The trial of former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, his wife, Linda, and Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto for corruption began on Wednesday in Central Islip as prosecutors gave their opening statement.
A federal prosecutor said that Mangano accepted gifts from restaurateur Harendra Singh in order to maintain a lavish lifestyle after he took a $114,000 pay cut to run Nassau County, according to Newsday. Because of that, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz said, the Manganos accepted vacations, gifts and a no-show job for which Linda Mangano was paid $450,000.
Venditto and the Manganos also received free meals at Singh’s restaurants in return for contracts and loan guarantees, prosecutors said.
All three have pleaded not guilty.
The defense attorneys were scheduled to give their statements Wednesday afternoon.
Craig Burnett, a professor of political science at Hofstra University, said on Tuesday that the defense would likely try to undermine Singh, who confessed to bribing public officials in documents unsealed by prosecutors earlier this year. He is expected to take the stand on Thursday and will be cross-examined next week, according to Newsday.
“It will come down to whether the jury believes that Singh is telling the truth and is not just somebody out for retribution,” Burnett said.
He said that Singh’s claims that he tried to bribe a New York City official – identified in news reports as Mayor Bill de Blasio — could affect the case in Nassau County.
“He has made claims about de Blasio, and if he can’t show his bribes or illegal dealings with de Blasio, that might cast doubt on his dealings with Mangano,” he said. “There has to be a solid witness and … actual corroborating evidence.”
Federal authorities said they were able to obtain the latter on Mangano’s underling, former Nassau County Deputy Executive Richard “Rob” Walker. The FBI received an envelope containing a $5,000 payment that Walker had tried to return to a contractor, prosecutors said. According to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office, Walker tried to return the money after learning he was under investigation by federal authorities.
In February, Walker was charged with obstruction of justice and making false statements. He has pleaded not guilty.
“Typically these cases take a while to build, so by the time you find out someone is watching you, it’s probably too late,” Burnett said.
Even with all the evidence that has been gathered on Nassau officials, Burnett said, prosecutors have struggled recently to get convictions in corruption cases.
“With other cases like [Sen. Bob] Menendez, it is harder to prove bribery,” he said. “Prosecutors have been having a hard time getting a conviction to stick, even if there is a mountain of evidence.”
Burnett said corruption cases had become harder to prove due to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. In a case involving former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the court narrowed the definition of what constitutes corruption for a public official. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that acts such as receiving money to arrange a meeting or to tell an underling to consider a matter did not count as corruption.
The decision was cited by a federal appeals panel in the decision to overturn the 2015 corruption convictions of Dean Skelos, the former majority leader in the New York Senate, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
But Roberts also wrote that public officials could still be prosecuted for “concrete” actions, such as filing a lawsuit or awarding a contract.
Burnett said he was unsure whether the case against Mangano and Venditto was strong enough for either to face jail time. But he said the trial would continue to generate bad publicity for Nassau Republicans as long as it continues.
“You have a case that will generate headlines as long as it is going on,” he said. “It could be six months to a year, or possibly even longer, of negative headline after headline … it might accelerate the county’s shift toward the Democrats.”