Stories & Grievances

Corruption in 'Crookhaven', Long Island New York

The town of Brookhaven, Long Island now has 19 arrests, 13 convictions, 1 aquittal, and 4 cases pending in the building inspection scandal.

Disgust at alleged deeds
BY INDRANI SEN, June 14, 2005


"Disgusting" was the word Maria Schuchmann, president of the Miller Place Parent-Teachers Organization, used to describe the notion of anyone defrauding the district's athletic booster club.

"We've been cutting out all extracurricular activities, so any money we raise tries to bring back some of the extras that the kids are losing," Schuchmann said. "Anyone that seeks to defraud money from the clubs ... I can't even begin to express how underhanded that would be."

Yet that's one of the crimes Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota is accusing Brookhaven Town Building Inspector Vincent Dragone of committing in yesterday's 61-count indictment. Dragone's attorney William Keahon said his client is innocent.

Dragone is charged with scheming to defraud and conspiracy involving the Miller Place Booster Club's annual golf outings from 1997 to 2002.

Dragone, who lives in Manorville, allegedly offered to help raise money for the club by soliciting contributions from developers who had business with the town. According to three witnesses, prosecutors said, Dragone had a secret agreement with the club that they would put aside funds he raised from people who did not come to the golf outing. He would then use those funds as "credit," prosecutors said, placing winning bids on auction items at the outings such as trips to the Caribbean and Las Vegas, and a Derek Jeter autographed baseball. Prosecutors did not place a dollar figure on the alleged fraud.

"It's raising funds in the name of the booster club, when in fact the reality is the benefit is going to Vinnie," said Assistant District Attorney Christopher McPartland.

When Dragone had unused credit left, the indictment says, he demanded that it be carried over to the following year's event. In some cases, prosecutors said, the booster club had bought the auction items.

Keahon, said the allegations make "no sense."

Michael Shea, the contact person listed on the Booster Club's Web site, declined to comment. Miller Place Schools Superintendent Donald Carlisle said he was not aware of any fraud, and that Dragone has no official connection with the club or the school district.

John Ray, an attorney who said he represents two of the witnesses who testified with immunity on the scheme, said the DA's allegations "have touched innocent people in the Miller Place community."

Of the booster club, he said, "They committed no crime and they kept no money for themselves. What they did do was set aside money given to them by Vinnie for Vinnie's own use."
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

The Indictment

Careful planning leads to tight cases
BY SANDRA PEDDIE, Newsday, June 7, 2005


When two political operatives met for lunch at a Hauppauge restaurant last year, they thought they'd be discussing their business in private.

What they didn't know was that tiny recording devices had been placed at their table, and that their waiter was an undercover detective.

Later, detectives arrested the men, Stephen Baranello, a close campaign adviser to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, and former Legis. Wayne Prospect, both Democrats. Baranello quickly admitted taking a bribe and agreed to cooperate. Prospect maintains his innocence and is awaiting trial.

Careful planning, secret listening devices and undercover detectives are hallmarks of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota's two-year investigation into political corruption. Since then-Legis. Fred Towle pleaded guilty in May 2003 to taking a cash bribe, the probe has netted 13 convictions. Four more cases are pending.

By comparison, two convictions resulted from the John McNamara scandal of the 1990s, in which the Port Jefferson car dealer admitted defrauding General Motors Acceptance Corp. of $412 million and to bribing Brookhaven officials. In the Southwest Sewer District scandal, a $120-million bid-rigging case in the 1970s, two vendors were convicted and four others paid fines without admitting guilt.

Some have questioned whether Spota's tactics have crossed the line between aggressive prosecution and infringing on individuals' rights. But even defense attorneys have been impressed.

"I think this is the most successful investigatory process of political corruption since I came to the county in '73," said William Keahon, a defense attorney who has represented at least two targets of the probe. "It has been done like no other DA has done in the past."

The reason, he and other defense attorneys said, is that prosecutors are thinking like them.

The key is in doing an exhaustive investigation and strategically blocking possible defense legal maneuvers before filing charges. "In all previous administrations, they've always forgotten or failed to do major parts of the investigation until after the indictment, which has left them vulnerable at trial," Keahon said.

Floyd Sarisohn, who represents Baranello, agreed. "By the time they charged him, the noose was so damn tight that there was nothing else left for us to do."

Spota, who spent 20 years as a defense attorney before his election in 2001, likened the strategy to a chess game. "You've got to be thinking, 'Where am I going with this?'"

One attorney suggested that innocent people might be getting caught in the net.

"There's a fine line between aggressive investigation and protecting people's rights," said Patrick O'Connell, who represented Daniel Wirshup, the Patchogue public works superintendent and the lone person acquitted in the probe. "They were pulling people over, bringing people in for questioning. What price is the public willing to pay for rooting out corruption?"

Prosecutors say they've simply gone where the investigation has taken them.

When Spota first took office, political corruption wasn't even on the radar. Then tips began to come in and prosecutors examined campaign filings. They were stunned at the extent of Towle's abuses.

Towle, a Shirley Republican and heavy gambler, used his campaign coffer as a personal piggy bank, prosecutors said.

Towle agreed to cooperate, wearing a wire as he met with colleagues who later were pulled in for questioning. He also drew prosecutors a road map of town and county corruption.

At the time Towle pleaded guilty and resigned, four detectives were assigned to the probe. But as more tips poured in, the probe expanded. Spota wouldn't say how many detectives he added, but sources said as many as 55 detectives have been involved.

Spota and county budget director Frederick Pollert said they could not break out the cost. Newsday has filed a Freedom of Information request for the numbers.

The pace has been punishing at times, with 24-hour days fueled by deli food and pizza. Some nights, detectives have been holed up in what they call the "Bat Cave," a secret place where they monitor wiretaps and videotapes.

When approaching a target, prosecutors make sure that detectives are posted outside the homes of the target's associates. If the target refuses to cooperate, prosecutors radio the other detectives so they can interview the associates before they are warned.

"They're never going to get that phone call because they're going to be invited in to talk to us," Spota said, smiling.

The DA, who is running unopposed for re-election, said the investigation remains "very active."
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.


A Long Island building inspector at the center of a political corruption probe has been indicted on bribery charges.

Vincent Dragone, the suspended Brookhaven chief building inspector accused of taking more than $250,000 in kickbacks, was arraigned yesterday on charges of grand larceny, bribe receiving, official misconduct, conspiracy, money laundering, perjury and tampering with evidence.

He is accused of accepting vacations to Las Vegas and the Caribbean and of using his office to pressure contractors to donate money to the Brookhaven Republican Party and its candidates.

Suffolk prosecutors asked for $100,000 cash bail, but the judge set it at $30,000 cash, which Dragone was willing to hand over.

Authorities refused to allow him out, though, until they hold a hearing today to make sure he's not using tainted money.

They have seized more than $1.5 million of Dragone's assets - as well as his large $1.1 million Manorville home - and frozen his bank accounts.

"The properties we have seized are the proceeds of crimes," said District Attorney Thomas Spota.

Under suspicion in the longtime probe of official wrongdoing in the Republican-run town that local wags call "Crookhaven," Dragone has said all of the others under investigation - except him - were involved in illegal deals.

Several contractors who did work for Brookhaven have already pleaded guilty to giving thousands of dollars in bribes to Dragone, whose salary was $86,000 a year.

Records concerning contractors who performed work on Dragone's home have vanished, authorities said.

Neither Dragone nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.

But Dragone told a reporter two months ago he was innocent.

"Everyone else did something," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong."

Dragone, who surrendered to authorities earlier yesterday, faces up to 60 years in jail if convicted.

Spota said Dragone received more than a quarter of a million dollars in cash, goods and services, including envelopes of cash forked over in City Hall.

In exchange, he allegedly would approve buildings, sign off on certificates of occupancy, and make sure the landlords received no violations.

He also allegedly got free baby-sitting from a Brookhaven town employee and even stole money from a high-school booster club.

Dragone, 49, who began his career as a town building inspector in 1986, has been suspended with pay since March.

Building inspector's assets seized
Sources: Vincent Dragone indicted in Brookhaven corruption probe

BY SANDRA PEDDIE, Newsday, June 10, 2005


Detectives have seized the cars, bank accounts and 5,000-square-foot Manorville home of Brookhaven chief building inspector Vincent Dragone, and sources close to the investigation said a grand jury has handed up an indictment against him.

The assets, seized Wednesday as part of the Suffolk District Attorney's ongoing probe into political corruption, are worth at least $1.5 million. They include Dragone's home, a 2003 Ford Excursion sport utility vehicle, a 2002 Lincoln LS sedan, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, an all-terrain vehicle, a camper and two bank accounts, said District Attorney Thomas Spota.

"The properties we have seized are the proceeds of crimes," Spota said. Under the law, prosecutors can seize assets with a judge's approval if they can demonstrate they were obtained in the commission of a crime -- even if a person has not been charged.

Although Spota declined to provide more detail, sources familiar with the probe said a sealed indictment had been handed up against Dragone and he is expected to surrender Monday.

William Keahon, Dragone's attorney, declined to comment. No one answered a call to a telephone number listed as Dragone's home.

Dragone and his family will be allowed to remain in their home, but the seizure prevents them from selling it, prosecutors said. The bank accounts have been frozen.

At least two contractors have pleaded guilty to giving Dragone thousands of dollars in bribes -- including free work on his home -- in exchange for favors from the town building department.

Town plumbing inspector Mark Palermo, who in May 2004 pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, said in court that Dragone told him to sign off on building inspections that shouldn't have been approved.

Dragone, who makes $86,300 a year, has been suspended with pay since March, after a contractor said in court that he had given him bribes. His prosecution is part of a two-year probe by Spota's office into political corruption in Suffolk County.

In an interview two months ago, Dragone maintained his innocence. "Everyone else did something wrong. I didn't do anything wrong," he said.

Brookhaven Town Attorney Karen Wilutis said Dragone would remain suspended with pay. She said the town could not take further action, "unless the DA's office will share something with us."

Supervisor John Jay LaValle, who has announced that he will not seek re-election, did not return a call for comment.

Dragone, 49, has been under investigation for the past year. Detectives have bugged his office, searched his home and taken records from the town building department related to, among other things, companies run by contractors who worked on his house. The records relating directly to Dragone's house, which he had built several years ago, were missing, town officials said.

The son of a labor union worker, Dragone started working for the town in 1986 as a building inspector, and he was promoted to chief inspector in October 1998. He also became involved with local Republican politics.

Thursday, John Haugstatter, who lives near Dragone, described him as a "very good neighbor. It's a nice family. And before they start hurting the guy and hurting his reputation, they should get their facts straight."

Staff writer Indrani Sen contributed to this story.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

Cleaning up Crookhaven
Investigation has reshaped Suffolk's political landscape, shaking Republicans, who count most of arrested among their ranks

BY MICHAEL ROTHFELD, Newsday, June 7, 2005


Highway workers for the first time in decades are taking stock of thousands of spare parts.

Code enforcement officials are conducting building inspections they had regularly skipped.

Political operatives now check election laws they previously flouted at will.

Two years after Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota launched a wide-ranging corruption investigation, the culture of government is changing in the Republican-dominated town of Brookhaven and beyond.

The probe, yielding 13 convictions to date, has tainted both major parties and snared officials in towns, the school districts and the business community, fostering a newfound attention to the law in places where graft and no-show jobs have been routine.

"Overall, people are very, very aware that we have a serious problem with corruption in various municipalities," Spota said in an interview. "I think there is a lot more scrutiny in county and municipal governments as to time sheets, the manners in which political monies are raised ... also as far as people putting in an honest day's work."

The investigation has reshaped Suffolk's political landscape, shaking Republicans, who count most of the arrested among their ranks. Fearing the loss of their last bastion of power, the GOP machine has moved to keep voters on their line by cross-endorsing Spota for re-election this fall. Under fire, Brookhaven Supervisor John Jay LaValle, 37, announced April 4 that for personal reasons he will not seek a third two-year term this November.

The misdeeds unearthed by the investigation have ranged from a town maintenance supervisor strong-arming political donations from underlings to a highway worker taking town equipment to build a cesspool at his daughter's home to a businessman in charge of promoting Long Island tourism spending taxpayer funds at strip clubs. Four cases are pending.

"It has served notice that anything which has even the hint of corruption is not going to be tolerated," said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant in Bohemia. He said his clients are far more careful now about obeying election laws he has seen violated for years.

Spota's probe has extended into Islip and Huntington and prosecutors say they expect to file more charges soon. But it has not stopped improper behavior: In April, two Brookhaven parks employees were suspended without pay for five days after visiting a political leader during the workday to discuss a fund-raiser for Councilman Timothy Mazzei, who said he had nothing to do with their behavior.

"The corruption appears to be so pervasive from the lower echelons on up that to root it out might take even more effort," said John Ray, the defense attorney for former Brookhaven Zoning Board of Appeals member Theodore Rickman, who pleaded guilty to receiving bribes in April 2004.

Spota said the difficulty of ending corruption became evident when his detectives recently asked a suspect who admitted wrongdoing why he had broken the law, knowing prosecutors were investigating.

"And his response was he didn't think he'd be caught," Spota said. "But as long as they know that we are there and we are looking, we will make at least a significant impact."

Now, the political atmosphere in Brookhaven is such that the Republican candidate for supervisor, Edward Hennessey, is portraying himself as an outsider who can reform the government in which he has served as councilman for more than a decade.

"This could be a bad year," lamented a Republican county official on condition of anonymity. "What happens between now and November? If there's a few more indictments or people pleading, that's not going to be a pleasant thing."

Suffolk Legis. Brian Foley (D-Blue Point), launching his bid against Hennessey Thursday, vowed a crusade against the town's "culture of corruption."

The possible ascendancy of Democrats is causing some longtime GOP supporters in the business community to consider throwing campaign cash to the other side.

"It's affecting our thinking, that we do have a choice," said Robert Wieboldt, executive vice president of the Long Island Builders Institute, a developers group. "We're working our way through that, and I'm sure a lot of others are, too."

Democrat John Rouse has felt the impact of the investigation firsthand.

He lost two elections for Brookhaven highway superintendent before Republican incumbent Patricia Strebel came under scrutiny. Strebel was indicted in May 2003 -- six months before Election Day -- on charges of trading town business for campaign cash. Rouse beat her in November 2003, and she was later convicted of 31 misdemeanors.

"My employees are very cognizant of District Attorney Spota's investigation," said Rouse, 45. "And they very much understand that we operate by the book at all times."

He asked the mechanics when they had last taken inventory of thousands of car and truck parts, as required each year by state law.

"Maybe 15 years ago," they responded. Then he visited the welding shop and posed the same question. "We've never done an inventory," he was told.

Today, the 230 workers are following rules they never even knew existed. "Our employees are typically very well-intended, but simply had not been shown how to run the department according to the letter of the law," Rouse said.

Over in the Building Department, Wieboldt said, codes officials now inspect projects before work is done, as required by law, instead of only checking afterward. "Right now, everything has to be done by the letter," he said.

A woman who works as a private expediter, helping owners of small properties navigate the maze of approvals, complained that reaction to the probe has created denser bureaucracy for her clients.

"They say, 'Why are they so tough on these things?'" said the expediter, who asked not to be identified. "I try to explain to them that in times of corruption scandals, where people might have had more of a gray area, they're not able to use that anymore because of people who took advantage of it."

Ultimately, the voters will determine the fallout at the polls on Nov. 8. Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in Brookhaven 39 percent to 27 percent, with another 26 percent showing no party affiliation.

Since World War II, Democrats have controlled the town only briefly, during the early 1960s and mid-1970s. The GOP has held on even as corruption scandals earned the town the nickname "Crookhaven."

In the past four years, the Democrats have taken the offices of the county executive and district attorney; elected one of their own to the Brookhaven council; and won the fight to implement councilmanic districts in the town.

"I think people will determine they need a wholesale cleaning of house," said Suffolk Democratic leader Richard Schaffer.

LaValle, newly married and expecting a son, has defended his tenure and denied speculation that the investigation prompted him to step aside. "I'd like to spend a little more time at home," he said.

Hennessey is distancing himself from LaValle, with whom he feuded in the past, accusing him of leaving administrative systems in place that had been corrupted. "In that sense," Hennessey said, "he failed."

The Republicans point out that two Democrats, advisers to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, have been arrested in the probe. Stephen Baranello, a former Suffolk OTB official and son of the former county Democratic leader, pleaded guilty to second-degree bribe receiving. Former Suffolk legislator Wayne Prospect has pleaded not guilty to bribery, coercion and conspiracy. Levy says the men acted without his knowledge.

Brookhaven Republican candidates also depict the disgraced members of their own party as renegades. "Bring the paddy wagon in and take all the bad guys out," said Mazzei, a two-year incumbent.

If the investigation shifts the balance of power, Spota said it's not intentional -- and it doesn't really matter to him.

"Remember this," he said. "If there is a change in the political landscape in a particular municipality as a result of this investigation, the other party better start toeing the line."
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.