Probes, Prosecutors & Party Politics: The Murky Battle For Hempstead Town Heats Up

Kestenbaum and Santino
Off To The Races: Democrat Rita Kestenbaum (L) is battling Republican Anthony Santino (R) for Hempstead Town Supervisor, while fellow Republican Nasrin Ahmad (far right) is facing off against against Democrat Dino Amoroso (below) for Town Clerk.

The Town of Hempstead takes center stage in this fall’s election on Nov. 3 as Nassau County’s oldest bastion of Republican Party power looks poised to replace its longtime supervisor, Kate Murray, with town board member Anthony Santino. It’s the county’s only township with a vacancy at the top because the incumbent is leaving the job she’s had for 12 years to run against acting Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, a Democrat.

Murray, who’s never been a prosecutor, may have her hands full fending off a strong challenge from Singas, given her extensive prosecutorial background, but Santino has been on the town board for 22 years and his Democratic opponent, Rita Kestenbaum, served one term 15 years ago.

Despite Hempstead having almost 35,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans—214,131 to 179,394, according to the Nassau County Board of Elections’ most up-to-date information—the effort to wrest control of town hall has been likened to the Biblical battle of David vs. Goliath, since the Republicans have towered over Long Island’s most populous township for more than a century. Few impartial observers expect that office to change hands.

“Hempstead Town’s middle class families and seniors recognize good and responsive government that holds the line on taxes and provides outstanding municipal services and programs for pennies on the tax dollar,” says Matt Coleman, a Republican campaign spokesman for Santino. “We believe that they will return Team Santino to office again this November. He has experience that is unsurpassable by any candidate running for municipal office on Long Island.”

Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs didn’t see it that way.

“While we don’t have the resources that the Republicans do, I think the mood is shifting in Nassau County because of all the corruption, and people are sick and tired of it,” Jacobs said. “Rita has experience as a town-wide elected councilwoman … She’s a formidable individual in her own right.”

One of the first Democrats elected to the Hempstead Town Board since 1905, Kestenbaum started the Carol Kestenbaum Foundation in 2007 to help young women and men with programs on building self-esteem and suicide prevention. It’s named in honor of  her daughter, an education major who was murdered while a student at Arizona State University.

The Hempstead Town Clerk race pits incumbent Nasrin Ahmad, a Republican from Salisbury, against longtime Lynbrook resident, Dino Amoroso, the CEO and president of Nassau OTB when Democrat Tom Suozzi was Nassau County executive, who recently was a former chief deputy prosecutor for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes, a Democrat.

Dino Amoroso Charles Hynes
Democratic Hempstead Town Clerk candidate Dino Amoroso (L) was deputy district attorney in disgraced former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes’ office. Both were named in a 27-page New York City Department Of Investigation report into potential misconduct.

Complicating matters in that contest are accusations that Ahmad is a beneficiary of the Republican patronage machine and implications that Amoroso played a key role in an alleged corruption scandal that ultimately tarnished Hynes’ administration.

Born in Uganda, Ahmad came to the U.S. in 1984 and became a citizen in 1990. She started as a file clerk in Hempstead in 1998, and was appointed town clerk in September 2013. She replaced Hempstead Town Clerk Mark Bonilla, who resigned after being convicted of a misdemeanor for threatening a male employee with a job transfer if he reportedly didn’t get him compromising photos of a female employee who had accused Bonilla of sexual harassment. Bonilla had been clerk for a decade. He appealed the 2013 misconduct conviction but last month an appellate court upheld it.

Longtime Hempstead Democratic activist Bob Young criticized the town board for replacing Bonilla with Ahmad, “who represents a group of Republicans who pay to play,” so that she could be the incumbent before the 2013 election. For a month, the post had been held by the first deputy clerk, Phil Guarnieri, but he didn’t get the party’s nod for the full-time job. Young praised Bonilla for going out of his way to help him and his wife fix a problem with their passport that could have prevented them from going on a vacation they’d won. He didn’t think much of Ahmad’s tenure, and had tried hard to get her unseated in 2013 by supporting her Democratic challenger, Jasmine Garcia Vieux. Ahmad won a close race, 52 percent to 48 percent, with only a little more than 5,500 votes separating them on Election Day in 2013.

Amoroso originally started working for the Brooklyn DA in 1991 and returned to Hynes’ Kings County District Attorney’s office in June 2010. Hynes was the prosecutor who was praised for “tracking down the white mob that killed a black man one terrible night in Howard Beach, Queens,” as Michael Powell put it in The New York Times, in June 2014. That same week the city’s Department of Investigation had issued its 27-page report detailing Hynes’ alleged violations of the New York City charter and its conflict of interest provisions. Among the claims, Hynes allegedly paid Mortimer Matz, a press flack, more than $200,000 from forfeiture funds to advise him on his re-election campaign—a no-no.

New York City Department of Investigation Hynes Report

During an 18-month period preceding the November 2013 election, the DOI report says that the Brooklyn DA “extensively” used his official email “for purposes relating to his reelection campaign.” He sent emails to Barry Kamins, chief administrative judge for NYC’s criminal courts, as well as to Amoroso, his deputy district attorney.

As the DOI puts it, “several KCDA staff members engaged in political activity related to Hynes’ reelection campaign, using city resources on city time.” Amoroso was among them.

On a Thursday afternoon in July 2013, Hynes sent Amoroso an email telling him that “I want you to attend the strategy meeting” at the office of his campaign manager, Dennis Quirk.

Here’s another telling exchange as included in the DOI report. On Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 10:15 a.m.: “Amoroso sends an e-mail with the subject line ‘Labor, County and GOTV’ to Hynes. Amoroso appears to respond to a message sent to him from Hynes, in which Hynes writes, in relevant part: ‘On Thursday I want you to do a lot of listening and offer advice only when you’re asked…Dennis respects your political acumen but I want him to begin to see the managerial, administrative and organizational skills you developed at OTB. If my long shot option is viable this will be particularly important. Joe.’

Amoroso’s message reads, “‘Understood, loud and clear.’”

In its conclusion, the DOI says its investigation has “substantiated…possible violations of Chapter 68 of the New York City Charter by Hynes and other senior members of his KCDA staff, including… Dino Amoroso.” It adds that its investigation also “describes possible criminal conduct with respect to the personal services Matz provided to Hynes, which appear to have been paid for, at least in part, from KCDA state forfeiture funds.” Half of the invoices Matz submitted were “directed to the attention of Dino Amoroso, who was at the relevant time the KCDA Deputy District Attorney.”

The DOI cited relevant sections from the City Charter and the Conflict of Interest Board. In one, it quoted that “no public servant shall engage in any business, transaction or private employment, or have any financial or other private interest, direct or indirect, which is in conflict with the proper discharge of his or her official duties.” In another example the DOI said that “it shall be a violation of City Charter…for any public servant to use city letterhead, personnel, equipment, resources, or supplies for any non-city purpose.” Regarding Hynes’ payments to Matz, the DOI concluded that they “may implicate the larceny provisions contained in Article 155 of the Penal Code.”

As of now, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District (Preet Bharara’s office) and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have announced that they are investigating the matter, but no charges have been filed. In the meantime, city taxpayers have reportedly “shelled out nearly $25 million for wrongful convictions obtained and upheld under former district attorney Charles Hynes,” according to The Brooklyn Paper’s Noah Hurowitz.

As for Amoroso, neither he nor his former Kings County colleagues have been charged. In his only known previous brush with politically motivated entanglements, Amoroso was “cleared in tit-for-tat vote-fraud rap,” as the New York Post poetically put it in a 2005 headline, after he’d been accused of committing voter fraud by registering to vote in Queens at his parents’ house in Kew Gardens while living in Lynbook. The Queens DA found that Amoroso “may choose residence for purpose of voting with which he has legitimate, significant and continuing attachments.” The charge had come about because Hynes’ office had convicted a former political rival, John O’Hara, on similar charges and Mark Peters, then running against the Brooklyn DA, had gone after Amoroso for political payback.

In January 2006, Amoroso was appointed president and CEO of Nassau OTB by Nassau Democrats. He was replaced in 2010 by Joseph Cairo, a top operative in Nassau GOP chairman Joe Mondello’s Republican machine. Cairo had been disbarred in 1994 for diverting “at least $900,000” from his clients’ trust funds, according to Newsday. Cairo was readmitted to the bar in January 2007, and the tax liens were reportedly cleared up.

At the time of the switch, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano criticized Suozzi’s OTB administrator for running the operation “into the ground,” claiming that its profit to the country had declined from $16 million in 2003 to “an embarrassing $5.3 million” when Mangano ousted Amoroso. Handling the paperwork to get rid of him at the behest of the three new Republican OTB directors was Christopher Ostuni, Mondello’s son-in-law.

Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs disputed Mangano’s math, claiming that under Amoroso’s leadership, OTB “was making money when we turned it over. Then we began losing money.”

Jacobs said that “the reason we put Dino in is because he was a prosecutor. He cleaned that place up. Every year he ran it, he ran it with a substantial profit… He’s certainly demonstrated that he can run things and run them well.”

A source with long-term ties to Nassau OTB told the Press that Amoroso’s record there was not so stellar, nor was Cairo’s, for that matter. The source, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, expressed amazement that Amoroso’s tenure could be portrayed as positive on his resume.

For now, Amoroso has a private practice in Manhattan. His candidacy for Hempstead Town clerk has the firm backing of his Democratic Party leader, Jay Jacobs.

“I don’t believe in guilt by association,” Jacobs tells the Press. “Nothing was ever charged related to Dino. I think Joe Hynes has his problems. Dino worked there, that was his employer.”

Jacobs said he discussed the Hynes charges with Amoroso and said that the former deputy DA believes he stayed within the law.

“Whether he felt comfortable about it the whole time or not, that’s really not the issue,” said Jacobs. “I think that he would make an outstanding clerk, and I think he’s done formidable work as a public servant.”

Amoroso told the New York Post that the DOI report “found no wrongdoing” on his part.

In his campaign for town clerk, Amoroso is promising more transparency and increased efficiency—while never once mentioning his former employer at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office by name in his numerous campaign bios.

As for who should oversee Hempstead Town’s $436 million budget, the voters in Long Island’s most populous township will have to decide how best to get things done, considering the town’s cash reserves have deteriorated and its bond rating has been lowered dramatically by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, which revised the town’s outlook from “stable” to “negative.” Besides the supervisor vacancy, three council seats currently held by Republican incumbents are on the ballot this election. Of the six seats on the town board, only one is held by a Democrat, Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, and she’s not up for re-election.