Ex-Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto were alternately described as scammers and victims of overzealous investigators Wednesday during opening statements of their corruption trial at Central Islip federal court.
Prosecutors previewed for the jury the evidence that will be seen and testimony that will be heard, including that of their star witness, Harendra Singh, a former restaurateur at the center of the case, while defense attorneys argued that Singh’s word can’t be trusted because he struck a plea deal.
“This is a case about corruption and greed at the highest levels of county government,” Lara Gatz, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, told the jury. “They took obstruction to the next level by pressuring Singh to lie to FBI agents.”
Mangano was charged with giving Singh county contracts in exchange for giving Magano’s wife, Linda, a no-show job, and other favors. Linda is charged with obstruction of justice. Venditto is charged with backing Singh’s loans — used to pay for renovations to restaurants he ran in a town contract — with taxpayer money.
Mangano “sold himself and his office to maintain a lifestyle he and his wife Linda thought they were entitled to,” Gatz said, noting that Mangano took a $114,000 pay cut when he was elected county exec and no longer worked as a private attorney. She said Linda Mangano made $100,000 as a “food taster” for Singh’s restaurant to get them back to their “pre-executive income.”
Mangano’s lawyer, Kevin Keating, countered that Mangano and Singh were friends for decades before Mangano was elected county exec and before Singh owned a chain of restaurants.
“There are two sides to Harendra Singh,” Keating said. “Without Harendra Singh there is no case, and he lied every day of his life.”
Keating added: “A man incapable of telling the truth is the centerpiece of the government’s case. The heart and soul of their case, a man with neither heart or soul.”
When Mangano took office, “Singh saw opportunity,” Keating said. He had expectations and believed he’d get benefits from Nassau County, but he miscalculated. He defended Linda’s no-show job by saying it was all Singh’s idea to put her on his payroll, and it’s ridiculous to think that Ed Mangano made the request.
“Singh saw opportunity to do business the same way he had always been doing it, and offered Linda Mangano a job,” Keating said. “Who wouldn’t take a job from Singh?” He described Linda’s job as “perfectly legal.”
Keating also distanced himself from Venditto’s alleged scheme after Gatz argued that Mangano helped Venditto make a total of $20 million in loan guarantees happen. Gatz also said the evidence will prove Venditto voluntarily met with FBI agents and lied to them. But Venditto’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, said: “This is a case of common sense, this isn’t science.”
He defended Venditto by saying the former supervisor wouldn’t throw away years of hard work for discounted car rides or use of a conference room. Agnifilo said all he needs is to show proof of Venditto’s innocence is present emails exchanged between Singh and Fred May, a former deputy Oyster Bay town attorney.
“Thank god for the emails,” he said.
Agnifilo noted that he is there to defend Venditto only and wants to see him get acquitted, but it is not his job to defend the Manganos.
“I don’t care what happens to anyone else,” Agnifilo said.
He finished addressing the jury by quoting famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who died Wednesday.
“The enemy of knowledge is not ignorance,” he said. “The enemy of knowledge is the illusion of knowledge.”
Gatz said there will be dozens of witnesses who take the stand during the eight-week-long trial, including limo drivers, servers at Singh’s restaurants, workers who installed the wood flooring that Singh paid for in Mangano’s home, the jeweler who sold Singh a watch for $7,300 that the Mangano’s gave to their son as a birthday gift, people who signed contracts, defrauded investors and others.
Singh, who pleaded guilty to federal charges, is a cooperating witness in exchange for less jail time. He is scheduled to testify Thursday. Gatz said Singh will tell the court that “everyone understood how the game was played.”
The second witness will be May, who pleaded guilty and is cooperating for less jail time. Also testifying will be Leonard Genova, another former Oyster Bay town attorney who will be given full immunity for his cooperation.
-With Timothy Bolger