecutors — that an actual official act must be taken to make a corruption charge stick. Silver was convicted last month at his retrial. Skelos, who used Nassau as a tool to get his son a job with a county vendor, goes back on trial later this month.

Regardless of what comes next, the larger point about systemic corruption in Nassau has already been made.

The way Mangano and Venditto did business in Nassau and Oyster Bay is not the way business should be done in government anywhere. Everybody cashed in; no one had any shame. Remember, no one denied that Singh provided all these goodies; Singh and Mei pleaded guilty to federal crimes and were promised leniency in exchange for their testimony, and former Oyster Bay Deputy Supervisor Leonard Genova was given immunity for his cooperation.

After last fall’s election, GOP leaders lamented that their brand would be tarnished for decades. The recent electoral losses for the GOP in Nassau and Hempstead Town were signals of deep public dissatisfaction. But corruption is not the purview of any one party. Silver is a Democrat, and dozens from his party in the past decade were found guilty of enriching themselves. The Republican machine in Nassau and Oyster Bay is just the most recent example of the mockery of the principle that government is supposed to serve its citizens.

That was the unambiguous verdict delivered in this case.