Dems unveil ethics proposal as Saladino responds
For the Town of Oyster Bay Democrats, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Days after Democratic candidates for this fall’s town races unveiled a new ethics proposal to combat what they claimed is a pervasive culture of corruption in the town, six former members of the government they are running against were indicted by District Attorney Madeline Singas.
These included Supervisor John Venditto, Parks Commissioner Frank Nocerino and Public Works Commissioner Frank Antetomaso. Tellingly, for the Dems, the list included a member of the Highway Department still on the payroll, Salvatore Cecere, a supervisor.
“Today we’re talking about three things: corruption, corruption, corruption,” said Woodbury dentist Marc Herman, running for supervisor, at a June 26 press conference across the street from Town Hall. “We believe in this town that there is corruption going on…and a change needs to be made.”
Standing a dozen feet from the lectern at which the candidates spoke was Supervisor Joe Saladino, who stayed for the entire conference to challenge and rebut charges, and at times talked over the candidates.
“We believe that jobs should be given to people based on what they know, not who they know,” Herman continued. “We believe that the town can provide cost-effective services in a timely manner. We believe that our taxes are too high. We believe there should be government of the people and by the people, and not the other way around. And we believe that people with passion can change the world.”
According to Herman, “ethics reform affects every town resident. When contracts are handed out to the same people—whether they’re relatives or friends—and there is no oversight, this is where the money starts leaking out. We need transparency in our budgeting process and our contracting process…One of our proposals is an independent inspector general who will oversee all of the contracts in the town. It’s a shame that we have to do this, but this is what this administration has forced us to do.”
At this point Saladino called out, “That’s not true. That’s a lie.”
“Excuse me,” Herman sternly replied. “If you’re not going to be respectful of me, like I’m respectful of you, I’m going to ask you to leave…I don’t interrupt your meetings, and I don’t expect you to interrupt [mine].”
Herman claimed that the issue of corruption and ethics transcended party, and charged that “what the appointed administration is doing [regarding ethics reform] is smoke and mirrors.”
He went on to attack the administration’s efforts on the environment, and Saladino’s environmental record in the New York State Assembly, claiming that he did nothing to remediate the Grumman Navy Plume. Saladino asserted that he has been a leading voice to clean up the poisoned groundwater, including sponsoring key legislation.
The supervisor and his opponent also argued over school taxes, with Saladino claiming that, during Herman’s tenure on the Syosset School District Board of Education, the district “had one of the highest taxes in the nation.” Herman retorted that the budgets had all come in under the state-mandated tax cap while it has been in force, and further, had been approved by the voters. By contrast, voters had no say in the town budgets that have resulted in huge debt and low bond ratings.
Council candidate James Versocki asked Saladino why he wasn’t at his office doing his job, instead of being out campaigning.
“You are out here being rude and disrespectful,” Versocki stated. “I would never do that to you. I’m ashamed of you. You came out here and shook my hand and now you’re disrespecting me.”
Herman, who was the Islanders’ team dentist for a spell, noted that he had received a degree in ethics and teaches a course at Northwell Health/Hostra School of Medicine.
“Ethics isn’t just taking money under the table and giving out corrupt contracts,” he said. “Ethics has to do with selling your soul for votes, denying that you’ve signed off on things when you actually have, or promising things that you can’t deliver. It’s putting out mailers with no purpose and putting up political signs when it’s illegal to do so.”
He added, “We need a clean broom to clean out this adminstration. And I’m happy to be part of the process, along with the people who are running to bring new eyes and clean hands to the Town of Oyster Bay.”
Council candidate Bob Freier of Woodbury stepped up to the mic and stated, “the government that runs the Town of Oyster Bay is a cesspool in need of immediate reform. Our town needs structural changes, not just photo ops.”
Freier also took aim at the town’s new ethics board initiated by Saladino, claiming it’s a “board that you appointed. It’s a rubber stamp run by an attorney (Steven Leventhal, the board counsel) that runs a Republican club.”
“Every single person on that board was vetted,” Saladino pointed out.
“Right. Vetted in five minute interviews,” rejoined Freier, who went on to restate some of the ethics proposals, including “no elected town official, no commissioner or assistant commissioner may have a direct or indirect relative working for the town. We’re going to bar play for pay positions, which we know exist to this day. No elected town officials will accept campaign contributions from any town employee or any appointee.”
Freier and Saladino proceeded to get into an argument over the original Music Under the Stars lineup, which included The Joe Saladino Band. Freier questioned this at a town board meeting, stating that it afforded undue publicity to a candidate. The band subsequently was dropped from the lineup. Saladino, at the press conference, said his band was going to perform for free, and told Freier, “You cost the town $2,000 with this stunt (to pay for a replacement band),” after Freier had accused Saladino of “self promotion.”
Freier also accused Saladino, who owns a waterfront house in Massapequa, of using town workers to clean up his house.
Pointing a finger at Freier, Saladino said, “That’s a lie. You don’t know the truth.”
And when Freier mentioned an alleged illegal apartment owned by Saladino, the supervisor replied, “That’s a lie. This man will do anything to get elected. Bob Freier The Liar.”
Versocki, of Sea Cliff, said he will use his experience as a prosecutor in the New York State Attorney General’s Office “to ferret out corruption from contractors who were stealing taxpayers’ money and stealing wages from workers.”
He claimed that the town did not have “the proper vetting of contractors. Both New York State and New York City have worked with [their respective comptroller’s offices] to enact pre-qualifications of contractors: making sure they disclose all their connections, making sure that they’ve paid all their taxes, have worker’s compensation, and therefore making sure that you get the best quality at the most efficient work price. There are ways we can do this when we get elected.”
Further, Versocki said, “The public needs to know that there was an 11½ percent increase in taxes last year. It’s called the ‘Venditto Corruption Tax.’ And it should be repealed. Because we can’t bear anymore having these tax increases because of the mismanagement of the town.”
By repealing, Saladino interjected, “You’ll crash the finances of the town. I didn’t vote for [the 2017 budget]. I wasn’t here at the time.”
Versocki hit the town government for financial mismanagement leading to low bond ratings, and noted that it spends “30 percent of its budget toward its debt service. That’s astronomical and unacceptable. Some of our last bonds were [borrowed at] 6 percent. That means every homeowner pays more than they should.”
Clerk Candidate Dean Hart of Hicksville was also present at the press conference, but did not speak. Town council candidate Eva Pearson of Farmingdale did not attend.
In a statement, Hart promised to deliver on making Town Hall more transparent by streamlining the Freedom of Information process for any resident or journalist looking for access to public information. “Right now it’s either taking longer than legally allowed, or simply not happening,” said Hart. “Sunlight is always the best disinfectant to corruption and keeps our elected officials honest.”
In an email to Anton Media Group, Saladino wrote, “It is unfortunate that during a time when our residents are disappointed and let down by the actions of former town officials, that some playing politics are seeing this as an opportunity to further spread lies and subterfuge. The accusations made since day one by the opponents of our town have been untrue, dishonest, and are a sad representation of those who claim to have any ethical standards to offer our town. Five months ago, after weeks of spirited consideration and public debate, the town board put its faith in me to restore ethics and fiscal responsibility to the supervisor’s office. I take this very seriously and under my watch we have turned the corner and we are cleaning house. Their claims that I have any connection to the prior administration are total lies.”
Asked in a phone interview why he showed up to the June 26 press conference and acted as he did, Saladino seemed unrepentant.
“The bottom line is, people cannot accuse a person of being corrupt and breaking the law and not provide documentation and evidence,” he said. “It’s very difficult for a person with integrity to lie about another person who’s looking them in the eye. I’m not going to allow [the Democrats] to link me to the past administration.”
In a charge he has made before, Saladino said the Democrats “have nothing to offer and they are running against the past. They can’t win with their own programs and résumés. I won’t allow the public to be lied to. They have absolutely no proof of these claims [against me] and throwing around phrases like ‘passing money under the table.’ These are diversions and lies. Some people think that’s the way political campaigns work.”
Saladino asserted that the Democrats focused exclusively on corruption in Republican-led governments and named a string of prominent Democrats who have also been indicted and convicted of political malfeasance.
Saladino rejected any claim of “guilt by association” by stating that, “They are making accusation after accusation with no proof at all. I don’t have any association [with the past administration]. We fired and removed people associated with the previous administration.”
The supervisor pointed out things like reducing the use of consultants, such as terminating a contract with Linda Mondello, wife of the powerful county GOP chairman, Joseph Mondello.
“I’m not corrupt,” he summed up. “I have 14 years of proven honesty and integrity. I’ve never been investigated. I’m the one who’s clean and the right person for Oyster Bay.”
After The Indictments
Herman, Freier and Versocki held a press conference on the steps of the Nassau County Supreme Court on June 29, after the district attorney announced the indictments relating to corruption in the town.
“We call on the current town administration to enact our committee’s sweeping common sense ethics reform,” said Herman. “The fact that the town hasn’t even considered most of these ethics reforms [after the indictments] is disgraceful.”
Herman added, “Current Supervisor Saladino is a loyal soldier, a former employee, and is cut from the same cloth as John Venditto.”
Taking aim at Saladino’s claim that “It’s a new day in Oyster Bay,” Herman suggested that, “it’s not. It’s the exact same day. And if anything, it’s Groundhog Day in Oyster Bay.”
Freier, claiming that Saladino “was hand picked by Venditto to succeed him,” called on the supervisor to step down.
“Anyone can talk about transparency all the time, but the only thing that is transparent is that we can see right through him,” Freier charged.
Versocki said, “Justice will be served, here in this courthouse, to the people of Oyster Bay. And we look forward to having the opportunity to make real changes in November. And to make sure that this will not happen again.”
Saladino On Indictments
Saladino held a press conference following the unveiling of the indictments and read the following statement:
Today is a very disturbing day in the Town of Oyster Bay’s history. The criminal complaint filed against former officials and vendors comes as no surprise to the public—it is simply more evidence of the problems that plagued the town before I got here.
With these indictments, Supervisor Venditto and his inner circle have become national poster boys for public corruption, mismanagement and malfeasance. They have embarrassed the residents and hard-working men and women of Oyster Bay Town government, who show up for work each day to deliver honest services and take home honest pay. Just like our employees and our residents, I am outraged by the abuses and flat out arrogance of those we trusted with our vote and our tax dollars.
Let me state clearly, I have zero tolerance for impropriety or even the appearance of such. Five months ago, the town board put its faith in me to clean house and restore ethics to the supervisor’s office. I take that very seriously, and under my watch, we have turned the corner and we are cleaning house.
Together, the town board and I took significant actions to safeguard your wallet and restore the public’s trust. We removed town officials and banned dishonest vendors from doing business with Oyster Bay. We have sued Sidney Bowne—a company whose principals include Frank Antetomaso. I am announcing here today that we are terminating all contracts and banning future work with his company.
To recoup your tax dollars from those who deceived the town through crooked concession agreements, we also sued a prominent law firm, along with Harendra Singh and Fred Mei—a former deputy town attorney who conspired with Singh.
Let me be clear: We will terminate the town’s relationship with anyone associated with corruption or wrongdoing.
Let’s face it, we were all taken for a ride by a handful of dishonest individuals who sought to get rich quick off our tax dollars. That’s why the town board and I have approved initiatives to greatly strengthen accountability, protect your wallet and prevent this from ever happening again.
Our first action was to hire a former federal prosecutor as town attorney. Next, we increased disclosure requirements for contractors, vendors and high level employees to prevent conflicts of interest and misdeeds.
We also formed a new independent board of ethics with real, meaningful oversight.
Sunlight was needed, and we shed sunlight on all town functions.
To enhance transparency and prevent future problems, the town board and I mandated that all contracts and bid proposals be posted online. We also opened the concession bid selection process to the public. We now live-stream all town board meetings and work sessions. These ethics reforms were long overdue; we got them done and we are going to do more.
In this day and age, I, along with all taxpayers, am leery of government. That’s why my administration has enacted reforms to restore the public’s trust.
The town board and I will continue to be proactive to ensure our residents, as well as the hardworking men and women of our town, can once again be proud of the place they call home.
In the New York State Assembly, and now in Oyster Bay, my staff and I have served our residents with the highest degree of honesty and integrity. I expect nothing less, and neither should you.
Residents should take a fresh look at what we’re doing to reform town government and deliver quality services. From our world-class parks to our pristine beaches, and our youth, senior citizen and veteran programs, the Town of Oyster Bay is the best place in the nation to live, work and raise a family.