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OpinionEditorial

On Long Island, patronage breeds corruption

Former Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto

Former Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto at the Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola, where he took a plea on July 26. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The higher someone’s status in the all-controlling Republican Party organization, the more dump trucks the highway department would lease from that person — or his spouse, children and even mother-in-law. It was such a lucrative deal that the right to get these contracts was bequeathed to heirs.

Millions of taxpayer dollars for leaf collection and snow removal vehicles were funneled to 57 GOP committee members and other party workers in this scheme, which was legal because state law required competitive bidding only for equipment purchased, not leased.

“To the victor belongs the spoils,” Harold Haff, then Hempstead highway commissioner, told Newsday in 1975, defending a practice that had been in place since the rise of the postwar Nassau GOP machine, then one of the most effective in the nation at turning out votes and the most prodigious in providing patronage.

Despite numerous federal and county prosecutors over the years trying to make the case that patronage deprives taxpayers of honest, efficient and less costly government, the entrenched class shamefully finds a way to perpetuate itself.

In March, Edward Mangano, a former Nassau County executive, was convicted in federal court of taking gifts from Harendra Singh, a concessionaire for the Town of Oyster Bay. Earlier, John Venditto, that town’s former supervisor, was acquitted of federal charges that he put the town at great financial risk by taking actions to guarantee $20 million in loans to Singh. The limo rides and other small gifts were not enough of a quid pro quo for jurors to accept.

Betrayal of the public’s trust

But it was a case brought by the state that highlighted how Venditto betrayed the public trust. Venditto pleaded guilty on July 26 to the corrupt use of his position and official misconduct because he had enabled Frederick Ippolito, the town’s real power broker, to make money from a zoning change. A year before he died in 2017, Ippolito, had pleaded guilty to evading taxes on $2 million in “consulting fees” while Town of Oyster Bay planning and development commissioner.

Two weeks ago, Hempstead officials disclosed that federal prosecutors are looking into the awarding of concession contracts for the town’s Malibu and Lido beach clubs. Ironically, Butch Yamali, the vendor who holds those contracts, testified for the prosecution at Mangano’s first trial in 2018, saying Mangano passed over Yamali’s more qualified firm in a deal Singh won to provide bread for inmates at the county jail.

This odious model of monetizing government reveals that winning elections is too often not about ideology or best practices. It’s about keeping a party in control so relatives, paramours and campaign contributors can have secure jobs with public pensions, so vendors will buy tickets to overpriced galas, so law firms have clients.

Of those GOP operatives with dump truck leases in 1973, about half bought at least one $150 ticket ($715 in today’s dollars) to a Nassau GOP fundraiser so large it was held at the Nassau Coliseum. The committeemen with the leases were expected to kick back some of those taxpayer dollars to support the machine.

Democratic officials have been guilty, too

This system thrives when there is consistent one-party rule, and the Nassau GOP, which controlled Hempstead for a century, and the county for just a few terms less, had perfected it.

The cascade of corruption charges over the past decades has undoubtedly weakened the GOP’s grip, but Democrats are not without their sins. In North Hempstead, a tax evasion case against then-town Democratic leader Gerard Terry in 2017 revealed he had six local government positions paying him $217,000 a year.

Some progress has been made through open disclosure and anti-nepotisim laws. Yet in 2017, Newsday found that more than 100 officials and politicos from both parties had a family member working in local Nassau governments for a total of $8 million in salaries.

Trouble — when someone gets greedy

Much that happens in transactional government is legal.

In 2017, federal prosecutors in Manhattan declined to bring criminal charges against Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, despite finding a pattern that he had solicited donations from city vendors seeking favors, including Singh. One reason they declined to prosecute was that investigators found no “evidence of personal profit.”

That decision came after a 2016 Supreme Court ruling overturning the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell which made it even tougher to bring federal public corruption charges.

“Our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ballgowns,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote. “It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.” McDonnell had argued that prosecutors were criminalizing the routine favors politicians do for benefactors.

Elected officials get used to a lifestyle on the cuff — free meals, drinks, rounds of golf and royal treatment. This rushing river of entitlement usually ends when someone gets too greedy.

Legendary GOP boss Joseph Margiotta would often opine that patronage was not dishonest. “It’s a fact of life. There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said.

As Nassau County and Hempstead Town GOP chair, Margiotta was one of the most powerful party leaders in the nation.

Yet he, too, fell victim to entitlement. In the 1970s, Margiotta required that county and town insurance business, about $1.5 million in premiums annually, be placed with just one broker. That broker then paid “commissions” of more than $500,000 over nine years to party workers on Margiotta’s list.

John Venditto lost his good name

It took two trials to convict Margiotta. The second, in 1982, succeeded only after federal prosecutors refocused their case to emphasize that one of those GOP committeemen split a $10,000 check with Margiotta, the only evidence he had personally benefited. And it took two federal trials to convict Mangano after prosecutors finally highlighted that Singh gave a no-show job to Mangano’s wife and a $7,300 watch to his son.

But state and federal prosecutors had little concrete evidence that Venditto truly benefited from the scheme to help Mangano’s buddy Singh, or lined his pockets from Ippolito’s conspiracies. Letters to Newsday expressed outrage that he was not fined or sent to jail.

The former Oyster Bay supervisor, like many other elected officials, traded the party’s beneficence in getting him and keeping him in public office for his pliability in perpetuating a corrupt patronage machine.

Venditto’s central casting image of the humble public servant is what was of most value to him. The humiliating crumbling of that facade may be the ultimate punishment.

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