The attorney for Harendra Singh, the restaurateur at the center of a scandal in Oyster Bay Town, is the only one giving a full-throated answer to the question everyone is asking. Will Singh sing?
"The government thinks he is a linchpin to political corruption in Nassau County," Joseph Conway said Wednesday as his client was arraigned on a 13-count indictment in U.S. District Court in Central Islip. "But I have told them numerous times that he doesn't have the information that they want."
Is this the truth? Or is it the argument of a defense attorney smartly negotiating for a better deal? Conway's comments were part of a successful pushback against an attempt to have Singh held without bail because federal prosecutors consider him a high risk to flee.
Singh faces multiple criminal counts, including cheating on his taxes and filing a false claim for reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The most stunning part of the indictment, however, is the description of how Singh mixed his personal business with that of Oyster Bay. He is accused of paying bribes to then-deputy town attorney Frederick Mei in exchange for putting town taxpayers on the hook for $32 million in loan guarantees if his hospitality empire -- including lucrative town contracts -- should fail.
What did town officials know?
Singh has been a major player in Nassau County politics for two decades. Did Deputy Town Supervisor Leonard Genova or Supervisor John Venditto have no idea what Singh was up to? Was it just a small clique of GOP officials who ran a rogue operation? At the very least, it undercuts confidence in town officials. To regain trust, Venditto needs to tell us more than that Mei was a "bad apple."
And is Conway correct in suggesting that all of Singh's business with Nassau was at arm's length, despite Singh's longtime friendship with County Executive Edward Mangano? Singh also had Mangano's wife, Linda, on his payroll, and Newsday has reported that the businessman arranged and paid for vacations for the Mangano family.
Mangano appears unconcerned about the federal investigation. Yet he has not denied a Newsday report that he has taken a least one vacation with Singh that the restaurateur arranged and paid for. Mangano has not provided evidence that he reimbursed Singh. Mangano must provide documentation to quell suspicion.
Singh clearly operated in a world in which doing business with government meant giving something back. It's a pervasive culture. Get a contract, give a campaign donation. That's not new. But this business as usual, legal but distasteful, can slide into outright corruption.
Two federal prosecutors zero in on Nassau
Conway also implied that Singh is roadkill in a rivalry between federal prosecutors. Singh's indictment came in the district based in Brooklyn, but it was the prosecutor in Manhattan who brought the case against State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his son, Adam Skelos, that alleges an influence-peddling scheme involving a Nassau County contract. For taxpayers, Conway's argument is baloney. Two federal prosecutors should be considered a blessing. Taxpayers finally are getting serious looks at the corrosive pay-to-play culture of local government. After all, county district attorneys beholden to the political system that nominates and elects them can be too conflicted to be independent watchdogs.
Singh may not be the linchpin to political corruption in Nassau County. In fact, he might have nothing to say. But at least we know there are some prosecutors checking to see if he has a voice.