The multiple-count indictment of two of Long Island’s most prominent elected officials is stunning only in the pettiness of the gifts allegedly taken in return for the betrayal of taxpayers. Official corruption all too often seems like the official order of business.
The bribery, kickback and lying charges brought against Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto by the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District have not been proven, and until they are, the defendants deserve the presumption of innocence. But the behavior alleged in the indictment is reprehensible and a betrayal of their oaths as public servants.
Because they can’t fulfill their duties while they contend with these federal charges, Mangano and Venditto should step down.
Long Island is so awash in conflicts of interest and outright stealing that it’s keeping the public corruption divisions of two of the largest U.S. attorney’s offices in the nation working overtime. Federal prosecutors looking into this nexus of political power, money and misbehavior already have convicted Suffolk Police Chief James Burke, Suffolk Conservative Party head Edward Walsh, Town of Oyster Bay Planning Commissioner Frederick Ippolito and State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
And disgust with politics as usual, whether it is criminal conduct or just the shady pay-to-play culture that seems to have become the rule rather than the exception, extends far beyond Long Island. Americans are sick of insider abuses, which are the reason voters seem to be clamoring for a wholesale change in our political culture. People feel the system isn’t working for anyone but the anointed and connected, and instances like this prove them right.
These newest charges accuse Mangano of receiving gifts, including a massage chair marketed as a way to relieve stress. His wife, Linda Mangano, is accused of earning $450,000 in a no-show job. In return for these gifts, the indictment says Mangano gave lucrative contracts to restaurateur Harendra Singh, who is cooperating with prosecutors. But Singh apparently got even more favors from Oyster Bay, a town drowning in red ink. Venditto is accused of receiving bribes and kickbacks in return for, among other things, authorizing $20 million in loan guarantees for Singh’s restaurant businesses that taxpayers may be on the hook for.
If the allegations behind the charges seem familiar, it’s because Newsday has been uncovering and reporting on these scandals for more than a year. Newsday also uncovered a shabby system in which Mangano granted no-bid, no-work contracts to politically connected contractors at just under the $25,000 level that would have required the approval of the county legislature.
Even under fire, Mangano and Nassau County Legislature Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves have refused to take steps, such as creating an independent inspector general, that might prevent such abuses.
Venditto and the Manganos also are charged with obstruction of justice after allegedly lying to federal agents during the investigation. That charge is a powerful tool in the federal criminal code. Lying to local law enforcement officials also should become a state crime so district attorneys can be more aggressive about rooting out malfeasance.
Mangano springs from the same Oyster Bay political machine as Venditto and Ippolito. With Burke and Walsh, he also shares a connection to regular poker nights at Oheka Castle, owned by businessman and power broker Gary Melius. Among other matters, a grand jury is probing the finances of Melius’ family foundation and his connections to Steven Schlesinger, former counsel to Nassau Democrats.
What’s emerging from federal prosecutors is an attempt to shut down the game, not just throw out a few players.
If Mangano steps down — something he has said he will not do and Gonsalves has said she will not push — the GOP-controlled county legislature would pick an executive to serve until the 2017 election. To put people before politics, we suggest a competent administrator, an elder statesman or woman, willing to do it for a year — someone who promises not to run for the job when the seat opens in 2017.
As for Oyster Bay, where the supervisor’s race will also be in 2017, Venditto won by just 99 votes last year. Voters were furious that Ippolito took $2 million from a town paving contractor and got in trouble only for failing to pay taxes on it.
Oyster Bay’s disastrous finances don’t help Venditto’s case for staying on, either. The town, too, needs a new, competent leader through 2017, not a party hack. But a town spokesman said if Venditto resigns, politically connected town attorney and Deputy Supervisor Leonard Genova, whose office signed off on the $20 million in loan guarantees and whose employee had to resign over those guarantees, would assume control.
We cannot abide new players coming in to maintain the same old playbooks in Nassau County or Oyster Bay. We need a game change.