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Inside the land deals that benefited connected Long Islanders

In 2001, as Thomas Suozzi prepared to take office as Nassau’s first Democratic county executive in decades, he looked for new ideas to fix the deficit-ridden budget he’d inherit.

To urge county employees to be part of the process, Suozzi created a $20,000 fund of private donations to reward their best ideas. He named two businessmen to oversee it and hand out the prizes.

One was Michael Held, a campaign supporter and former Oyster Bay Cove village planning board chairman who ran a stationery company.

“Who better to come up with ideas to save money in county government than the employees themselves?” Held said at the news conference, where he stood with Suozzi to announce the fund.

Years later, Held became a beneficiary of another of Suozzi’s initiatives. In 2009, the county bought 8 acres of Held’s property in Oyster Bay Cove for $2.9 million — part of the $100 million it spent on open space preservation under Nassau’s landmark Environmental Bond Acts.

A Newsday investigation found that roughly $30 million of that money, both under Suozzi and his successor, Republican Edward Mangano, was paid to political contributors and people with ties to county politics, the property selection process;or both.

Those who helped shape the program say that sellers’ political connections weren’t relevant to the process that resulted in properties such as Held’s being recommended for purchase. Others say those types of connections weren’t even brought to their attention – the county then didn’t strictly enforce the submission of forms for disclosure of campaign contributions or other political ties.

In Held’s case, the land met some of the top criteria set by the Suozzi-appointed advisory committees that ranked nominations and recommended them for purchase: It was part of the state-designated Special Groundwater Protection Area along the North Shore and was adjacent to existing open space, the county’s Tiffany Creek Preserve.

But the Held acquisition – one of several in Oyster Bay Cove involving connected sellers – also had some of the characteristics that have drawn criticism: The county purchased it for $105,000 more than its highest appraised value and about $230,000 more than what the county had assessed as the market value of the entire 13.6-acre Held estate, including the home.

His sold-off 8 acres, featuring a spring-fed pond and some trails, expanded the rear portion of the 200-acre Tiffany Creek Preserve by 4 percent, with the only public access remaining through the front of the preserve, a roughly two-mile hike from the Held site.

On the county’s land records website, a search of the purchased parcel still yields the description; “inaccessible vacant land.”

That final sale price, however, was reduced from an even higher figure, said the former Suozzi aide who helped negotiate the deal with Held.

“He had really ridiculous ideas of what his property was worth and we kind of whittled down to where we were,” Sean Rainey, then the county’s deputy real estate director, said of Held, noting that while he appreciated the natural beauty of the land, “the committee made recommendations of what they wanted to buy. I didn’t make that decision.”

Held said in a brief interview that he never dealt directly with Suozzi in negotiations and didn’t believe his prior appointment by him provided him with any special treatment.

“I think many of the people who wound up selling to the county knew people involved,” he said.

Suozzi declined to comment on individual bond act acquisitions, but in a brief interview he noted that all properties bought by his administration “went through a rigorous process” of review and were for prices in the general range of fair market value. His environmental coordinator, Tom Maher, said the county executive – now a congressman – did not interfere with the advisory committees that reviewed nominations and recommended purchases. The committees, as Newsday has reported, were largely appointed by Suozzi and consisted of several environmentalists as well as civic leaders with ties to the county Democratic Party.

“Tom stayed away from it and just left it up to the committee,” Maher said.

The environmental bond programs, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2004 and 2006, apportioned $100 million for acquisition of open space, with priorities to parcels critical to groundwater protection, near existing preserves or under development pressure. The process laid out by the referendums required parcels to be nominated to – and then recommended for purchase by – the advisory committees.

Suozzi’s office signed off on the recommendations after obtaining approval from the county’s Planning Commission and Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee. Finally, at least 13 of the 19 county legislators needed to vote on all purchases.

But at each of those steps, Newsday found, sellers’ ties to county politicians or the property selection process were never prominently raised. Some advisory committee members said they were never presented with any of those details.

Held acknowledged that he’s heard general complaints about deals like his, in which the seller benefits by getting a market-value price from government, yet by continuing to live alongside it, retains de facto access to a plot where extracting a profit may have otherwise been difficult. One of the appraisals commissioned by the county said the parcel was “impacted by wetlands restrictions that limit its development potential.”

The difficulties of building on the land notwithstanding, Held said if the county didn’t buy it, “we probably would have developed it and put a number of houses on the piece.”

“What people don’t say is the amount of taxes you’re paying on the piece year after year after year, and it’s not like if you don’t develop it you get any kind of tax relief,” he said.

Just down the road from Held’s land, a series of bond act purchases helped create a new county preserve. But it also allowed Suozzi political contributors and donors to the nonprofit that helped shape the open space program to sell off parts of their property at market value and lower their tax burden by reducing the size of their estates.

The Pulling Estate

One of the first deals closed under the environmental bond acts was the 2006 purchase, for $6.5 million, of 16 acres at a prominent corner of Oyster Bay Cove that had been the subject of development speculation for years.

The land was part of a once-150-acre family holding controlled by banking executive Thomas Pulling, who was executor of his father’s estate along with JPMorgan Chase Bank. Pulling acknowledged being a longtime Suozzi contributor;and in 2006 had given at least $10,000 to the North Shore Land Alliance, the nonprofit that had lobbied for the bond acts and whose president and CEO, Lisa Ott, had a prominent role on the county advisory committee that recommended purchases.

County campaign finance records from before 2006 are no longer available, but Pulling contributed $500 to Suozzi’s unsuccessful bid for governor in January 2006, about a month before the county announced that the site was one of six it was targeting with the first bond funds.

Pulling, a Republican who that year contributed to no other Democrats on Long Island, gave Suozzi’s campaign another $250 in August 2006, a month after the Nassau County Legislature approved the sale. During Suozzi’s unsuccessful 2009 and 2013 county executive runs, he contributed $3,450, and has since given Suozzi’s 2016 and 2018 congressional campaigns a total of $2,000.

“There was absolutely no connection between the two,” Pulling said of the land deal and his contributions to Suozzi, who he said has become a good friend. “I’ve just supported Tom, probably, well before this property deal came along and ever since, including now that he’s in Congress.”

In 2006, Pulling also donated between $10,000 and $24,999 to the Land Alliance, making him one of its biggest benefactors that calendar year (there were only six individuals or families that had given $25,000 or more), according to a group newsletter that did not pinpoint the precise amount of donors’ gifts. He said that money wasn’t meant to help along the deal but rather came at the request of nonprofit board members.

Ott said the contribution came at a wine auction in September 2006, after the Pulling deal with the county had received legislative approval, and helped the nonprofit create a “quick action” fund for subsequent preservation efforts.

Pulling acknowledged at first being skeptical of selling a portion of his land to the county – a developer still plans to put homes on a large portion of it on the opposite side of his estate. But he said he was finally convinced when he realized that the county wasn’t asking for donation of the property but would pay a price comparable to what he might make had he built there.

“As an executor of my father’s estate, I had to do as well as I could for the estate,” he said. “And it never occurred to me that the county would pay the highest value.”

Creating a preserve

After securing Pulling’s property during the first $50 million environmental bond act, the county looked to extend its land there after securing the second round of funding – $100 million – which passed in a 2006 referendum promoted by the Land Alliance. The nonprofit that fall had pumped $222,000 into a political action committee to fund pro-bond mailers and television ads, records show.

With the additional open space money secured, a second advisory committee in 2007 recommended more properties for preservation. Among those purchased in 2008 were two that joined the former Pulling property to establish a nearly 30-acre preserve. One was a 7.2-acre parcel owned by one of Pulling’s sisters, bought for $3 million; the other was 5.9 acres of the adjoining Schwab estate, acquired for $2 million.

The three pieces of land created the Red Cote Preserve at the corner of Route 25A and Yellow Cote Road in Oyster Bay Cove. Like Pulling in 2006, his sister Lucy Cutting and her husband, George, were top Land Alliance backers when their land was nominated for the extension and then acquired, contributing between $10,000 and $24,999 in 2007 and between $10,000 and $50,000 in 2008, according to the nonprofit’s newsletter.

Referring to the contributions that Pulling and the Cuttings made to her organization, Ott said they had no impact on the purchase recommendations by the advisory committees, both of which she served on. She noted that both properties, based on their features and location in the groundwater protection area, had already been identified as preservation priorities in a state open space report.

“It really didn’t matter who owned them,” Ott wrote in an email, noting that the Cutting contribution helped create a fund to maintain the Red Cote Preserve. “They met the objectives of the program.”

The owners of the adjacent parcel, Hermann C. Schwab, a former Oyster Bay Cove mayor, and his wife, Meteer, nominated their land for county acquisition in 2005, during the first environmental bond act period, county records show. This was when their daughter-in-law, Katie Schwab, was Suozzi’s deputy planning commissioner and was on the Land Alliance’s advisory board and the first county advisory committee that reviewed nominations and recommended the adjacent Pulling land, records show.

Katie Schwab left her county job at the end of 2005, stepped down from the Land Alliance advisory board and, in 2007, completed her divorce with Hermann and Meteer Schwab’s son, George, records show. The county ultimately purchased her former in-laws’ land in 2008, for the $2 million price that was slightly less than the $2.4 million its assessment department had valued the couple’s entire 11-acre estate, with their home.

Suozzi administration officials acknowledged to county legislators at the time that there were no imminent plans to develop the land, but justified the purchase as a way to add onto the just-purchased Pulling land.

“I think that, generally, these people really wanted to just leave some legacy behind, so I think that’s why they were really pushing for this,” Rainey, referring to the Schwabs, told legislators during the 2008 legislative committee meeting where the purchase was approved.

Hermann Schwab died in 2013. Katie Schwab declined an interview request but provided a statement: “I was not aware that my former in-laws’ parcel of land was purchased until after the fact, and I had no role whatsoever in the County’s decision.”

George Schwab, an attorney, said he was involved in the Land Alliance and assisted his parents in the sale. He recalled that his ex-wife “certainly would have been in favor of us trying to sell the land,” but that he dealt directly with the county’s real estate attorneys to get the deal done.

“I may have called her and asked her some questions,” he said of Katie Schwab, noting that they had an amicable divorce, but he did not recall her being part of the process following her departure from the county.

“Katie Schwab got us nothing extra, or nothing we wouldn’t have gotten anyway,” he said.

The Red Cote Preserve also ensured that there would never be development in the shadow of one influential couple with property across the street: Elia “Aly” Lizza, president of Carlo Lizza and Sons Paving Inc., and his wife, Marisa, who gave money to the Land Alliance during the years the group was pushing for the nearby open space buys. She is listed in Land Alliance newsletters as having given “$99 and below” in 2006 and “up to $499” in 2008.

Marisa Lizza, whose husband’s firm won more than $100 million in paving contracts from Nassau between 2002 and 2016, also gave Suozzi large campaign contributions at times when the county was pushing for preservation of the neighboring land, records show: $16,000 to his bid for governor in July 2006, days before Pulling signed his contract with the county; and $25,000 to his county executive campaign in June 2008, about a month before both the Schwabs and the owner of the other adjacent parcel signed their contracts of sale.

“The day after your neighbor puts their land into open space, your property value goes up,” said Daniel Press, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California Santa Cruz who has written extensively on government land preservation. “So there’s this windfall for people who are adjacent to permanently protected open space because they’re going to have this … permanent buffer.”

Marc Gann, Marisa Lizza’s Mineola attorney, declined to comment on behalf of his client. Marisa and Elia Lizza were indicted last year by the Nassau district attorney in an unrelated public corruption case involving land deals in the Town of Oyster Bay. They have pleaded not guilty.

The Smithers Estate

Much of the land acquired in affluent North Shore communities was already zoned to provide as little density as possible, meaning that preservation, as opposed to elsewhere on Long Island, meant stopping the development of just a handful of homes at most.

The $7.8 million purchase of 25 acres of the Smithers estate in Mill Neck Village in 2008 was the most extreme example. The land, which was owned by wealthy philanthropist Adele Smithers, the estate of her late husband, R. Brinkley Smithers, and the anti-alcoholism foundation she ran, could not have accommodated more than three or four new homes due to strict village zoning laws.

“For most people, I think their understanding is, if the county is going to spend $8 million or $10 million, they’re going to go out there and save the property from being massively developed by corporate buildings, by dense housing and stuff,” Richard Nicolello, a Republican county legislator who now serves as presiding officer, said at the 2008 hearing where the Smithers property was first debated.

As a comparison, a half-acre site in Point Lookout, on the South Shore, that was recommended for preservation but not purchased later was sold for three new homes. A five-acre farm the county saved in Malverne, also on the South Shore, could have yielded 33 single-family homes – a typical number for the more-densely zoned area.

Though Mill Neck and other North Shore villages have long had multi-acre zoning that prevents condo communities or tightly packed single-family homes, Ott says the ever-changing composition of local village leadership means that no zoning restrictions are permanent – while an open space acquisition is.

“With new mayors come new changes of rule, so if something is five-acre zoned today, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be in five years,” she said.

The density issue was debated at the time of the purchase, but the seller’s status as a Suozzi campaign contributor was not, records show. No disclosure form was filed with the contract documents provided by the county, though other open space deals included them.

In the 18 months leading up to Smithers’ contract of sale with Nassau, Smithers, a Republican, had contributed a combined $13,000 to Suozzi’s 2006 gubernatorial bid and his county executive re-election campaign. After the deal was closed, she gave another $5,500 to Suozzi’s subsequent campaigns over the next five years.

Smithers, who died last year at age 83, was the aunt of State Sen. Tom Croci (R-Bay Shore), who served as one of the family’s contacts during negotiations, before his first election to public office.

Mangano takes helm

Mangano took office in January 2010 with the vast majority of open space funds already spent. He did, however, close a deal that had been discussed for years: purchase of the 4.2 acre Brooklyn Water Works property in Freeport.

Under Suozzi, negotiations with the politically influential property owner Gary Melius, who also owns Oheka Castle, had stalled. As Newsday reported in its detailed investigation of Melius’ life in February, the Suozzi administration had twice appraised the property as worth no more than $2.7 million.

“We did make him an offer, and he laughed,” Maher testified to county legislators in 2008 about negotiations with Melius.

Under Mangano – whom Melius had befriended and supported, to that point, with roughly $15,000 in campaign contributions – the county appraised the property at a minimum of $6.3 million. It cited Melius’ ability to develop the land into as many as 121 condominiums.

The acquisition was completed in September 2012, at a price of $6.2 million.

But, as Newsday reported, Melius did not have permission to build all those condos and, under Freeport village’s density restriction of 75 units on the property, would have had to have gotten significant variances to allow for the proposed building heights and required parking. On top of that, environmentalists had long opposed Melius’ plans, wanting the site, which abuts a nature preserve, to remain open space.

The increased sale price, all but exhausting what money remained in the bond act funds for open space purposes, caused the county to pay for the last $1.7 million using more than half of what remained in a separate open space account. That account is funded by 5 percent of proceeds from each general county real estate sale and at the time had about $2.9 million available.

Under Mangano, that open space account was also tapped in 2013 and 2014 to pay $45,000 to an engineering firm that had drawn up never fully realized plans to enhance public access at several open space sites.

Nelson & Pope Engineers & Surveyors, which was on retainer for general county engineering work – and had done open space design work for many municipalities – employed the wife of Mangano’s then-chief deputy, Rob Walker, as well as Walker’s mother, Rose Marie Walker, a county legislator.

Mangano, who left office at the end of last year, recently stood trial on unrelated federal public corruption charges, with the case ending in a mistrial. Rob Walker has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of obstructing justice and lying to federal agents in an unrelated case.

Brian Griffin, an attorney for Walker, said in a statement that Walker always disclosed his wife’s job with the engineering firm and his signoffs on the pacts “were nothing more than ministerial after the legislature awarded any contracts.”

In 2014, instead of considering previously recommended parcels that hadn’t been purchased, the Mangano administration decided to spend $800,000 in open space funds on a .7-acre lot in Bethpage that hadn’t been on anyone’s radar.

The lot, once an old nursery, was owned by Mangano’s longtime friend and deputy parks commissioner Frank Camerlengo and had fallen into foreclosure proceedings and disrepair, with landscaping trucks stored on it. The proposal never got past the planning commission after questions about the land’s appropriateness and the seller’s connections were raised.

“It got shot down pretty early in that process,” said Neal Lewis, a county planning commission member who served on the two environmental bond act advisory committees. The commission had just started reviewing the proposal when Newsday wrote about it, drawing widespread outrage.

“But, still, it was quite a moment, where it was like, ‘What are we even talking about here?'”

Lewis, who spoke highly of the overall environmental bond program, expressed surprise when told previous deals that came before the commission also involved county political appointees or people with ties to them.

“I’m a little disturbed,” he said. “I’d hate to think that someone might have pulled a fast one.”


Do you have information on any other sites purchased under Nassau’s environmental bond acts that remain obscured, hidden or lack sufficient public access? Contact Paul LaRocco at (631) 843-2736 or paul.larocco@newsday.com.

How Nassau’s open-space purchases benefited political insiders

The day after Nassau County acquired nine acres of Glen Cove woods, neighbors threw a party.

A bluegrass band played, guests sipped drinks, and Gordon Allan, who led a local preservation group’s push to spare the land from development, stood behind his family’s home along the old-growth forest and gave certificates of appreciation to elected officials.

Leading up to the $4 million purchase of Red Spring Woods in September 2006, Allan emphasized its ecological benefit.

Three years later, the transaction paved the way for him to benefit financially as well.

Using the same fund, then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi’s administration paid $600,000 for 1.77 acres of the adjoining Allan family property, $50,000 more than the county’s final appraisal estimated it was worth. In disclosure forms filed with the contract, Allan, who owned the land under a trust with his two brothers, didn’t reveal that he served at the time as a special assistant in the county personnel office, a $55,000-a-year, politically appointed job.

The deal was among several made with $100 million apportioned from Nassau’s landmark Environmental Bond Acts of 2004 and 2006 that benefited political insiders as well as wildlife and water quality, a Newsday investigation has found.

The program’s achievements have long been proclaimed: purchases that saved some of the county’s last remaining working farms, kept open an old equestrian center, and greatly expanded the majestic Old Westbury Gardens preserve and museum.

But among the bond act acquisitions — closed between 2006 and 2012 — almost $30 million was paid to people with ties to county politics, the property selection process, or both.

Records show these payments, which secured a quarter of the program’s nearly 300 preserved acres, went to four- or five-figure campaign contributors to Suozzi, a Democrat, or his Republican successor, Edward Mangano; county patronage employees or those close to them; and major financial backers of the advocacy group that largely bankrolled the bond referendums and had influence on which sites were recommended.

They leave questions about whether the money could have been better used to realize a never-achieved promise of enhanced public access to some of the sites and whether other recommended properties held by less-connected people could have been bought instead.

The deals involving people with ties to the process were frequent enough that, in 2014, after Suozzi had given way to Mangano, County Planning Commission Chairman Jeffrey Greenfield alluded to them in a reply to a query from Democratic County Legis. Kevan Abrahams. He had objected to a widely criticized and eventually discarded Mangano proposal to use open space funds to buy his deputy parks commissioner’s nursery lot, then in foreclosure proceedings.

Greenfield reminded Abrahams that during the Suozzi administration he’d voted for numerous land acquisitions for “friends and family.”

Abrahams, who remembers being puzzled, said Greenfield’s letter prompted him and a few other Democratic legislators to learn, for the first time, about the previously undisclosed connections in some Suozzi-era bond act deals – something GOP lawmakers had whispered about for years.

“We looked at each other, like, ‘What is he talking about?'” Abrahams recalled. Then, he said, “We figured it out.”

In at least three cases, Newsday found that the county paid above its own market-value assessment of the land, or what was estimated in appraisals it commissioned. At least five of the properties were not under imminent development pressure, which was one of the criteria for prioritizing buys, or could not be developed without significant roadblocks.

As taxpayers continue to pay down the borrowing for the purchases — the environmental bond portion of this year’s county tax levy is $7.7 million, or $8 on the average homeowner’s tax bill — the level of public access promised for many of the sites was never realized. Several are fenced off. For others, signage and promotion are inconsistent, parking isn’t always available and walking trails and other amenities weren’t installed.

“You have to kind of be ‘in the know’ a little bit of the local landscape to get to these spots,” said Brian Schneider, Nassau’s deputy county executive of parks and public works.

The overwhelming proportion of land acquired was on Nassau’s North Shore, primarily in affluent Oyster Bay villages with expansive estates. Some of the acquisitions, removed from the tax rolls, blend almost seamlessly into the sellers’ remaining property and effectively continue to be extensions of them.

And in those cases, the landowners not only got paid market value prices for what they sold to the public, they reduced their property tax burden because their retained private property got smaller.

“I thought it really benefited, mostly, the rich people on the North Shore,” said Victor Consiglio, a former Massapequa resident who was active in South Shore waterway cleanups and served on one of the advisory committees that recommended open space buys. “They’ll have all the access to that property just as if they never sold it, except now they pay less taxes.”

Defenders of the program said politics was never a consideration and that questions of access and geographic equity were always secondary to the mission of preventing development on the county’s last swaths of remaining untouched land, much of which had sensitive ponds, brooks or streams and was in a state-designated Special Groundwater Protection Area that encompassed northern Oyster Bay.

“We understand that trees help recharge our groundwater, they help clean our air. Wetlands clean the water as it leaves the land, before it gets into our beaches and bays,” said Lisa Ott, president and CEO of the North Shore Land Alliance, the Oyster Bay nonprofit that lobbied for the bond programs and had significant influence on what was purchased. “So what we have left is really precious.”

Land Alliance staff, board members and advisers involved in the bond act selection process supported the county spending millions of dollars on land owned by prominent contributors to the nonprofit, including some who gave it at least $10,000 in the years their properties were recommended and purchased.

If the seller also happened to be a political campaign contributor or Land Alliance backer, or have political ties to county government, it was secondary, Ott said, because each site was judged solely on environmental merits.

“These were peripheral details,” she said. “They weren’t even a part of the process.”

Many of the people who volunteered on the committees that reviewed open space nominations said they weren’t presented with those kinds of details to weigh.

“Someone may have known about it, but it wasn’t brought out,” said Gary Carlton, an attorney active in North Woodmere civic matters who served on one of the advisory committees and later ran for local offices as a Democrat.

Suozzi, a Glen Cove resident who served two terms as Nassau County executive, through 2009, when he lost to Mangano — and now represents the 3rd Congressional District — declined to speak in detail for this story. But in a brief interview, he defended the deals executed under his administration as well-vetted by the advisory committees and then widely supported by county lawmakers of both parties.

He also alluded to the properties purchased during his tenure as being bought for prices in the general range of assessments and appraisals, contrasting it with an acquisition under Mangano in which a political ally, Gary Melius, received more than double what his land had been valued under Suozzi.

An attorney for Mangano, who left office at the end of 2017, did not return a request for comment.

“These projects, from over a decade ago, were unanimously approved by the legislature in a bipartisan fashion. They went through a rigorous process with an independent committee of respected environmentalists,” Suozzi said. “In each instance, the amount paid for the properties were fair market value. I don’t know if the same can be said of projects that were done after my administration.”

But after being told that many people involved in the review process said they didn’t know some of the sellers’ connections, Suozzi acknowledged that some aspects could have been handled differently.

“Hearing all these details now, I remain very proud of this program and what was accomplished,” he said. “But there could have been more disclosure and transparency.”

Allan, however, insisted that in his particular transaction, “everything that was done was completely above board and clean. And it was probably because people knew that this could be misconstrued.”

Push to preserve

Nassau’s environmental bond program was established in 2004, after the Regional Plan Association had detailed how the county, without action, faced the prospect of losing all of its remaining unprotected open space in less than a decade. Preservationists urged Suozzi and the county legislature to back a referendum for the first $50 million in bonds, which passed overwhelmingly — as did another $100 million in 2006.

Of the total $150 million, $50 million was earmarked for park and storm-water improvements and brownfield remediation, projects that would help the central and southern portions of the county reap more program benefits. The rest was used for open space, with priority to farms and expanding existing preserves.

The bond acts required parcels to be recommended for purchase by an advisory committee appointed primarily by the county executive. The committee’s recommendations, based on criteria such as size, development pressure and importance to groundwater supply, were forwarded for votes by the county’s Planning Commission and the Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee, a separate appointed body to review public land buys. The county executive then signed off on selections before presenting them to the county legislature , where they needed approval by at least 13 of the 19 lawmakers.

Nassau’s process was missing some of the safeguards that Suffolk had installed in 2002, in response to controversy. After Suffolk’s real estate director negotiated the purchase of land at twice the appraised price from a business associate, that county began requiring that every transaction receive legislative authorization twice — once before appraisals and negotiations and then again to approve the acquisition.

“That kind of money just creates all kinds of temptations,” said Paul Sabatino, a former Suffolk legislative counsel and deputy county executive who helped write a series of ethics reforms in the county.

Nassau’s legislature, however, didn’t vote to approve the start of each property negotiation — only the borrowing of funds and final contract of sale. A review of transcripts from legislative meetings when acquisitions were approved shows that sellers’ ties to county politicians or the property selection process were never prominently raised.

The Planning Commission and Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee also didn’t focus on these aspects of the deals.

Suozzi appointed the majority of each 12-member advisory committee that, for the respective bond acts, reviewed and ranked nominations. Nominations could come from anywhere in the community but – for land that was ultimately purchased – were primarily made by a small circle of environmentalists, county legislators and the property owners themselves.

The advisory committees were largely the same for the 2004 and 2006 programs. Some were environmentalists, some were civic leaders, but most were also tied to the Democratic Party. In all, 11 of the 17 people who served on one or both advisory committees have been campaign donors to Suozzi, the county Democratic committee or a local Democratic club or candidate, records show.

The committees were chaired by Brian Muellers, a former Democratic county legislator from the county executive’s home base of Glen Cove. Many participants, however, point to the Land Alliance as holding great sway in the discussions. The nonprofit, whose board of trustees was led by Carter Bales and Luis Rinaldini, Manhattan private equity and investment firm founders living in the area’s incorporated villages, formed in 2003 to preserve some of the remaining tracts of open space in the area.

“In a word, Tom and I agreed on the need to protect the environment and the character of the community,” Bales wrote in an email, referring to Suozzi.

Rinaldini, who knew Suozzi from Glen Cove — and was an early supporter of his first county executive run — said in an interview that the Land Alliance saw the bond acts as the most realistic option to quickly preserve sensitive parcels. The Town of Oyster Bay had recently done something similar, and getting approval to dedicate a portion of recurring county tax revenue for open space, as Suffolk County has done for decades, had little support in Albany.

“We were actually pretty vigilant not to have what I would call irreconcilable conflicts,” Rinaldini said about vetting potential sellers. “If someone close to a politician happens to own land [that otherwise met the program’s environmental criteria], that’s fine. But it’s really more, ‘how did that decision get made’ and ‘does it fit?'”

When Suozzi established the first advisory committee in 2005, the Land Alliance was well represented. Besides Ott, it included Ralph Fumante, an alliance board trustee from Oyster Bay Cove who was also chairman of the county Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee, the separate oversight body that later signed off on all recommendations. Also serving with the county bond act advisory committee were alliance advisory board members Katie Schwab, then Suozzi’s deputy planning commissioner, and Neal Lewis, a county planning commission member.

Ott said the large preponderance of purchased land on the North Shore didn’t indicate disproportionate influence but, rather, a disproportionate balance of where remaining open space was: “You can only buy land where it exists,” she said, noting that the largest parcels of South Shore green space were already state or local parks.

The bulk of the $100 million for open space was spent under Suozzi. About $23 million in deals involved sellers who had been Suozzi campaign contributors, had been appointed by him to a government or campaign post or had ties to someone who had, or had been significant backers of the Land Alliance, Newsday found.

Under Mangano, with most of the open space money spent, the county did not convene a new advisory committee. The sole bond-act-funded acquisition initiated under his administration involved an old water utility property in Freeport, owned by Melius, an influential friend of the GOP county executive, which was bought for $6.2 million, more than double what the highest appraisal commissioned by Suozzi’s real estate office had valued it at: $2.7 million.

The Mangano administration had commissioned new appraisals of the land, and they came back at $6.3 million and $6.9 million.

Mangano, a Bethpage resident, also pushed the heavily criticized attempt to have the county buy the old nursery lot owned by Frank Camerlengo, his deputy parks commissioner, in Bethpage.

The Suozzi administration’s deal with Gordon Allan, for land that county appraisers said would be difficult to develop, was one of the last during his administration. It gained legislative approval in December 2008, after the recession had started, and didn’t close until Suozzi’s next-to-last day in office in December 2009.

But it had its origins more than three years earlier.

‘A divine thing’

The nine-acre Red Spring Woods parcel in Glen Cove, about a half-mile from where Suozzi lived, was bought by the county in September 2006, during the first environmental bond act process.

That was largely thanks to Allan, the Suozzi-appointed special assistant in the county personnel office, who had created a resident coalition that joined with the Land Alliance to push officials to preserve the land once they heard it had been acquired by a developer.

The group created a website, had its representatives speak at public meetings, hired a biologist to survey the trees and wildlife on the property and even published a member’s poem (“This lovely place of meditation, which should merit conservation/Is threatened by a builder’s desire for more McMansions, which has raised the ire/of the surrounding community/who say that they all agree/that this is Glen Cove’s last green space/a peaceful, special, hidden place…”)

It all led Al Cirignano, the Bayville-based developer, to abandon his plans to build six homes there and instead sell the land to the county for $4 million, about $500,000 more than he and his partner had paid for it several months earlier, records show.

“They even gave him a little plaque,” Al Cirignano Jr., the late developer’s son, recalled of Allan’s coalition, which also distributed plaques to Suozzi, Glen Cove city officials and environmentalists on the day it held a party to celebrate the county’s acquisition.

Allan’s motivation to save Red Spring Woods, he said, was always his father. The Rev. William Cameron Allan was a well-known Presbyterian minister in Glen Cove who served as chaplain to the city police and fire departments. He died in 1997.

He had cherished the woods behind the family home, so when the first county bond act funding came through, while Allan was looking for a way to stop development on it, Allan said, “I swear it sounds like a divine thing.”

Then came the additional $100 million in bond act funding.

“As soon as I heard,” Allan recalled, “I looked at the sky and said, ‘Dad, you did it again.'”

At the time, his mother, Gail, was living in the house on the family’s 2.6 acres, owned by Gordon Allan and his two brothers under a family trust.

She was looking to move into a retirement community, so Allan said he told her he’d approach the county and ask it to buy the land. Allan proposed a 1.77-acre subdivision for preservation and nominated it upon the second bond act program’s advisory committee convening in early 2007.

“I did nothing except go through the proper channels,” Allan said, noting that his nomination had to be vetted with all of the others to be recommended by the advisory committee.

Nassau’s first commissioned appraisal, in October 2007, valued the vacant land that Allan wanted split from the property at $700,000 but noted that it would be “costly and time consuming” to ever develop a new home there, citing its steep sloping, irregular shape and need for zoning variances. Five months later, in early 2008, a second appraisal valued the land at $550,000, saying “many hurdles” had to be overcome if it would ever meet its “highest and best use” as a residential plot, rather than undevelopable, less valuable vacant land.

No disclosure

Allan and his siblings signed the $600,000 contract of sale with Nassau in August 2008. On his disclosure form filed with the contract — titled “Disclosure of Those Affiliated with Nassau County” — Allan wrote “n/a” to the question of whether he held “any county, town or village public office in Nassau County.”

“If they would have asked ‘do you hold a job in government,’ I would have immediately put yes, because you can’t hide stuff like that,” Allan said.

County legislative committees and the full legislature each approved the purchase unanimously in December 2008, with no mention of Allan’s connections at any of the meetings, transcripts show.

By that point the economy had cratered and the value of all land had decreased. But Suozzi aides told legislators they believed they were getting a “good deal,” citing the first $700,000 appraisal, which at that point was more than a year old.

Then-Legis. Dave Denenberg, who chaired the planning, development and environment committee, asked Suozzi’s deputy real estate director, Sean Rainey, if he felt comfortable with the $600,000 sale price, wondering if the land had devalued even beyond the $550,000 appraised in early 2008.

“I feel comfortable with that number, because it was discounted enough where I don’t think it would make much of a difference,” Rainey replied, according a meeting transcript.

The deal wouldn’t close for another year — Dec. 30, 2009, two months after Glen Cove granted Allan the subdivision he needed to complete the sale.

“It bothers me, but we didn’t know,” said Denenberg — who left office in 2015 after a federal mail fraud conviction related to his private legal work — of voting for the deal without being informed of Allan’s county job. “We were trying to prevent that stuff all along, but if the people who knew didn’t disclose it, that was a problem.”

Allan, who lost his county position on the first day of the Mangano administration, now lives in the family home.

He said neither he nor Suozzi did anything wrong because he didn’t directly deal with Suozzi in the process, while citing the advisory committee as legitimately choosing his property for environmental reasons.

Suozzi declined to comment on specific bond act transactions.

“Tom is no fool,” Allan said. “Mr. Suozzi realized that when you spend this kind of money, you have to have checks and balances in place. Otherwise corruption will be rampant.”


Do you have information on any other sites purchased under Nassau’s environmental bond acts that remain obscured, hidden or lack sufficient public access? Contact Paul LaRocco at (631) 843-2736 or paul.larocco@newsday.com.

Nassau land deals saved acres of pristine property

Nassau County’s environmental bond act program, which dedicated $100 million to open space preservation, saved scores of acres of pristine land that could have been vulnerable to development.

Though several purchases – including those from politically connected sellers – were never fully enhanced for public access, as promised, there were others where the public benefit appears to be uncompromised.

“I don’t want the public to be left with the impression they got screwed, because I don’t believe that,” said Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director Adrienne Esposito, who served on the advisory committees that recommended open space purchases to then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi and the county legislature.

“I really feel this was an immensely successful program for Nassau County residents that leaves a better environmental legacy,” she said.

Voters approved the bond acts in 2004 and 2006. Between 2006 and 2012, Nassau closed on 23 properties totaling about 300 acres that the committees had recommended, using criteria such as size, connection to existing preserves and importance to groundwater supply.

Today, many are widely cited as successes:

  • The preservation of some of Nassau’s last remaining working farms. Under the first environmental bond act, the county spent $4.3 million on development rights to the 8.5-acre Meyer’s Farm in Woodbury and, in the second, bought the former 5-acre Grossman’s Farm in Malverne for $6.5 million, and the 2.5-acre Fruggie’s Farm in East Meadow for $2.1 million. The latter two have since been contracted out to nonprofits for continued operation.
  • The purchase of, or securing of development rights to, two portions of the Boegner Estate in Old Westbury. For $6.2 million, Nassau ensured that 47 acres would be preserved alongside Old Westbury Gardens’ existing 160 acres. The deal received legislative approval shortly before the 2006 death of the landowner, heiress Margaret Phipps Boegner, who had opened the nonprofit Gardens on the larger part of her family’s expansive grounds.
  • The acquisition of a Brookville horse farm, known as Old Mill, to ensure more affordable equestrian programs for all county residents, “not just for the select few,” as officials put it at the time. Nassau spent $12.1 million for the 40-acre site and has since contracted with a private company to run the renamed Nassau Equestrian Center.

Cynthia Cooper, a former Lakeview civic activist who served on the advisory committees, recalls researching the Old Mill property’s history and learning it was once a part of the Underground Railroad system that helped African-American slaves in the 1800s make their way into free states.

“It was one of the properties that really stuck with me,” Cooper said. “It had historical significance other than it being just a horse stable.”

The county also acquired land that helped connect a Mill Neck nature preserve with an existing Japanese stroll garden. It joined with the North Shore Land Alliance, the Oyster Bay nonprofit that played a significant role in the process, and a private investor to preserve a 60-acre field in Old Brookville.

That site had previously been owned by Banfi Vinters, but is now dedicated for use by local farmers.

The vista of rolling farmland over the horizon has become an attraction for visitors to nearby Youngs Farm, a popular purveyor of fresh produce and pies.

“That could be the poster child for what works in government,” the multigenerational farm’s owner, Paula Youngs Weir, said as she looked out the window of her farmstand shop.

Two landowners passed over for open space purchases 

One is a chicken farmer. The other was a clammer.

Each ran his long-standing family business at Nassau County’s poles: Lattingtown on the North Shore and Point Lookout along the South Shore.

And each once had interest, they said, in selling their properties to the county for preservation.

But under the county environmental bond programs, neither made the cut for receiving some of the $100 million that was dedicated to open space acquisitions.

Just why remains a matter of dispute. But both landowners — Eddie Armstrong of Armstrong Farm and Bob Doxsee Jr. of the former Doxsee Clams — were not connected in the way several sellers were, either as regular political contributors (they have combined to give $150 since 2006, none to a county office holder) or through ties to the advocacy group that pushed for many of the properties.

“I came out feeling like they didn’t want me,” said Armstrong, 83, who sells eggs from the roughly 500 chickens he raises on his Lattingtown property, a former dairy farm. “It takes the wind out of your sails.”

After the two bond acts passed in 2004 and 2006, more than 200 properties were nominated for preservation. An advisory committee of environmentalists, civic leaders and political appointees ultimately recommended about three dozen for purchase, including Armstrong’s eight-acre property and Doxsee’s half-acre parcel along Reynolds Channel.

They were among the 13 properties nominated by the bond act advisory committees that weren’t purchased.

Some, like an old power plant site in Glenwood Landing and land held by a private water company in Roosevelt that had been envisioned for a park, were simple cases of the owners being unwilling to sell, while sale of a former manufacturing site in Port Washington North fell through when a partnership with the village and North Hempstead Town broke down. A 40-acre site in Old Westbury, once owned by the Solomon Schechter Day School, had just been sold to a developer months before the county funding came through.

Why the Armstrong and Doxsee deals never materialized depends on whom you ask.

Armstrong’s land in bucolic Lattingtown village sits on the Special Groundwater Protection Area and abuts an existing nature preserve, much like the pieces of North Shore estates that the county prioritized. But Armstrong said he never felt as if the county was serious about buying his land for open space.

“They didn’t try very hard,” he said.

His property was recommended for purchase by the county advisory committees in both 2006 and 2007. But Armstrong said officials never made him an offer.

He said he recalled attending a meeting in Mineola, when officials first announced sites that had been recommended for purchase. He said then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi also once talked to him.

“Then nothing happened.”

Suozzi, a Glen Cove Democrat who now represents the 3rd Congressional District, declined to comment on specific transactions. But Lisa Ott, a member of the bond act advisory committee and president and CEO of the North Shore Land Alliance — the nonprofit that was the driving force behind many of the open space deals — disputes Armstrong’s recollection.

“We tried so hard on that one but Eddie Armstrong was just bound and determined,” Ott said.

She said Nassau was primarily interested in buying development rights to the six open acres of Armstrong’s land behind his chicken farm, but Armstrong said no to those terms.

Later, when Armstrong was more interested in the county’s proposal, Ott said, “there wasn’t enough money left.”

Armstrong said he recalls being told there wasn’t money left, but disputes that there was ever a point where he wasn’t interested, or interested only in a transaction the county didn’t want.

“No, I was always really interested,” he said in response. “They never offered me anything.”

Doxsee also said the county never engaged in strong negotiation.

At just a half-acre, his property overlooking Reynolds Channel in Point Lookout was one of the smallest parcels recommended for preservation. But it was zoned for as many homes as a 25-acre site in Mill Neck, owned by a Suozzi campaign contributor, that the county purchased for $8 million.

Its history as home to a beloved clamming business for more than 75 years also had many convinced of its worth, perhaps as a museum.

“I was disappointed,” Doxsee, 87, said in an interview. “I was open to it.”

Superstorm Sandy in 2012 ravaged what remained of Doxsee’s business, and he went on to sell the land to developers, who have since put up three single-family homes with backyard bay access.

“I guess it wasn’t a priority,” said County Legis. Denise Ford, a Long Beach Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, who had nominated the property for purchase. “It didn’t work and it was a heartbreak for me.”

She said she didn’t know the precise reason the property was never strongly pursued but said she suspected that the Suozzi administration was “trying to get the most for the money they were spending,” and focused on larger North Shore parcels.

Ott said she “wasn’t really involved” in negotiations for the Doxsee site. She recalled that “it was really supported by the community” and said she thought that the county “just couldn’t strike a deal.”

Still, Ford said it was disappointing that Doxsee did not get stronger consideration, seeing how little of the land preserved was in central Nassau or on the South Shore.

Nearly 95 percent of the roughly 300 acres preserved under the program was on the North Shore, where most of the available land is located.

“When you look at it, it was an unequal distribution of the money, in my mind,” Ford said.

Most land preserved through bond acts was on North Shore

Nearly 95 percent of the land preserved under Nassau County’s environmental bond acts was located on the North Shore – much of it portions of estates in exclusive Oyster Bay villages.

All involved in the program acknowledge that there was simply more available open space on the North Shore, since most in the more densely populated central and southern portions of the county were already preserved as state or municipal parkland.

But some argue that the split might have been slightly less disproportionate if the role of one advocacy group hadn’t loomed so large in the results.

The North Shore Land Alliance, a nonprofit formed in 2003, not only lobbied for passage of the 2004 and 2006 county bond acts – putting more than $200,000 into a political action committee that promoted the latter referendum – its members also nominated properties that were purchased with some of the $100 million in dedicated open space funds, and it had representation on the advisory committees that ultimately recommended those properties.

“They had a lot of influence,” said Victor Consiglio, a former South Shore resident who volunteered in waterway cleanup efforts and served on one of the bond act advisory committees. “There was pressure to try and get these bigger pieces up on the North Shore. The threat was: If we don’t buy it, the owners were going to sell it to developers.”

The bond act advisory committees were primarily appointed by then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Glen Cove Democrat who now represents the 3rd Congressional District. They included Land Alliance president and CEO Lisa Ott and several of the nonprofit’s board of trustees or advisory board members.

After the county’s environmental bond committee recommended its first set of properties for purchase in March 2006, the Land Alliance chairman, Carter Bales of Centre Island, and vice chairman, Luis Rinaldini of Old Westbury, gave Suozzi’s 2006 failed gubernatorial campaign a combined $4,500 over the next four months, records show. In the years since, they and their families have given his county executive and congressional campaigns another nearly $17,000 in total.

“I simply thought Tom was the best candidate for the job,” Bales said in an email, adding that Suozzi, to his memory, never solicited a campaign contribution.

Rinaldini said in an interview that he had supported Suozzi long before the bond acts: He met him in Glen Cove, before Suozzi was first elected the city’s mayor in the early 1990s, and although he is a Republican he consistently backed the Democrat’s campaigns both before he was elected Nassau County executive and his subsequent bids for higher office.

“Politicians get forced into certain things they can’t avoid: fundraising, etcetera,” Rinaldini said. “But at the end of the day there are some that are better than others, and Tom is one of those that, universally, he genuinely is better than others.”

A Land Alliance advisory board member at the time, attorney Peter MacKinnon, represented at various times, five landowners in their open space deals with the county, worth a combined $34.6 million.

MacKinnon, who has served as the village attorney for a number of North Shore villages, said in an email that he was referred to those sellers by a variety of sources, including a county real estate negotiator he had worked with on a prior deal. He said he inherited others from a former law partner, but did not cite the Land Alliance as a factor.

Still, one county bond act advisory committee member said he felt the Land Alliance “had a very large influence” on the program.

“They seemed to be rewarding certain people, and the benefit to residents and the taxpayers that were funding this was not necessarily realized as it should and could have been,” said Dan McCloy, who served on the committees as representative of the county legislature’s then-GOP minority.

Suozzi declined to speak in detail about the bond acts. But in a brief interview, he characterized the property vetting as “a rigorous process with an independent committee of respected environmentalists.”

According to an internal list of nominations under the second bond act, provided to Newsday by a person involved with the bond act advisory committee, the committee gave its top “A” ranking to 25 properties on the North Shore, encompassing more than 800 acres, and to 21 properties in the central or southern parts of the county, totaling about 120 acres.

Ultimately, the committee formally recommended purchase of 16 of the 25 top-rated North Shore properties, or 64 percent, but did the same for just 8 of the 21 top-rated properties elsewhere in the county, or 38 percent.

Ott, who was seen by other members as having the most knowledge of available land, said the advisory committee seriously reviewed all nominations over many months, after months of soliciting public input.

But it became clear, she said, that the land on the North Shore – much of which was in a state designated Special Groundwater Protection Area – provided the best ecological benefit and the best value, as land prices in parts of the county where denser development was allowed were much higher.

“You can buy one acre on the South Shore that might cost $2 million or you could buy 10 acres in the middle of the Special Groundwater Protection Area that costs $2 million,” Ott said. “So which is going to do the most good?”

Though the Land Alliance can acquire land for preservation on its own through purchase or gift, providing tax benefits to the owners, it found public purchase a better alternative.

“NSLA realized early on that many people could not afford to donate their land for conservation purposes,” the Land Alliance wrote in a 2006 newsletter. “As a result, we worked hard in 2004 to get the Nassau County Environmental Bond Program on the ballot and passed.”

Cynthia Cooper, a former Lakeview civic activist who served on both advisory committees and was involved in local Democratic politics, didn’t fault the North Shore Land Alliance. She said she was impressed by the natural beauty of a lot of the sites the group championed and said it was simply the “more proactive” of organizations involved in the process.

“They were ready when the money came through,” said Cooper, who worked to get some bond act funding for park improvements in minority communities such as Lakeview and Roosevelt. “When people are conscious of what’s happening in their community, they’re going to make out better than we are.”

Taxpayers bought this land. But much of it is hidden.

After 300 newly protected acres were bought under Nassau County’s two landmark Environmental Bond Acts, officials and program backers planned for welcome booths and walking trails, kayak launches and well-placed benches for contemplation.

“The only thing that I envision is to make it accessible to the public,” Tom Maher, environmental coordinator for then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi, told county legislators in July 2006, when the first six acquisitions were approved. “It’s the public that purchased these properties.”

More than a decade later, many of these plans haven’t materialized, a Newsday investigation has found, leaving the county with a hidden landscape of pristine open spaces that many of its residents never use and may not even know exist – though they continue to pay for it.

At one site, an Eagle Scout was responsible for the only substantial improvements: a small strip of fencing and a single gravel parking spot cut onto a narrow road shoulder.

At another, the modest county sign noting its public preservation disappeared for years.

At a third, a “Dead End” warning is posted on a chain-link fence blocking entry.

“There’s no real money to even patrol and keep an eye on these,” said Richard Schary, vice chairman of the county’s Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee, which reviewed environmental bond purchases.

The absence of once-promised markers, promotion and amenities affects about a third of the acres that Nassau spent $100 million on between 2006 and 2012, using bond proceeds voters approved in two referendums.

Some of the acquisitions extended nature preserves that had existed for decades, or kept the county’s last farms running and needed little in the way of enhancement.

But much of the newly created public green space – some of which was bought from people with ties to county politics, the property selection process or both – is marked by what isn’t there, starting with prominent entry points and informational kiosks.

County officials once estimated that these improvements would have cost less than $300,000 but later said a general lack of funds and resistance from environmentalists scuttled the plans. They also alluded to opposition to access enhancements from the people who had long held the properties, primarily pieces of tucked-away North Shore estates sold to Nassau for prices that sometimes eclipsed county appraisals or market value assessments.

“We went over and above to make sure every property would have access, and we got some pushback, believe it or not, from the families,” said Sean Rainey, the deputy real estate director under Suozzi who advocated for some of the never-realized plans, such as heavier promotion.

He recalled that he once had put up signs pointing visitors from an existing county preserve to newly acquired land across the street. Area residents who rode horses there, he said he believes, took them down.

“They didn’t like the fact the public was accessing the property that they felt they had a right to,” Rainey said.

Daniel Press, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California Santa Cruz, who has written extensively on government land preservation, said there is a higher chance of public disillusionment with open space programs that don’t strike the right balance between protecting sensitive parcels and making them known and accessible.

“If the public doesn’t feel like they have access to those big pieces – if they are remote or the recreational opportunities are not very good – then they feel resentful,” Press said. “The thought is, ‘We spent all this money, and we don’t have access here.'”

Suozzi, a Democrat who served as county executive from 2002 to 2009 – and now represents the 3rd Congressional District – declined to speak in detail about the bond acts, including property access issues. His political adviser, Kim Devlin, issued a statement that, in part, said the program “enabled the county to protect its precious resources from development and environmental degradation.”

Other bond issue backers built on that point, noting that access improvements and other issues should be considered secondary to ensuring that ecologically sensitive land is never developed.

“The idea was to preserve what’s left and I think we accomplished that,” said Adrienne Esposito, the Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director who also served on the county advisory committees that recommended parcels for purchase. “The subject of access can always be taken up. It’s not lost.”

The process laid out by the bond act referendums required parcels to be nominated to -and then recommended for purchase by – the advisory committees largely appointed by the county executive. Suozzi’s office signed off on the recommendations after obtaining approval from the county’s Planning Commission and Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee. As a last step, a supermajority of the county legislature had to vote in favor of each deal.

The advisory committees gave priority to potential open space purchases located in a special groundwater protection area, near existing preserves or under development pressure. Their report, however, also specifically noted that “accessibility to the public” was among the most important considerations for recommended parcels.

Lisa Ott, president and CEO of the North Shore Land Alliance, the Oyster Bay nonprofit that lobbied for the referendums and was involved in the property selection process, said access was always a goal. But she argued that the most important aspect was protecting land.

“The Democrats and Republicans came together,” Ott said, noting the unanimous approval of all bond act purchases by the 19-member county legislature as a rarity in Nassau politics. “They did something good for the future of Long Island and it was one of those brief and shining moments when the clouds aligned.”

Access plan stalls

The bond acts that passed overwhelmingly in 2004 and 2006 created $150 million in dedicated environmental funding; about $50 million was earmarked primarily for park and storm-water improvements. The rest was used for open space preservation through the acquisition of land or development rights.

Nearly all of that money was spent under Suozzi.

The timing of Suozzi’s surprise loss to Republican Edward Mangano in 2009 left many of the administration’s access promises – stated generally during public legislative meetings – unfulfilled. Staff under Mangano at first attempted to pick up the torch, in specific detail.

In 2011, county parks, public works and real estate officials jointly drafted an enhanced public access proposal that would have installed entryway kiosks, with maps and other information about the land, at 10 sites purchased with bond act funds, “proper signage” at nine sites, decorative post-and-rail fencing around the property boundaries at four sites and allocated money for surveys for new trails at three sites.

The so-called “Nassau County Open Space Plan,” never formally released but obtained by Newsday from the county, was developed “to find ways to better utilize” bond act purchases and “assure that these properties are accessible to residents.”

After asserting that some properties, such as the working farms, didn’t lend themselves to any improvements, the report concluded: “The county believes that the improvements described in this plan strike a balance between preservation of open space, accessibility to residents of Nassau County and wisely using the county’s financial resources.”

An engineering firm drew up proposals for some of the work, estimating its cost at $238,000.

At that point, nearly all of the open space funds had been used. The last transaction would come a year later, in 2012, when Mangano negotiated a deal to buy 4.2 acres of the old Brooklyn Water Works property in Freeport for $6.2 million. The property was owned by the influential developer and Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius, a Mangano friend who gave him thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

In paying Melius $3.5 million more for his land than its highest appraisal by the Suozzi administration, Mangano’s office was in line with the figures reached by its appraisers. But the higher price led to $4.5 million being taken from what little remained of the bond acts’ acquisition funds. So the county then tapped a separate open space account for the additional $1.7 million balance, taking more than half of what was available there at the time.

Mangano, who left office at the end of last year, recently stood trial on unrelated federal corruption charges, with the case ending in a mistrial. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Of the proposed access plan drafted in 2011, Brian Schneider, who worked on it for Mangano and now serves as a deputy county executive for his successor, Democrat Laura Curran, said: “It just kind of withered. I don’t think we really had clear direction.

“Some people had strong opinions about it [getting done], other people were like, ‘This needs to be left alone.'”

Today, Nassau has agreements with the Land Alliance for basic maintenance and upkeep of some sites.

In explaining the lobbying she sometimes had to do to persuade estate owners to sell land to the county, Ott acknowledged the mindset that caused pushback to access.

“It was a risk for people to sell their land to the government. They didn’t know if tour buses…” she said, her thought trailing off. “They were fearful.”

‘People’s backyards’

During legislative discussion on the 11-acre old-growth forest in Glen Cove dubbed “Red Spring Woods,” some lawmakers, led by then-Planning, Development and Environment Committee chairman Dave Denenberg, said they were uncomfortable with the property’s location within a ring of residential homes.

He called the preserve, in essence, “people’s backyards.”

“If we’re protecting your backyard, it better be open,” Denenberg, in an interview, recalled telling Suozzi administration officials.

The lawmaker – who left office in 2015 after his guilty plea to federal mail fraud charges related to his private law firm work – extracted pledges that they’d eventually provide signage, parking, a clear entryway and marked trails at the Glen Cove site and others.

“That’s the intent to do with all of the properties, create trail maps so people can access the properties,” Maher repeated in 2008. “But it takes a little time to put it together.”

At Red Spring Woods, the county only erected a small sign noting the land’s preservation as open space – one in which Suozzi’s name was later plated over with that of his successor, Mangano. A narrow gravel cutout on the shoulder of the road, barely enough for a single car, and a small strip of post-and-rail fence were put in not by Nassau, but by the Eagle Scout.

New, marked trails were never cut through the property and an informational kiosk, including a map, was never placed at the entryway. And walking onto the property, with little designation of its boundaries, feels akin to trespassing onto people’s backyards.

One yard belongs to Gordon Allan, who was Suozzi’s special assistant in the county personnel office at the time he sold 1.77 acres of his family’s land to the county for $600,000, to extend the initial 9-acre Red Spring Woods purchase.

The most significant completed aspects of the county’s 2011 access plan were small gravel parking lots installed, at costs of roughly $37,000 each, at the 25-acre Mill Neck property that was split from the estate of Adele Smithers, the philanthropist who had been a campaign contributor to Suozzi; and at the 29-acre Red Cote Preserve in Oyster Bay Cove, put together with parts of the three estates owned by Land Alliance financial backers and the ex-in-laws of Suozzi’s onetime deputy planning commissioner, Katie Schwab.

Rainey, the deputy real estate director under Suozzi, advocated for the parking lots and said the one at Red Cote Preserve, especially, received “pushback” from residents and officials of exclusive Oyster Bay Cove, which has a population of roughly 2,000 people and a median household income of $250,000, according to census figures.

“They didn’t want a parking lot there. We said, ‘You have to. You have to put access to the public,'” he recalled.

But most residents wouldn’t know the parking lot exists, because at the preserve’s most visible frontage point – the corner of Route 25A and Yellow Cote Road – the only sign is for a private school a half-mile up the road. The sign there that noted the county land’s preservation has been missing for at least six years.

The preserve’s parking lot also long had no sign indicating its public ownership – until a small one was placed there in late May, following Newsday inquiries.

“It kind of annoys me, because that’s publicly preserved land,” Rainey said.

Thomas Pulling, a Suozzi campaign and Land Alliance contributor who sold 16 acres of his family’s land to the county for $6.5 million – making up the largest portion of the Red Cote Preserve – said he and his sister, who sold a smaller portion of land toward it, “never would or have discouraged use of the property.”

However, he added: “Kiosks and signs and fencing would be sort of the counter to the fact that open space really needs to look as natural as possible.”

Within the last month, officials for the first time placed a small informational kiosk – featuring a map and description of the site’s meadow and woodland wildlife – at the foot of the parking lot.

At Red Spring Woods, residents who supported the land’s preservation say its value as a site of quiet recreation is unfulfilled, as its lack of parking or delineation and its location in a residential neighborhood removed from any main county thoroughfares discourages wider public use.

“As far as being a benefit to the county at large, I’d probably say no,” said David Nieri, a Glen Cove resident who designed a website for the Coalition to Save Red Spring Woods, a local group that pushed for its preservation. “The only benefit I saw is that it’s one additional parcel of woods that won’t be developed.”

“Most people don’t even know about that spot,” said Rainey, who produced a pamphlet advertising county open space acquisitions that never received prominent display or distribution.

In addition, neither Red Spring Woods nor Red Cote are listed among county operated preserves on the county’s website.

‘You can hop a fence’

The county’s 2011 draft access plan also proposed drawing attention to a 3.4-acre cluster of wetlands on a peninsula in Baldwin Harbor. Nassau bought the lots composing the site for $4.8 million using bond act funds.

The report proposed prominent signage and an informational kiosk. Advocates for the purchase said they once envisioned a public kayak launch.

Today, however, it is fenced off from public access, with a “Dead End” sign at the end of the residential block it sits on. Even the small, ceremonial sign marking its preservation as open space is blocked and obscured.

“You can hop a fence and go through there,” said Schneider, noting that the barrier was erected, at a cost of $12,710, because of concerns from residents who live at the end of the block about parking, security and maintenance. “There really isn’t that much to see.”

But in 2006, when Maher was pitching legislators on acquisition of the bulk of the property, he noted adjacent land already owned by Nassau, saying, “we could build onto that and really make it into something that is attractive and very useful to the residents of Nassau County on the South Shore.”

Jimmy Vilardi, the developer who held the majority of the Baldwin Harbor lots – before selling them for $4 million to the county after his luxury housing proposal hit resident opposition – said he no longer has a vested interest in what happens there. But he said the vistas from the site across the bay made it worthy to try to provide access to.

“It’s a beautiful piece. Totally open bay,” said Vilardi, an elected Republican Town of Hempstead sanitary district commissioner who also serves as chairman of the county bridge authority. “It would be nice if they set these things up for some public use.”

A one-acre plot of wetlands along a canal in Seaford, purchased in 2008 for $635,000, runs parallel to the county’s Cedar Creek Park on one side and is surrounded by homes on the other. Ott called it a “beautiful, serene spot where you can [imagine] a bench, and people walking.”

“And there were lots and lots of birds there the day we visited,” she said, noting how she envisioned the property would be appreciated. “There was just nothing there that was really undeveloped and gave people a place to sit and reflect and ponder.”

Like the other properties, however, the county never installed an entry kiosk or the decorative fencing around its borders. Today, “No Trespassing” signs are posted on utility poles along the curb, while the lack of clear signage and a thick wall of overgrown brush suggests no real access point to the waterside strip.

“So what did we accomplish?” said Victor Consiglio, a former Massapequa resident who volunteered in local waterways cleanup efforts and served on one of the county advisory committees that recommended bond act purchases. “We helped the landowner.”

Gary Carlton, an attorney and North Woodmere civic activist who served on the same advisory committee, took the opposite viewpoint: “I think in a lot of ways it was more important that the county just preserve this for the environmental purpose, rather than think it was going to be a big public access space.”

Schneider, who inherited management of some of the open space purchases after they were finalized, said he could see both points of view but noted that county officials could have more clearly and explicitly drawn up access plans before closing on deals.

Many deals were rushed through in a matter of months, with environmentalists warning that prospective sellers would turn to developers if Nassau didn’t act with urgency.

“They just did it,” Schneider said. “There was no wherewithal of thought of the next step.”


Do you have information on any other sites purchased under Nassau’s environmental bond acts that remain obscured, hidden or lack sufficient public access? Contact Paul LaRocco at (631) 843-2736 or paul.larocco@newsday.com.

With new players, will LI’s entrenched system survive?

Oheka Castle’s grand ballroom has been home to decades of fundraisers, weddings and parties for Long Island’s elite. In a small, linen-white dining room nearby, intimate networking lunches hosted by the influential Independence Party have drawn a steady stream of judges and law clerks. Down in the basement is what the castle’s proud proprietor, Gary Melius, calls his “man cave,” where some of the Island’s most powerful figures have smoked cigars and traded stories.

The castle has stood unrivaled as an expression of power on Long Island, and its bonding rituals provide a blueprint of how local influence operates, bearing fruit for Melius, his allies and many others. Whatever it costs the public, for those in power the system works.

The grand tour

Melius nearly lost his life in the shadow of his greatest success.

From the day he bought the abandoned castle, in 1984, Melius dedicated himself to restoring Oheka. He sold it in 1988 for $22.5 million to a Japanese billionaire accused of negligence in a hotel fire that killed 33 people, and years later bought it back from the businessman’s family for a third of that recorded price.

He was cited for ignoring fire safety and zoning laws and fought his neighbors, but after an aggressive political and public relations campaign, he won approval from Huntington officials he had supported to operate the castle as a commercial enterprise. Over the years, he said, he had invested millions renovating the castle, trying to recapture its original look.

He transformed what was then a 127-room mansion into an exclusive setting for lavish wedding receptions, the home of a high-end restaurant and boutique hotel, and a mingling ground for Long Island’s political, law enforcement and judicial elite.

A night at the hotel can cost more than $1,000, a catered event tens of thousands — up to $500 a head, in addition to a rental fee of up to $12,000. Restaurant guests can sample appetizers like lobster meatballs for $20 or steak entrees for up to $55.

The curious can book tours, with prices ranging from $15 to $100, according to Oheka’s website.

There’s a lot to see.

Start at the main entrance, where the marble steps, wrought-iron railings of the grand staircase, and shimmering crystal chandelier offer an expansive introduction to a mansion where F. Scott Fitzgerald was supposed to have gotten inspiration for Jay Gatsby’s fantasy palace in fictional West Egg, Long Island.

These days, it has been used as a location for Taylor Swift’s 2014 “Blank Space” video about a woman living the Gatsby life who unleashes her fury on a cheating beau in, of all places, a castle parking lot.

Just outside the castle are the gardens and Great Lawn, where Melius holds an annual Garden Party hosted by Friends of Oheka, a nonprofit formed to raise restoration money and public awareness of the castle. After buying tickets, party guests may rent antique Gatsby-style attire and props, like tommy guns, through an Oheka website.

Musicologist Roger Hall, who had lived as a student at the Eastern Military Academy when it was located at Oheka, created a website called “Memories of Oheka.” On it, and in a subsequent interview, he described a 2004 garden party where, he said, Huntington Councilman Mark Cuthbertson played Jay Gatsby. Cuthbertson said he did not remember doing so.

The formal gardens, with eight reflecting pools, three fountains and assorted statuary, are also a popular spot for weddings, among them those of the singer Kevin Jonas; Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in a ceremony officiated by former President Bill Clinton; and the late mob boss John Gotti’s grandson, John Agnello, with his proud mother, Victoria Gotti, looking on.

The 23-foot-high Grand Ballroom, lit by crystal and silver wall sconces, dominates the second floor. The sleek bar and restaurant are open to the public, and Melius often stops in to greet guests, on occasion showing them just where in the head he was shot.

In the morning, guests can breakfast in the yellow Terrace Room, added to accommodate larger events, or stroll amid the gardens.

Oheka, Melius has said, “is a place of happiness.”

The insider’s tour

But there’s another tour of Oheka that can be constructed, shaped by the workings of Long Island politics.

This is a more private world of cigar parties, man-cave gatherings, power lunches and political and judicial candidate screenings, over which Melius has at times presided, where local players forge relationships and cut deals outside public view.

Politically, the result is something in which Oheka has served less as a backdrop than an agent.

“Politics is a perception business, and if you can represent yourself as someone who can move votes or move money, or both, you’re powerful,” said Jay Jacobs, the Nassau Democratic leader with whom Melius has had a tumultuous relationship. “Oheka is an imposing, magnificent facility. I liken going to Oheka Castle to in some respects going into the Oval Office.”

In this world, it’s not a wedding involving a pop star that catches the eye. It’s weddings of people like Steven Schlesinger.

Schlesinger, then counsel to the Nassau Democratic Party, married Caryn Fink, a law clerk, there in March 2014, filling the grand ballroom, restaurant and bar.

Assemb. Phil Ramos and his wife, Angela, held their wedding reception in the Terrace Room in 2015, documenting the event in an elaborate video.

Chuck Ribando, former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano’s deputy for public safety, held his daughter’s wedding at Oheka when he was chief investigator for then-Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

For at least some insiders, the payment terms are different from what Melius normally charges. In an August 2014 interview, he said he routinely gives discounts to law enforcement personnel and personal friends, including those in politics. He didn’t offer examples. But Schlesinger didn’t pay for his wedding until five months later, a day after a Newsday reporter made inquiries about judicial assignments he and other associates of Melius had received. He produced a $75,000 check as proof of payment.

Financial interactions involving Melius and Schlesinger drew the interest of the courts, where an examiner found later that there had been no invoices for the wedding at Oheka and that an internal worksheet listed no money due and contained the word “barter.”

The Friday cigar nights, at which a strong law enforcement contingent has mingled with the Island’s elite, have been held in the castle’s courtyards, according to several regular attendees. Mangano dropped in regularly with then-County Sheriff Michael Sposato often driving. Alfonse D’Amato, the former U.S. senator who remains politically involved, has also popped by occasionally.

Robert Hart, who headed the Long Island FBI office and has served as a deputy Nassau police commissioner, has attended, as has Malcolm Smith, once the Democratic leader of the State Senate who was convicted on corruption charges involving his would-be New York City mayoral campaign in 2013.

Sprinkled through many of the rooms have been several decades of fundraisers for such figures as state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, Mangano, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, then-Suffolk Legis. Lou D’Amaro, and Steve Levy, then-Suffolk County executive. In an interview, Melius said he had hosted in-kind fundraisers for Levy and D’Amaro, meaning that he donated the cost of the events to their campaigns.

Many of those closest to Melius have often been invited to the library for brandy and cigars. State Independence Party leader Frank MacKay, who has posted Oheka photos on his Facebook page, has been one. Mangano has been another.

Far removed from the public tour, past the basement bakery and laundry, there’s what Melius calls the man cave, which remained unfinished as the rest of Oheka was reborn, with wooden planks leading to a wall lined with urinals. Melius has one rule for that room: No women allowed — even politicians he’s trying to cultivate.

In a March 2012 email to Rice, then the Nassau district attorney, in which he passed along the resume of a good friend’s son, Melius wrote: “Hi, Kathleen, I really enjoyed the other night, lots of laughs. Sorry I couldn’t bring you to the man cave, wink wink — but rules are rules.” That email and other emails provided by the district attorney’s office show no response from Rice, and her office said she made none.

The Chaplin Room, where the fuchsia walls are lined with photos and posters of the Little Tramp, is another special place. Although the public can rent it for parties, it outranks even the man cave as a home of political muscle-flexing. Beyond the election night gatherings that have drawn former Congressmen Steve Israel and Gary Ackerman, and other top elected officials, the truly special event is the running poker game, where the regulars have included D’Amato, Schlesinger and Dennis Lemke, a prominent criminal defense attorney, others who have attended said.

The Chaplin Room also has been used by the Independence Party to screen candidates for office, according to Jacobs, the Nassau Democratic chief. Oheka is the unofficial headquarters of the party, which has drawn enough votes to sway judicial elections in Suffolk and provides a platform for MacKay to negotiate complicated cross-endorsements that can assure a candidate’s victory.

“If you’re the Independence Party, your home court is an advantage,” Jacobs said.

Melius has been listed as the party’s chief adviser, and he has paid MacKay, the party’s statewide and Suffolk County chief, as a public relations executive at Oheka. In 2016, MacKay earned between $20,000 and $50,000 according to state filings that require party leaders to list outside income in broad ranges. In previous years, he made between $100,000 and $150,000 annually. Oheka also employs Richard Bellando, the party’s Nassau head and Melius’ former son-in-law.

A dining room lined with silk murals has hosted what MacKay calls “power networking luncheons,” where he and Melius have brought together Broadway producers, local politicians, law clerks and judges.

Judges are prohibited from politicking, so casual gatherings with party leaders offer an opportunity to get known. The connections can be useful.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the history of Thomas Whelan, who, while Babylon Town attorney in 1988, drove across the median on the Southern State Parkway and hit an oncoming car, seriously injuring a Commack man.

Whelan was charged with second-degree assault, vehicular assault and driving while intoxicated. He ultimately was convicted of three misdemeanors and a violation and sentenced to probation for 3 years. He was not reappointed by the town when his term expired.

It was a setback that could derail a career.

But in 2000, Whelan, who is godfather to MacKay’s daughter, saw his career resurrected after MacKay constructed a complex cross-endorsement deal on his behalf. By agreeing to Independence Party backing for Democratic candidates, MacKay persuaded the Democrats to back Whelan for a Suffolk Supreme Court judgeship, party leaders told Newsday at the time. He also secured Conservative and Working Families lines.

With those cross-endorsements, Whelan won with the highest vote in the 10th Judicial District.

By 2011, his career in full bloom, Whelan was assigned to one of Suffolk’s three commercial courts, where business litigation and foreclosures provide opportunities for coveted judicial appointments for lawyers and property managers to oversee troubled assets.

Whelan was also a welcome guest at Oheka and attended the castle’s posh Super Bowl parties, Melius recalled in an interview.

In an interview with Newsday editors last year, Melius readily acknowledged Oheka’s popularity, and his. “Everybody comes to me,” he said. “You know why? I deliver if I can. If I can’t, I tell you. I don’t pay anybody off.”

Power in action

Oheka’s power hubs intersect freely, particularly over arcane opportunities that only political insiders might recognize.

One involved Oheka itself, already the beneficiary of many decisions by the Huntington Town Board that allowed and expanded commercial activity in a residential neighborhood. Many board members frequented the castle, had become Melius’ friends and received generous campaign contributions from him. They credited their decisions with restoring an architectural gem.

But those decisions paled in potential impact to one they made in 2012 permitting construction of 191 condos on the property projected to sell for between $1 million and $5 million. The potential value created by their vote could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Cuthbertson, a Democratic board member whom other guests recall seeing at annual garden parties at Oheka and who received more than $30,000 in contributions from Melius over the years, opened the way in 2009. He sponsored a resolution establishing cluster zoning of golf courses — including the one next to Oheka. Such zoning allows a developer to build more units than normally permitted in one area of the cluster in exchange for preserving open space in another.

Cuthbertson then sponsored the critical 2012 zoning change to allow 191 condominium units on the property, which passed unanimously. Oheka Castle is 109,000 square feet. The proposed condo complex would be 393,427 square feet.

At the time, Cuthbertson was engaged with Melius in another lucrative public realm. They and Melius’ daughter, Kelly Melius-DiPreta, were involved in two court-appointed receiverships that earned the three a total of $284,000 in fees and expenses.

Cuthbertson did not disclose those ties at the time of the town board’s vote. He said this was because his was a “parallel” relationship in which a judge appointed him and the Meliuses separately, although he did acknowledge that he had recommended Melius-DiPreta for her assignment. The town ethics board, whose members are appointed by the town board, later found that he committed no “technical ethical violation,” but said Cuthbertson should disclose such appointments in the future.

The judge in both receiverships was Whelan.

When he was assigned the case of a foreclosed medical building in Islandia in 2008, Whelan named Cuthbertson to the role of receiver, the person who manages a building’s finances and overall operation.

Whelan chose Melius to run the building day-to-day as property manager. He was not on an approved list of professionals established by the courts after repeated scandals involving judicial appointments of donors and cronies.

Because Melius was not on the list, court rules required Whelan to write a finding “of good cause” to appoint him. In similar instances, other judges have cited a person’s particular expertise with an unusual type of property, like a horse farm. The Islandia property is an office building.

Whelan declared that Melius had “the appropriate ethical character” for the post.

Whelan’s lawyer, Clifford Robert of Uniondale, said in a statement that the judge, who was subsequently transferred out of the commercial part, had “proudly upheld the highest standards of both the practice of law and of the judiciary.”

Cuthbertson, who was paid $101,594 for his role in the Islandia building, said in an interview that he had recommended Melius’ daughter as manager for a subsequent receivership, because he thought she was well qualified.

Altogether, Melius and friends and allies collected more than $750,000 in fees from four receiverships. Among those allies were his former son-in-law, Bellando; his lawyer, Ronald Rosenberg, and Schlesinger, court records show.

Coveted appointment

Schlesinger, meanwhile, has reaped rewards in another judicial sphere and shared them with a charity created by Melius, his Oheka poker pal.

He was appointed by the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court to manage a foundation created by Shirley Gitenstein of Atlantic Beach after her death in 2007. The Kermit Gitenstein Foundation, with $11.4 million in assets, financed Jewish causes and health care.

This kind of appointment is coveted by politically connected lawyers because foundations created by wealthy individuals who die without heirs need to be managed and their funds distributed. The fees for carrying out these functions can be substantial. Records show Schlesinger earned more than $100,000.

Schlesinger gave $250,000 of the Gitenstein money to the Elena Melius Foundation, named for Melius’ mother. The donation came two days before Schlesinger’s wedding. He also provided $50,000 of the Gitenstein Foundation’s money to a charity started by another Oheka poker pal, D’Amato, who spent the money on a water park that was built in his hometown, Island Park.

In May 2016, the newly elected Nassau Surrogate’s Court Judge Margaret C. Reilly issued a scathing ruling and removed Schlesinger, calling him “unfit” because he had engaged in potential self-dealing, exceeded his authority as receiver, and had failed to comply with court orders.

Joseph W. Ryan Jr., appointed by the court to examine the case, found that Schlesinger had allowed Melius to direct where thousands of dollars in grants from the Gitenstein Foundation should go. Reilly said that was a conflict of interest, citing an email to Melius from Schlesinger’s legal assistant that asked him “to list the organizations Gary Melius decided on and the amounts requested . . . I don’t want to miss any.”

Both the state attorney general’s office and the Eastern District of the U.S. attorney’s office investigated the transactions. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

In a court settlement related to the state attorney general’s office inquiry, Schlesinger agreed to stop taking commissions from the foundation and pay back $150,000 he’d earned as receiver. He was forbidden to serve on a nonprofit or charity for five years.

Schlesinger declined to be interviewed for this story. He said in a statement that he had made “no admission of wrongdoing.” His spokesman, Gary Lewi, has said Schlesinger “discharged his fiduciary duty appropriately.”

Melius has strongly denied any wrongdoing.

Partnership deteriorates

Other deals involving Melius imploded because of friction between him and his partners. One involved an engineer, John Ruocco, who created a company, Interceptor Ignition Interlocks, that produced a device to prevent people convicted of drunken driving from starting their cars if inebriated.

To get an edge on the competition in the market, court records show, he gave Melius nearly 3 million shares of stock in return for help in getting Nassau and Suffolk to enact regulations that mandated use of technology employed by his company.

Melius reached out to his contacts, including D’Amaro, the Suffolk legislator for whom he sponsored an Oheka fundraiser, and the Mangano administration. Both counties approved regulations that favored the company’s technology, and Interceptor’s market share soared.

Interceptor’s market share went from 7 percent to 54 percent in Nassau. In Suffolk, the company’s market share increased from 13 percent to 22 percent.

But the partnership deteriorated. Melius sued Ruocco, and, with the approval of both sides, the case was decided by Whelan. He issued a ruling that gave Melius control of the company’s stock.

A New York State appeals court eventually reversed Whelan’s decision, saying that he had failed to hold a jury trial, as Ruocco had requested, and thus should not have granted summary judgment in favor of Melius. Ruocco has said he hopes he can revive the company.

Prior to the appeals court decision in December 2016, Melius had struggled to put Interceptor completely under his control.

At the first board meeting after Whelan’s decision, on Feb. 21, 2014, Melius added one ally to the board but was unable to gain a majority.

Three days later, Melius was shot.

A shooting unfolds

The grainy video lasts all of 49 seconds. It starts with Gary Melius in a dark winter jacket striding on a diagonal from the lower right of the frame across the rear parking lot of Oheka Castle. After about 12 seconds, he reaches the driver’s side of his black Mercedes and lowers himself in.

As he does, a dark sedan leaves the lot. It circles behind him, slows briefly and pulls out of the frame.

Eighteen seconds later, a tall man wearing a winter jacket becomes visible getting out of an SUV at the far left of the frame, hunching a bit and moving quickly as he snakes among three cars to reach the driver’s side of the Mercedes. Only the back of his head is visible as he fires the shot that strikes Melius in the left temple. He remains there two and a half seconds.

The gunman then hustles away, crouching at two points looking toward his hands and then back at the car, as a worker emerges from behind a building at the parking lot’s edge. Next, the shooter vanishes, about 13 seconds after he first appeared.

He remains unidentified to this day.

After the shooting, detectives sought the names of Melius’ adversaries, trying to determine who might have a motive for doing him harm.

They knocked on a lot of doors, including that of Ruocco, whose former lawyer said he is not a suspect in the case.

“Simply put, there are so many suspects,” a law enforcement official who has been briefed on the investigation said in 2017.

Another law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the case said it quickly became clear that Melius “was connected to everybody” and that the list of potential suspects grew to more than 60 people.

Russian mobsters were caught on tape chuckling about the shooting, according to a law enforcement source, but that lead went nowhere. In the interview with Newsday editors, Melius voiced suspicions about a restaurateur, but nothing has surfaced about that, either.

Melius’ friends and family offered a $100,000 reward and hired a billboard truck, which was briefly parked in a Newsday lot to announce it.

But an official involved in the case said that when questioned, Melius had given leads to detectives that did not prove fruitful.

Melius said he has cooperated fully with police. But he may have hinted at tensions with law enforcement authorities’ handling of the investigation in a comment to Newsday reporters several months after the shooting about the prosecutor heading the investigation, Nancy Clifford. “If I don’t like her, I won’t tell you,” he said.

He blamed the police department and Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota for failing to solve the shooting in the interview with Newsday editors. Spota was indicted last year for allegedly obstructing a federal investigation into the beating of a prisoner by former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke and its cover-up.

“I think the PD screwed up, Tommy Spota screwed up by not putting out the picture of that car,” Melius said, referring to the fact that the Suffolk Police Department released the video two years after the shooting. A spokesman for Spota said last year that it is standard procedure not to release such videos in an ongoing investigation.

The police department declined to respond to requests for comment.

Burke, the police chief who headed the shooting investigation, went to federal prison in 2017 for his assault of a suspect in 2012. Spota, Burke’s longtime mentor, and one of his chief aides were indicted in October 2017, accused of being involved in covering up the assault. Spota retired in November, maintaining his innocence.

The fallout

Since the shooting, FBI agents have carted away boxes of material from Oheka. Melius said the agents had found nothing incriminating. “The FBI came to me and they wanted my stuff and I gave them 180 boxes of stuff,” he said. “And you know how many I had my lawyer look at? None. I have nothing to hide. I gave them everything.”

Melius said his life has fallen apart, as well. He can’t drive because he suffers seizures, and he can no longer enjoy a bourbon or a cigar, he told Newsday editors.

His wry conclusion: “I will never do that again, getting shot in the head.”

Oheka is also hurting. It had a net operating income of $2.38 million in 2014, according to Bloomberg’s financial data. That fell to $1.82 million in 2015 and $742,577 a year later.

In July 2015, Melius’ mortgage company, LNR Property LLC of Miami Beach, noted that Oheka required “substantive repairs” and needed a monthly budget of $72,455 for maintenance.

In December 2015, he stopped making mortgage payments, according to Trepp LLC, a Manhattan property data company. He was hit with a foreclosure lawsuit that continues. As of January, he owed $26 million on Oheka’s two mortgages.

“I am not sitting up there counting bills and money,” he said. “I don’t have it. I’m fighting for my life.”

The long shadow Oheka casts over local politics seems to have grown a little shorter, too. Meetings with party leaders, other than MacKay, have diminished, by many accounts.

Facing tough odds

At times like these, the cozy network of Long Island politics has been Melius’ reliable safety net.

In mid-August, as the battered Mangano administration faced its last months in office, it placed an item on the Nassau Legislature’s agenda that would allow Melius to connect Oheka, which is close to the Nassau-Suffolk border, to Nassau’s sewage system — quite literally the last link needed to fully realize a vision of Oheka he has harbored since 1984.

The hookup would handle a projected 156,000 gallons of wastewater a day from the condos Melius won approval to build in 2012. The proposed agreement called for Melius to pay $425,000 to connect to the Nassau system, as well as $23,000 for a sewer permit.

For a proposed development across the street from Oheka, the figures are strikingly different. It would pay more than twice as much for fewer than half the units and less than a third of the projected wastewater.

When news of the proposal emerged, the item was yanked from the agenda and, in an anti-corruption-themed campaign season, both candidates to succeed Mangano immediately voiced skepticism.

Melius told a reporter in October that he would not comment because the Newsday news article on the sewer hookup had “cost me millions.”

A new leader has taken the helm in Nassau, with Laura Curran, a Democrat, as the new county executive. In Suffolk, upstart Democrat Timothy Sini has taken over the district attorney’s job. They have promised to restore integrity to government.

But in an election season imbued with the drumbeat of reform, there were quieter lessons about the resilience of machine politics. In Suffolk, the Democrat, Errol Toulon Jr., defeated a Republican in the county sheriff’s race with Conservative and Independence Party support, which provided the margin of victory.

Sini won after a similar cross-endorsement deal. Curran celebrated her victory at a news conference in which she stood next to Nassau’s Democratic leader, Jacobs.

Melius, now 73, with many friends fading from the scene or already gone but others holding fast, finds himself again in a place both precarious and familiar — facing seemingly tough odds on the playing field of Long Island politics.

The question is whether the rules of the game have changed, or whether they easily can be.

A politically motivated arrest on a public bus

A sergeant and two plainclothes detectives from the Nassau County Police Department stopped a bus in Hempstead Village on an October evening in 2013 and arrested Randy White as he was traveling to visit his nieces.

White’s apprehension and the incarceration that followed came days after he had given critical courtroom testimony against Andrew Hardwick, an ally of Gary Melius, that threatened to upend the Oheka Castle owner’s effort to sway the pending Nassau County executive race.

White’s testimony so troubled Melius that he telephoned Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale, a friend whom Melius had recommended for the job, to say that Hardwick’s county executive campaign “wanted to file a perjury charge against” the 29-year-old White, according to findings District Attorney Kathleen Rice issued after her office investigated the case.

When Dale’s officers could not find evidence of perjury, they found another justification for apprehending White: an outstanding warrant — one not even entered in the department’s computer system, according to a sergeant involved — issued for White’s failure to pay a fine in a misdemeanor case involving bootleg DVD sales.

Following Melius’ call, police jumped White’s open warrant ahead of 50,000 others. Half were arrest warrants, which involve criminal violations and are supposed to be the department’s priority. Roughly 2,000 were felony warrants. White’s warrant was a bench warrant, typically issued for noncriminal violations like failure to pay traffic tickets. At the time, there were 25,000 open bench warrants in Nassau.

Hardwick was then a long-shot, third-party candidate for Nassau executive. Victory was unlikely, but his fledgling campaign had the potential to draw votes away from the Democratic challenger to Republican Nassau Executive Edward Mangano, a Melius friend and ally.

The political motivation for White’s arrest became all the more apparent when the sergeant served him with a civil subpoena from Hardwick’s attorney while White was in police custody. The campaign of Hardwick, a former Freeport mayor, wanted White back in court to re-examine him. Earlier he had testified that he’d been paid by the signature when collecting petitions for Hardwick, a violation of state election law that could endanger a campaign.

In targeting White, who has a learning disability, Melius acted not against another player in the bruising arena of Long Island politics, but a vulnerable civilian whose sworn court testimony had created a political obstacle. Top Nassau law enforcement leaders, some with personal ties to Melius, led the arrest effort.

Rice’s investigation determined that the incident, while troubling, did not include criminal misconduct warranting prosecution or involve Mangano or those in his administration. Newsday, however, has discovered unreported information that raises new questions about the scandal.

Key police officials at the center of the White matter told Newsday they were interviewed not by Rice’s investigators but by Nassau police internal affairs personnel. They include Dale’s chief of detectives, John Capece, who helped lead the effort to apprehend White. Interviews given to internal affairs investigators are generally criminally inadmissible, meaning Rice’s inquiry was conducted in a way that complicated or even precluded potential prosecutions.

In an interview, Capece told Newsday that he cautioned Dale against arresting White. But Capece said the police commissioner confided that he had no choice, saying that “he was getting pressure from people across the street.” Mangano’s office was across from police headquarters, and Capece said he understood Dale to be referring to the county executive, a Melius ally and the potential beneficiary of the election scheme, and his deputy, Rob Walker.

Dale, Mangano and Walker declined interview requests. They were among several pivotal figures in the White drama who chose not to answer questions from Newsday.

While the scandal led to Dale’s resignation and Capece’s decision to retire rather than be demoted, Melius and many public officials who abetted White’s arrest paid no price, unlike Nassau taxpayers. White, whose father said his son was left “psychologically bent” by the episode, brought a lawsuit against Nassau that alleged an array of civil rights violations and collected a $295,000 legal settlement in 2016.

Bennett Gershman, a Pace Law School professor and former public corruption prosecutor, expressed dismay not only at the actions of Melius and Nassau police, but also at the failure to pursue criminal charges in “a case of rank corruption.”

“You’ve got this power broker who picks up the phone to the chief of police and gets a man yanked off a bus and arrested,” Gershman said. “It’s terrifying.”

Independence Party ties

The White scandal sprang from machinations to keep Mangano in office.

In 2009, Mangano won an upset victory over Nassau Executive Thomas Suozzi by 386 votes out of nearly a quarter-million cast. Plans were made to prevent any such scare in the 2013 rematch. They involved using third-party spoiler candidates to siphon away the votes of environmentalists and African-Americans who would be likely to support Suozzi, a Democrat.

Melius and his wife, Pamela, had donated nearly $18,000 to Mangano during his first term, and Melius had reason to want him re-elected. With Mangano in office, Nassau had inked a real estate deal, legal settlement and contract with Melius worth more than $7 million to the castle owner. The county also tweaked its rules on the use of ignition interlock devices that combat drunken driving, benefiting a company in which Melius had a stake.

Backing Mangano in 2013 after having supported Suozzi in 2009 was the Independence Party, a controversial third party with which Melius and his beloved Oheka Castle had become deeply enmeshed.

In 2008, Melius established an alliance with Frank MacKay, the party’s state and Suffolk County leader. MacKay named Melius his “chief adviser” that year in an effort to take the party national. The designation elevated him in a party whose modest size belies its clout, particularly in judicial races, and that’s described by some in state politics as an elaborate con.

In part, that’s because new voters have mistakenly registered as Independence Party members when they intended to register as independent of any party.

“They don’t stand for a thing,” GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino said of the party’s leadership during his failed 2014 run, “other than jobs for themselves.”

Astorino was expressing a frequent criticism, that the party is effectively a mechanism to exert influence and generate income for its leaders, rather than a standard-bearer for any political ideology. It’s a criticism party leaders reject, but one voiced by editorial boards and good-government advocates across the state.

At the time of the 2013 election, Oheka Castle had become the party’s de facto operations hub, a place to hold fundraisers and interview candidates. MacKay had named Richard Bellando, Melius’ employee, friend and former son-in-law, as the party leader in Nassau. And Oheka had put MacKay on its payroll in various positions.

MacKay declined to be interviewed for this story.

Spoiler candidates

The hand of the Independence Party was evident in two aborted efforts to use third-party candidates to strip votes from Suozzi and to aid Mangano’s re-election.

The first involved 25-year-old Phillipp Negron, who was recruited to run for executive on the Green Party line and had landed a public works job with the Mangano administration just days before his campaign became public. Negron would testify in an election law case involving his campaign that he decided to run after speaking with his stepfather, Timothy Williams, a Mangano appointee and chairman of the Nassau Industrial Development Agency. After the talk, he said, a woman brought a Green Party registration form to his home.

Negron testified that he and his stepfather next met a man at a diner who brought paperwork to sign. “When I registered to be a Green Party member, I expressed my interest in running,” Negron said. “Next thing I know, I’ve been nominated.”

The man he and his stepfather met at the diner was Brian Nevin, Mangano’s former chief spokesman and manager of his re-election campaign, Negron testified. The bulk of the petition signatures Negron needed to get on the ballot would be collected by Nevin and other Republicans working for Mangano, court records would establish.

Robert Pilnick, an Independence Party officer, was also among the handful of political operators who collected signatures, county election records show.

Democrats challenged Negron’s petitions in court, alleging that the campaign was a “fraud” and that some signatures were from reluctant Oheka Castle employees. After two days of testimony, Negron withdrew from the race.

Invalid signatures

The Independence Party’s attorney was involved in the second effort, which featured Hardwick, who tried to run as a candidate for the new “We Count” Party.

After a tumultuous term as Freeport mayor — during which he backed $4.4 million in settlements for Melius in cases involving his troubled Water Works property — Hardwick had lost a re-election bid.

Hardwick’s party was a creation of Melius and his allies. Between July 2013 and the November election, records show Melius, his family and one of his businesses gave We Count $38,839, more than 80 percent of the party’s total.

Because Hardwick is black, many people in Nassau politics saw his candidacy as an effort to siphon African-American votes from Suozzi. The candidate, however, insisted that his run was a stand for the middle class and against corruption.

“People are sick and tired of the same old lies and deceit,” Hardwick said in a campaign video.

After Nassau Democrats challenged Hardwick’s petitions in state court, state Supreme Court Justice F. Dana Winslow barred him from the ballot, declaring that his petition effort had been “permeated with fraudulent practices” of which Hardwick had “knowledge.”

While the case was in court that October, the board of elections found 2,700 of Hardwick’s 8,400 nominating signatures invalid. It was suspected that thousands more were outright forgeries, but Winslow, with the consent of both parties, ceased his review after identifying more than 100 such bogus signatures.

Asked to identify his largest campaign donor, Hardwick replied under oath, “I don’t know.”

At the time Hardwick testified, Melius was his sole donor. His campaign treasurer was an Oheka employee, and a campaign worker testified that she had delivered nominating petitions to Hardwick at Oheka. Independence Party attorney Vincent Messina, whose firm collected $16,000 from We Count’s largely Melius-funded treasury, represented Hardwick in court.

Hardwick declined interview requests.

A call to the commissioner

Randy White emerged as a key witness in the Hardwick case.

As a teenager, White had compiled a criminal record, including convictions for attempted robbery and felony drug possession. Through his 20s, however, White stayed out of legal trouble, save for an occasional misdemeanor violation for selling bootleg DVDs.

He lived at home with his father, Rassan Hoskins, a Nassau Democratic Party committeeman, and struggled to find work. When Hardwick operatives asked White to collect signatures to get Hardwick on the ballot, White agreed.

“Randy naturally wanted to make some money,” Hoskins said. “But I told Randy, ‘Man, you can’t work for Hardwick, I am a Democrat.’ ”

Hoskins said his son “is not sophisticated enough” to always recognize when he’s being used and can be truthful even when doing so could cause him grief. Under questioning in the Hardwick case, White testified that he’d been paid by the signature, which is prohibited by state election law in part because it’s thought to incentivize fraud.

Two days later, on Oct. 4, Hardwick’s attorney Messina unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a telephone call recorded by campaign operatives in which it was alleged White contradicted his damaging testimony.

Within hours, according to findings that District Attorney Rice released six weeks later, Melius called Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale, whom he had recommended Mangano appoint, and said Hardwick’s campaign “wanted to file a perjury charge against” White.

Dale sent some of his top people, a department attorney and Capece, the chief of detectives, to the First Precinct in Baldwin, according to the Rice findings. There they met with Hardwick campaign operatives and Messina, the candidate’s attorney who also represented the Independence Party, to discuss the perjury charge. The recorded phone call turned out to be inaudible, Capece said in an interview, and he told Dale that he would not arrest White for perjury.

Police soon found other grounds, however.

Sal Mistretta, then an Oheka regular and a Nassau police sergeant who led the pistol license division, played a central role in the scandal. At the time, Mistretta was backing Mangano’s re-election. He gave $500 to the incumbent on Oct. 18 and was listed as a contact on a flyer for an Oct. 28 Mangano fundraiser.

In a recent interview, Mistretta said that he checked the department’s electronic warrant system on the day of the First Precinct meeting and found no hits for White. Nonetheless, he said, an outstanding warrant was located, presumably in court filings, and faxed to the precinct after 5 p.m.

The warrant involved White’s failure to pay a $175 misdemeanor fine, $25 victim assistance fee and $50 DNA databank fee levied in a bootleg DVD case in which White was sentenced to 14 hours of community service after he pleaded guilty. All guilty verdicts in New York State require the levying of such fees.

The warrant had been issued on Aug. 26, almost six weeks before the meeting at the First Precinct, and until that moment it had apparently not been an urgent matter. Between the day it was issued and the First Precinct meeting, White had appeared in court several times and spent 10 days in jail on another DVD case, but he had not been picked up on the warrant.

When news of the warrant reached Dale, he ordered White located and arrested, despite what Capece said were his cautions to the commissioner.

Using information from an individual Dale would later describe to investigators as a “confidential source” who appears to have tracked White, he was located the following evening. A sergeant and two detectives handcuffed White on the public bus and took him to the First Precinct, where he was given a strip and cavity search, according to his federal civil rights complaint.

White was then taken to police headquarters, where Mistretta served him a civil subpoena drafted by Messina, the Independence Party’s attorney, who was representing Hardwick.

The subpoena ordered White to appear in court the following Monday so that he could be questioned about his prior testimony. Mistretta said he’d been given the subpoena by Brandon Irizarry, who worked on the Mangano and Hardwick campaigns. Though not a police officer, Irizarry mixed regularly with Melius and his many law enforcement guests at Oheka. Mistretta would later insist that he did not know that what he’d passed along was a subpoena.

Police next took White to the county jail, where, his federal complaint states, he was again subject to strip and cavity search. A judge released him the next day.

In comments to Newsday shortly after he left jail, White said he felt fearful and perhaps a bit paranoid. “It’s got me scared to go outside my house,” he said, “because I don’t know if the police think I got Andrew kicked off the ballot.”

Link to prosecutor’s office

Rice, who is now a congresswoman, began her investigation shortly after details of White’s arrest became public and would convey her findings to Mangano by letter, assuring the county executive that it was “appropriate to note our investigation has uncovered nothing to suggest that you or members of your administration were involved in the case against Mr. White.”

Chuck Ribando, Rice’s chief public corruption investigator whom Mangano would hire the following year as his deputy for public safety, helped lead the White inquiry.

By Melius’ own account, Ribando had been a frequent guest at Oheka and the two men enjoyed a friendship that went back years.

In 2009, Freeport Village Attorney Howard Colton alleged that Melius was using Ribando to bully him. Melius was engaged in an effort that eventually succeeded to settle a lawsuit he’d brought against the village involving his Water Works property.

Colton went to village police to complain that Melius had corrupted the district attorney’s office and was using Ribando and the threat of getting Colton indicted to secure a settlement. At one point, Colton told police, he met and was questioned by Ribando after Melius told him to seek out the investigator before the district attorney’s office came to “get” him.

Ribando declined repeated requests for comment.

In 2012, when Ribando’s daughter’s wedding reception took place at Oheka, an overnight affair that saw all rooms booked, Melius said in an interview that he had charged a discount and suggested that may have been because he’d been unable to line up any other event for the date in question. Mistretta and others who frequented Oheka said Ribando regularly attended the cigar parties Melius held at the castle and enjoyed Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch.

On Election Day in November 2013, as the Rice inquiry was underway, Melius sent Ribando a get-out-the-vote email that Newsday obtained through a records request. “Just a reminder to vote today,” Melius wrote. “Please consider voting Row E, the Independence Line — where you will find the best of all parties.” A November 2013 ballot showed Mangano and Rice were among dozens of candidates featured on the Independence Line.

Internal affairs involvement

Rice’s letter announcing the results of the inquiry was released on Dec. 12, 2013. She concluded there was no evidence of criminal misconduct by police brass.

While the case had “obvious political overtones” and Dale’s decision to involve himself was “a judgment potentially fraught with peril,” Rice found that “the department’s decision to target the subject of an open warrant was not a violation of criminal law.”

However, Rice noted that her office would continue to investigate White’s having been served with a civil subpoena by the Hardwick campaign while he was in police custody, which she called “a deeply troubling aspect of this case.”

“My office conducted a thorough investigation into these serious allegations,” she wrote.

Yet Mistretta and Capece, two lawmen central to the scandal, said in interviews that Rice’s investigators never spoke to them. Mistretta was the sergeant who delivered the Hardwick campaign’s subpoena to White while he was in police custody — the aspect of the case that Rice described as “deeply troubling” and “still under investigation by this office.” Capece, the former chief of detectives, had helped to carry out Dale’s arrest order. Mistretta said he knew of no others involved who were interviewed by the district attorney’s investigators.

After being told that Mistretta and Capece said they never spoke to any investigator from her office, Rice’s spokesman Coleman Lamb said by email that in fact the Nassau police Internal Affairs Unit had “conducted this investigation” with “oversight” from the district attorney’s office. Though Lamb said that was “standard” practice in such cases, the approach would require extraordinary steps to preserve prosecutors’ ability to bring criminal charges.

That’s because internal affairs units focus on violations of department rules and their investigators can use the threat of workplace sanction to compel interviews. Prosecutors, however, must honor the rights of individuals not to incriminate themselves and may not use such interviews to bring criminal charges.

In her letter, Rice, who declined to be interviewed for this story, stated that her office had reviewed “compelled departmental interviews” as part of its “consideration of potential criminal charges.”

“She should not have received any compelled interviews,” said Jeff Noble, a former Irvine, California, deputy police chief and now a law enforcement consultant who has written extensively on the issue of cooperation between prosecutors and Internal Affairs Unit investigators. “She could not use those interviews in any prosecution and the receipt of the interviews may have tainted her office from being able to conduct an investigation if there was independent evidence of a crime.”

Any valid criminal investigation, he said, would have required Rice to establish a “clean team” of prosecutors, none of whose members had seen the compelled interviews.

Asked how Rice expected to investigate potential crimes using internal affairs investigators, Lamb wrote “that’s a more detailed question than we can handle without having access to case files, notes and personnel at the DA’s Office.”

Lamb referred a reporter to the office of District Attorney Madeline Singas, who succeeded Rice in 2015. A spokesman for Singas recently declined to provide details of the investigation.

In response to a public records request Newsday made to the district attorney’s office, Singas provided portions of the White case file in early 2017, withholding some portions so as not “to reveal confidential information relating to a criminal investigation” and to avoid “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Newsday received White’s five-page notice of claim against the county in the civil lawsuit that resulted in his $295,000 settlement, 50 pages of related case law research and news stories, Rice’s letter of December 2013 and a two-sentence “final agency determination” from 2015 that found White’s in-custody subpoena service did not “warrant a criminal prosecution.” Newsday has asked Singas’ office how it was able to close that investigation without having interviewed Mistretta, the man who delivered the subpoena, but has gotten no answer.

The only other record the office provided in response to the records request was an email from White’s attorney to a prosecutor sent shortly after his client’s arrest that pointed out tens of thousands of warrants were then open.

Commissioner, chief of detectives out

On Dec. 9, 2013, three days before Rice issued her letter, Dale contacted Capece while he was vacationing in Florida and told him he had to come back to Long Island to be interviewed by internal affairs, Capece said. At the time, Dale was himself presumably a focus for investigators.

Capece said Dale told him not to worry because “directly from Kathleen Rice” he’d gotten everything “smoothed out” in regard to her soon-to-be-released letter.

Rice’s spokesman Lamb denied that such a conversation with Dale took place. “Is there any evidence at all to suggest it did,” Lamb wrote, “other than Mr. Capece claiming that he heard it second hand from Mr. Dale?”

The day Rice produced her letter, Dale resigned, under pressure from Mangano.

In an interview the following year, Melius called Dale’s ouster “the worst thing in my life.”

“It was worse than getting shot for me,” he said, adding that despite Justice Winslow’s decision to the contrary, he believed White had “perjured himself.”

The same day the Rice letter was released, Capece said, Mangano called him on speakerphone, saying he had “tragic news.” Mangano told him that he was at fault for the White debacle, Capece said, and that he had a choice: retire or be demoted to sergeant.

When Capece responded by saying he needed time to make such a decision, he said, Mangano deputy Rob Walker told him, “You have 15 minutes to make up your mind.” Walker also demanded to know whether he knew that he was obligated to refuse when asked to make an illegal arrest, Capece said.

He chose to leave the department.

“I don’t want to work for these people,” Capece said he remembers thinking.

The failure to bring criminal charges angered Nassau Democratic Party leader Jay Jacobs, who once backed Hardwick in a Freeport mayoral race and recruited Rice to run for district attorney in 2004. Jacobs said he was dismayed by Rice’s decision and aghast at the White affair, calling it “blatant witness intimidation.”

Jacobs is not alone in characterizing the episode as criminal. Gershman, the Pace Law School professor and former public corruption prosecutor, reviewed news reports that detailed the episode and said if the case had arrived on his desk, he’d have immediately empaneled a grand jury.

“This is just so outrageous,” Gershman said. “Do you have a conspiracy to violate White’s civil rights? Of course you do. Do you have official corruption? Of course you do. You have a lot of crimes here.”

A multimillion-dollar taxpayer bailout

Freeport Village Attorney Howard Colton went to police in July 2009 with a startling accusation: Gary Melius was verbally threatening him and he feared for his safety and that of his family.

At the time, Melius was trying to resolve a long-standing legal dispute with the village over his Brooklyn Water Works property, a 4-acre site that he had tried unsuccessfully to develop for two decades and wanted to sell.

Colton told Freeport’s police chief by email that Melius was “pressuring” him to force a settlement and claimed to have incriminating recordings and the clout to get him indicted. Melius was using the Nassau County district attorney’s office and its chief investigator, Chuck Ribando, as “his private police force,” Colton wrote.

By the time Colton leveled his charge, Melius had remade Oheka Castle into a magnet that drew political, business and law enforcement elites from across Long Island and catapulted himself to a new level of influence. Melius was now more than a man with influential friends; he was a power broker.

To unburden himself of the money-losing Water Works, Melius worked the levers of electoral politics. In Freeport, he put his political weight and pocketbook behind the successful mayoral campaign of Andrew Hardwick, a five-time loser in previous election efforts. Then, after donating $15,000 to the re-election campaign of Democratic Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, he pivoted to Republican Edward Mangano after his surprise 2009 victory over the incumbent. Melius made a $2,500 donation to the apparent victor before Suozzi even conceded in December.

Melius estimated in a 2012 interview that Water Works had cost him $13 million over the years. At one point his tax and mortgage liabilities on Water Works exceeded $3 million. Moreover, village residents largely opposed his development plans as too large and intrusive for the neighborhood, and he’d failed to find a private buyer.

Melius looked to the Hardwick and Mangano administrations for help. They would come to Melius’ aid by spending a combined $11 million in taxpayer money, all of which went into the pocket of the castle owner or to his various creditors.

That figure includes a $3.5 million legal settlement that Hardwick spearheaded despite acknowledging the conflict in his personal relationship with Melius, a $900,000 tax refund from the village, a $500,000 settlement that county officials declined to discuss when it was reached, and $6.2 million that Nassau paid to purchase Water Works — an amount three times the county assessor’s estimated market value.

The Mangano administration justified the inflated price by saying that Melius had won valuable development approvals, when, in fact, the village had denied him a building permit.

Powerful figures using the public purse to satisfy private ends is not a new story in Nassau. But Melius’ maneuvers with Hardwick and Mangano stand out as a brazen display of political muscle.

Melius declined repeated interview requests for this story. In previous public statements, he described himself as a victim of unscrupulous village officials who had tried to “steal” the property from him.

“I just want to get out,” Melius told Newsday the year before Nassau bought Water Works. “I want to sell it.”

The multimillion-dollar taxpayer bailout that Melius secured shocked even veterans of Long Island business and politics.

Desmond Ryan, the retired longtime leader of the Association for a Better Long Island, a real estate trade group, said the county’s purchase of Water Works was a “deal to die for” that left him and others in the industry “stunned.”

“You buy this piece of property, you don’t get what you want and now you want to unload it back on the county?” Ryan said. “What, are you kidding me?”

A frustrating money-loser

In the 19th century, the City of Brooklyn undertook a massive public works project to supply its residents with water from Long Island.

The project’s largest pumping station — a Romanesque Revival redbrick structure with castle-like towers and huge arching windows — was built near Freeport’s Milburn Creek. Throughout the 20th century, the station, known as Brooklyn Water Works, was used less and less and was shut down in the 1970s.

Melius saw opportunity in the station’s ruins in 1986 when he purchased the then-county-owned property for $1.4 million. But Water Works quickly proved a frustrating money-loser. Melius feuded with village mayors and residents over development proposals and saw deal after deal dissolve into lawsuits as the once-grand structure slowly collapsed, becoming a graffiti-covered eyesore.

Melius came to bemoan the purchase and engaged in a long battle with then-Mayor William Glacken over property tax payments. What Melius’ attorney dubbed a “business decision” for Water Works involved remaining delinquent on his village and county taxes, making good only when liens, which can be purchased by private investors, put him at risk of losing the property, according to a lawsuit.

Melius’ ownership was briefly in question after a group of private tax lien investors obtained deeds, but a judge in 2006 declared Melius the rightful owner, saying he’d not been properly notified of deadlines he faced to pay the liens off.

Even so, Melius in 2008 sued the village, Glacken, other village officials and Nassau County, alleging a conspiracy to steal Water Works by secretly transferring the tax liens to the investors. Melius had first raised his allegations years before, and FBI investigators began questioning those involved in 2006, according to court records.

At a campaign event in early 2009, Glacken told village residents that Melius’ conspiracy lawsuit was an attempt “to extort money from you.” Melius sued Glacken for defamation and lost the case at the state appellate level.

Hardwick becomes mayor

Melius needed a friendlier administration in Freeport. And Hardwick, an aspiring politician with a pugnacious style, needed help if he was ever to win an election.

A captain in Freeport’s volunteer fire department and former assistant to two Freeport mayors, Hardwick lost a race for state Assembly in 1994 as a Republican; failed to make the ballot in 1995 and 1997 after holding himself out as a potential candidate for Nassau Legislature; then lost a race for village trustee in 1999 and unsuccessfully challenged Glacken for mayor in 2005.

He filed to challenge Glacken again in 2009 — this time with Melius as an ally.

Melius asked Nassau Democratic leader Jay Jacobs to back Hardwick. Jacobs recalls being reluctant. Glacken, however, was a Republican. Melius had given the Nassau Democratic Party nearly $40,000 in the previous three years. Jacobs and the party gave Hardwick $3,580.

Two weeks before Election Day, Hardwick received a combined $2,997 in donations from Melius’ wife, daughter and former son-in-law, Richard Bellando, records show. The donations plus Jacobs’ money totaled nearly a third of what Hardwick raised.

On Election Day, workers from Oheka Castle were out campaigning for Hardwick, according to current Mayor Robert Kennedy, who ran on a slate with Hardwick for village trustee. Hardwick won by 328 votes of 5,842 cast.

Hardwick’s combative streak and sometimes curious actions during his single mayoral term would cause controversy. Here’s a sampling:

When sworn in, he had a band play “Hail to the Chief,” which is used to announce the president of the United States. During his first weeks in office he had the village hire a private security team to guard him at a cost of nearly $10,000, citing unspecified threats. He and an aide toured China on a “trade trip” paid for by the village. He used the village’s automated phone system to contact residents with a recorded call that attacked a political opponent. He apologized after hosting the vice president of El Salvador, who had participated in anti-American protests after 9/11. And in his unsuccessful re-election effort, he sent out a mailer falsely claiming that he had the personal endorsement of then-President Barack Obama.

As mayor, Hardwick, a regular at Oheka Castle parties that drew cops and politicians, worked to resolve Melius’ Water Works woes and put millions of dollars in the pockets of the castle owner and a close Melius ally.

Three months after Hardwick’s swearing-in, the village retained Steven Schlesinger’s law firm as an outside counsel. A Melius poker pal whose 2014 wedding was held at Oheka, Schlesinger was then the Nassau Democratic Party attorney. Records show that his firm collected $1.1 million from cases it was assigned during Hardwick’s single term.

Schlesinger and Hardwick declined to be interviewed.

Allegations of intimidation

Freeport Village Attorney Colton charged that within weeks of Hardwick taking office in April 2009, Melius’ intimidation campaign began, according to internal records and emails that Newsday obtained.

Melius first unnerved Colton by instructing him to report to the Nassau district attorney’s office, according to an email the attorney sent in July of that year to then-village Police Chief Michael Woodward. Colton wrote that Melius told him he was “personal friends” with the office’s chief investigator, Chuck Ribando, and that an indictment “is coming” of Colton’s predecessor, Joe Edwards.

“Melius informed me that I should go in on my own before, ‘they come and get you,’ ” Colton wrote to the police chief.

Edwards, also a Melius adversary over Water Works, was never indicted. He did not return calls for comment.

Ribando was a retired 20-year NYPD veteran when he joined the Nassau district attorney’s office in 2006 to lead the investigations division. He was a regular at Oheka, according to Melius and castle guests in law enforcement. When a wedding reception for Ribando’s daughter was held at Oheka in 2012, an overnight affair that saw all the castle’s hotel rooms booked, Melius said he charged a discount. In a 2014 interview, Melius said that he had been unable to book an event for that date, and that under such circumstances, he typically lowers his prices.

Melius kept calling in the summer of 2009, according to Colton, and on July 22 Colton filed a formal complaint with village police. Melius had phoned him that day and asked for a “status report” on settlement talks, he wrote. When Colton told him that no report was ready, according to the complaint, Melius exploded. “You don’t know who you are [expletive] with,” Colton said Melius yelled. “I’m coming after you. I’m going to get you. I’m going to get you indicted and the rest of you [expletive].”

Many people who have interacted with Melius over the years, including business adversaries, have experienced this boorish and bullying side.

“If you punch me in the nose, I am going to punch you back,” Melius told Newsday editors in April 2017.

According to Det. Sgt. Raymond Horton’s summary of what Colton told him, the village attorney brought Melius’ alleged tirade to Hardwick’s attention. Colton “reported that Mayor Hardwick had told him that Gary Melius has an anger management problem and to let cooler heads prevail,” the sergeant wrote.

In his complaint, Colton requested that no further action be taken in the matter, but then followed up with an email to Chief Woodward that detailed these events:

On July 28, 2009, after he said he and Ribando had exchanged telephone calls, Colton wrote that the two met and Ribando questioned him about the alleged tax lien scheme that Melius argued was designed to defraud him of Water Works. Colton said he told Ribando he had little knowledge of the matter and was not involved.

Colton told the chief: “Melius has made several veiled threats at me in the hopes of pressuring me to force a settlement of the Water Works civil litigation,” he wrote. “Melius has informed others that he has tape recordings of me, but when asked to produce them, he cannot. . . . It is obvious that this is being used as a pressure tactic.”

The following day, July 29, Colton met with Hardwick and Melius at the Grand Lux Café in Garden City to talk about the settlement, according to the email. During the meeting, Colton wrote that Melius took a call from a man named “Chuck” who “clearly” was Ribando.

“I have concerns that the County DA’s Office has been corrupted by Melius and he is using them as his private police force,” Colton wrote to Woodward.

The district attorney’s office said that it never received a complaint from Colton or Freeport police about Melius’ conduct and his ties to Ribando, who declined to be interviewed for this story. However, another public official notified the district attorney’s office of Colton’s concerns, according to emails Newsday reviewed.

At the time Colton lodged his complaint, Kathleen Rice, now a congresswoman, was Nassau district attorney. Her spokesman Coleman Lamb said in an email that any suggestion Melius had corrupted the office was “ludicrous.” Lamb added that he could not “speak for Chuck Ribando, but I can certainly say that he did not run the DA’s Office. He had bosses, and he couldn’t indict anyone.”

A month after Colton’s July 29 meeting at the Grand Lux Café, and after years of antagonism, it became clear that Freeport’s posture toward Melius had undergone a striking reversal, as would the village attorney’s. The village agreed to settle its tax dispute with Melius by reducing the assessments levied on Water Works over the prior decade and cutting him a $900,000 refund check. Six weeks after the meeting, the village settled Melius’ conspiracy lawsuit for $3.5 million.

Hardwick pushed for the settlement, Mayor Kennedy said. Attorneys close to Hardwick presented cost estimates justifying the move, Kennedy recalled, suggesting that if the village lost, it would have to pay attorney fees for both sides, which could total at least $4 million on top of any judgment for Melius.

When the settlement was voted on, two trustees abstained. Hardwick and his two running mates, including Kennedy, voted for the deal.

In a written disclosure filed with the village, Hardwick acknowledged that he had a potential conflict of interest. Melius was “personally known to me,” he wrote, and as a result he would “prefer to abstain.” But without his vote, the settlement would fail, Hardwick said, exposing the village to the risk of “burdensome taxes or, in the worst case, a potential municipal bankruptcy.”

Glacken, the former mayor who is himself an attorney, said in an interview that the village had no liability and Melius no case. Glacken said Melius’ lawyers had not even deposed him or other defendants. The Hardwick administration “just rammed this thing through,” he said.

“If I had still been there, we would not have settled the case,” Glacken said. “We would not have given them a dime.”

A relationship thaws

By summer 2010, the relationship between Colton and Melius had undergone a remarkable change. No longer an adversary, Melius had become Colton’s regular host and the attorney began attending twice-monthly dinners at Oheka, according to a deposition he gave the following year.

In an unrelated case involving allegations of discrimination in the Freeport Police Department, Colton said in 2011 that Oheka dinner guests included lawmakers; county executives; state and county police officers; Robert Hart, the former head of Long Island’s FBI office and then-chief investigator for State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman; FBI agents; Rice; and Ribando.

In August 2010, Freeport put Colton’s father, a prominent rabbi, on its payroll as a $150-an-hour community liaison. Melius also hired Colton’s father as a consultant for Oheka Castle, according to the attorney’s deposition in the discrimination case.

A personal spokesman for Colton, John McDonald, initially said Colton declined to be interviewed because of a cooperation agreement with federal law enforcement. McDonald declined to say what the cooperation concerned then insisted after the fact that his comments had been off the record. Then, more than 48 hours after this story appeared online, he contacted Newsday to say that Colton is a witness for the FBI and that on advice of his counsel, Colton could not comment.

A bond with Mangano

As he won settlements from a more amenable Freeport, Melius also strengthened his bond with Mangano, then the incoming county executive. Mangano is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges in a case unrelated to Water Works.

Melius had supported Nassau Executive Suozzi’s re-election campaign, but nine days after the Nov. 3, 2009, election, amid a recount and mounting indications that Mangano had won an upset, Melius gave him a $2,500 donation. Suozzi conceded on Dec. 1.

During his first term, Melius, his wife, Pamela, and Bellando would donate a combined $17,900 to Mangano.

Today, Melius and Mangano are friends. They’ve traveled to New Jersey together to shop for dachshund puppies and to Las Vegas to gamble. Mangano has been a frequent guest at Oheka, appearing not only at regular private cigar parties, but also as an honored guest at large functions.

“I love him,” Melius has said of Mangano. “I think he’s the best political guy.”

With Mangano in office, Melius reaped rewards.

The day superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, for instance, the county awarded a $655,000 emergency debris cleanup contract to a Melius design and construction firm, ArchCon. The contract was among several awarded without bidding for debris removal. Available Nassau records show no previous county payments to ArchCon for debris cleanup or anything else. In an interview a few years later, Melius said, “Everything was done above board.”

In 2010, nine months into Mangano’s term, the county settled its portion of the Water Works lawsuit — in which Melius accused Nassau of having conspired with Glacken to wrest the property from him — for half a million dollars.

Asked at the time to explain the decision, the county declined.

Varying appraisals

Meanwhile, with the two settlements won, Melius renewed efforts to develop Water Works, proposing a complex that violated village zoning in multiple ways.

His plan called for a six-story, 140-unit apartment building and quickly drew fire. Under pressure from residents and environmentalists, Melius dropped the number of units to 121, a figure still almost 50 percent above what was allowed.

Dozens of angry residents attended village Landmarks Commission hearings. “I don’t need a gigantic monstrosity like that in my neighborhood,” one said. Another described the proposed plans as “scary . . . like looking at a big box store on Sunrise Highway.”

Only a handful of residents spoke in favor. Melius’ attorney wrote a letter threatening to sue the commission. “This is an attempt at intimidation!” one member of the board seethed in an email to her colleagues. But the final vote was 4 to 4, which under board rules kept the plan alive.

Before the development approval process could proceed, however, an alternative proposal from then-Nassau Legis. David Denenberg, who represented parts of Freeport, gained traction. Nassau should buy the property with money set aside to preserve undeveloped land, he argued.

Denenberg had suggested this before and had the site placed on the county’s list of potential acquisitions in 2006. It was situated along the South Shore, where open land is scarce, and bordered a nature preserve that Denenberg said he wanted to protect from development.

In 2006, the deal stalled over money. Two appraisers hired by Nassau pegged its value at $1.6 million and $2.7 million. An offer of $3 million was discussed, Denenberg said, but it wasn’t enough for Melius. In a court filing a few years later he said that he had once had a deal to sell the property for $8.5 million, but that it fell apart.

In 2011, the Mangano administration turned its attention to buying the property for open space and ordered two new appraisals.

By then, Long Island property values had crashed under the weight of a historic economic slump. Nonetheless, the appraisals valued the property at $6.3 million and $6.9 million — more than double the higher estimate from five years earlier.

During the same time period, the median value of condos and co-ops in Freeport had dropped 24 percent, from $420,000 to $318,000, according to the real estate data firm Zillow. Countywide, the decline was 21 percent.

Neither the appraiser who arrived at the $6.3 million figure nor the appraiser who produced the $6.9 million figure responded to multiple interview requests.

In April 2012, when the county assessor’s office last estimated market value for the property was $2.1 million, the Mangano administration and Melius drew up a sale contract for $6.2 million.

Explaining the price increase to county legislators the following month, the acting director of the Nassau Office of Real Estate Services, Michael Kelly, said that “time has gone on” and that Melius had obtained additional approvals to develop the property, “which, of course, raises the value.”

Both sets of appraisals assumed the owner would turn the property into a large residential complex with 121 units. Melius didn’t have approval to build any units, however, and under Freeport’s density rules the complex he proposed could contain at most 78.

Freeport’s superintendent of buildings had repeatedly rejected Melius’ permit applications in 2011, noting the many ways his plans didn’t comply with Freeport law.

The proposed apartment building didn’t provide enough parking, the superintendent wrote; it would take up too much of the parcel; and buildings taller than five stories were illegal.

“We’re getting a phenomenal deal,” Kelly, who did not return calls seeking comment, told county legislators. They approved the sale unanimously two weeks later. Two days after the vote, Melius’ wife, Pamela, donated $3,500 to Mangano.

The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which monitors the county’s spending, was less sure the deal made sense. Its board voted 2 to 2 — a tie that let the sale proceed. However, even the two members who voted in favor questioned the price.

“There’s a lot not to like about this transaction,” said one of them, Chris Wright, “whether it’s the political motivation, the timing or the value.”

Nonetheless, Wright said, the use of long-term debt to finance the purchase was sensible, as was using money dedicated for open-space preservation.

The deal gets done

In September 2012, Nassau paid $6.2 million for Water Works. Of that, $3.2 million went to Melius and $2.6 million to his mortgage lenders. Another $400,000 covered taxes owed on the property. For Melius, the burden was lifted.

Twenty-one days after legislators voted for the sale, Melius’ wife made a $1,500 contribution to Denenberg. In the five years before the Water Works vote, Melius had given him $1,950; in the year after, Melius and his wife donated an additional $1,800.

In an interview, Denenberg, an attorney disbarred in 2015 after pleading guilty to stealing $2 million from a client, defended the purchase, calling it an important piece of property for Freeport residents.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, the $6.2 million price tag seemed inflated.

“I had always thought that the price was less than half of that,” he said.

The rise of Oheka Castle

Christopher Okada still remembers the mysterious call his father, Naomi, a New York City real estate broker, received from Japan.

“All that my dad knew was that this client was extremely wealthy and he wanted castles,” Okada’s son, Christopher, recalled. “So my dad scouted the tristate area, and there’s not a lot of castles in the tristate area.”

But on the Gold Coast of Long Island there was Oheka Castle, and Gary Melius owned it.

He had bought the abandoned mansion in 1984 for about $1.5 million, assuming ownership of what had been the grandest of Gold Coast estates and the second-largest residence in America. And he went to work, pouring money into a meticulous restoration he hoped would not only prove worthwhile on its own, but also would open the way for the lucrative development of 39 luxury condos.

His condo plan collapsed a few years later, though, along with the real estate and stock markets. His real estate empire was crumbling. He turned his attention to trying to transform the castle into a destination, a place for weddings, parties and other events.

Christopher Okada remembered that in 1988 his father called Melius on behalf of his new Japanese client.

It was the sort of moment people hope for when they buy lottery tickets. Melius would soon sell Oheka for a recorded price that was 15 times higher than what he bought it for — and get to live there as caretaker to boot.

The conversation led to a deal that eventually helped Melius emerge from multiple bankruptcies and business setbacks and enshrined him as a major player in Long Island’s politics and social life.

Remarkable in itself, the transformation provides a lens into the workings of Long Island politics and shows how somebody who had nurtured powerful people could overcome a formidable array of obstacles to get what he needed.

In Melius’ case, the obstacles included half a million dollars in unpaid property taxes, 17 building and fire code violations, vocal neighbors he had infuriated, business partners who ran afoul of the law, a decisive rejection by the Huntington Town Zoning Board of Appeals and two judicial orders against him, the last of which temporarily shut down Oheka.

A billionaire investor

Okada’s mysterious client turned out to be one of Japan’s most reviled figures.

Hideki Yokoi, an aging billionaire investor connected by the Japanese media with the vicious Yakuza crime syndicate, faced criminal negligence charges after a fire in 1982 ripped through a Tokyo hotel he owned where he hadn’t installed sprinklers. Thirty-three people died.

Worried about prison, Yokoi, who denied Yakuza links, wanted to get some of his assets out of Japan, and at one point his family even invested them in a purchase of the Empire State Building, with Donald Trump later joining as a partner. He began buying castles and other luxury residences in Europe and the United States, according to court testimony from a daughter, Kiiko Nakahara. She said that during the 1980s, she took photos of European châteaux and grand estates and sent them to Yokoi for inspection.

Through Okada, Yokoi bought Oheka for a recorded price of $22.5 million in 1988.

Then in 1993, Yokoi’s son-in-law, Jean-Paul Renoir, who was married to Nakahara, agreed to another deal, in which Melius leased back Oheka for $500,000 a year, records show, which apparently covered property taxes, maintenance and other operating expenses.

Violating zoning codes

Oheka was zoned residential, ensconced in an exclusive neighborhood near Cold Spring Harbor. Beginning in the early 1990s, Melius defied the zoning and began promoting the castle for weddings and catered events. He hosted private dinners and parties. He used Oheka to impress prospective business partners. He hosted profit-making events like wedding celebrations, a $300-a-seat Debbie Gibson concert and even flea markets.

He did this without town permits, a working sprinkler system or fire extinguishers, according to Huntington records.

A day after a 1994 “gala evening of tribute” for Frank Grimes, then the Huntington Democratic Party leader, a fire inspector warned Melius in writing to stop using Oheka as “a place of public assembly” until he obtained the required license.

Joseph Cassella, who was then Huntington’s chief fire marshal, said in an affidavit that “a potential catastrophe was barely averted” when children at a bar mitzvah in 1995 were led into a darkened basement for a “Halloween experience.” The basement was decorated with combustible materials that caught fire, then were extinguished, Cassella said.

Between 1994 and 1996, inspectors repeatedly found Melius violating zoning restrictions and codes. Records reveal at least 17 citations for illegal wedding receptions, blocked hallways, deadbolts on exit doors, plywood doors where fireproofing was required, combustible debris and unauthorized tree cutting.

Lawrence Cregan, who was then town attorney, said he felt compelled to take action against Oheka.

“You have to stand for something in this world,” he said in a recent interview. “I have to be able to sleep at night. I have to be able to face my children should something ever come to question. I prefer to do what’s right.”

On Oct. 24, 1995, the Huntington Town Board voted to obtain a court order compelling Melius to remedy “dangerous conditions.”

Three days later, a judge granted an injunction requiring Melius to comply with fire codes. He was ordered to install emergency lighting and fire stops, rehang fire doors, clear hallways and remove combustible debris. Oheka lacked an operable sprinkler system and so Melius was ordered to install one. He settled the case by agreeing to do so.

Tensions were high with neighbors, too, who complained that speakers boomed music so loud their homes rattled. “We do not welcome another summer of lounge lizard music,” a neighbor, Sarah Dunn, wrote to the town in 1996, adding, “the more sleep I lose, the nastier I get.”

On top of this, Melius had fallen far behind on property taxes. By 1997, he owed $668,557, tax records show.

Melius argued in a deposition that he was in compliance with zoning regulations because he believed there were no restrictions on renting out the residence. The weddings, parties and other events were legal, he insisted, because they were private affairs, including the flea markets and Debbie Gibson concert.

For a private residence, though, Oheka was quite busy. During a six-month stretch in 1996, 39 weddings and a Sweet 16 party were scheduled, according to documents filed with the court.

The town went back to court; in July 1996, another judge, Suffolk Supreme Court Justice Howard Berler, found Melius had failed to uphold the earlier “unambiguous” court order. He ordered Oheka shut down until Melius met fire safety codes.

In December 1996, a half-year after the court order shutting down Oheka, Melius asked the Huntington Town Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance allowing the castle to be used commercially. He was turned down.

A new offensive

For owners hoping to win a zoning change, such a record of noncompliance would prove daunting. And Oheka’s circumstances were worse than they looked on the surface.

Melius was leasing the castle, but its ownership was murky and being contested. The castle was held either by Yokoi, the billionaire who served 2 years in a Japanese prison in the mid-1990s after the calamitous Tokyo hotel fire, or by his daughter, Nakahara, and her husband, Renoir, who had each done prison time during a family battle over Yokoi’s vast real estate holdings in Europe and the United States.

After Yokoi filed fraud charges against them in France, Nakahara spent a year in a French jail and Renoir spent more than 2 years in American prisons fighting extradition. The French authorities eventually dropped the extradition request, freeing Renoir — but not before Nakahara was accused by irate mayors in nine French towns of having stripped the castles her father had purchased of marble, statues, tapestries and nearly anything else of value. She was not charged by French authorities.

But in Huntington, Melius was playing on his home field and determined to find a way to operate Oheka commercially. What emerged was something new for Melius and far more sophisticated.

He fashioned a new offensive that early on included a flash of his traditional aggressiveness — a $10 million libel suit against his most persistent and quotable critic, his neighbor Sarah Dunn, an environmental consultant who filed noise complaints and spoke up at council meetings.

But he also paid special attention to his public image, which was honed to portray him as a committed preservationist intent on reclaiming a piece of Long Island history for the public’s benefit. Town board members who had long benefited from his political contributions and friendship would eventually allow commercial use, despite his history of violating town codes and judicial orders, and not paying his taxes.

Political lifeline to Huntington

Despite his financial struggles in the ’90s, Melius still managed to finance his political lifeline, particularly in Huntington. Considered broadly, between 1985 and 2000, Melius, his family, his companies and employees contributed at least $180,515 to federal, state and local political campaigns, according to campaign finance records. They are incomplete because local campaign records are available only as far back as 2006 and state and federal records go back only to the 1980s.

A Gannett Suburban Newspapers survey of corporate contributors that exceeded legal limits found that in 1995, the state’s worst offender was Melius’ Oheka Management Corp., which had exceeded the limits by $21,265.

“Who the hell knew anything about this?” Melius said in a Newsday interview at the time. “I called four lawyers, and nobody knew this, so how the heck am I supposed to know? Stupidity they could charge me with. I plead guilty.”

Existing records and news articles revealed that over the years Melius, his family members, companies and employees have contributed a substantial part of their combined campaign donations through 2017 — at least $214,067 — to political committees and elected officials from Huntington.

In the last dozen years, Melius, his former son-in-law and his companies gave $33,742 to Frank Petrone, according to records. Melius also hosted parties at Oheka for Petrone, who was the Huntington supervisor for 24 years. He did not seek a seventh term last year.

Melius became Huntington Councilman Mark Cuthbertson’s biggest donor, giving him at least $31,300, based on campaign records.

Steve Israel, a Huntington councilman in 1997 before his election to Congress, received at least $33,200 in donations from Melius and his family for his congressional campaigns. A dominant figure in local Democratic politics as a fundraiser and strategist and a longtime friend of Melius, he held the wedding of a daughter at Oheka in 2013.

Israel did not respond to requests for an interview and it’s unknown if the wedding was discounted, a favor Melius frequently offered to friends and political allies.

Councilwoman Marlene Budd, who joined the town board in 1996 and married Israel in 2003, became Melius’ lawyer in 1998. She abstained from voting on Oheka matters after that. Budd later became a Family Court judge.

A Melius company, ArchCon, designed plans in 2004 for a remodeling project in the Dix Hills home Budd shared with Israel, her then-husband. Melius also held in-kind fundraisers at Oheka — in which services are donated — for Israel and Budd.

In addition, since 2005, the Huntington Town Democratic Committee has received at least $25,500 from Melius and his family members. Israel, Budd and Cuthbertson are all Democrats. Petrone changed parties to become a Democrat in 2002.

‘The floating castle district’

Despite this record of support, Melius faced a daunting prospect when he tried once again to legalize the castle’s operations. Residents of Oheka’s quiet upscale neighborhood, still upset by traffic, noise and previous battles with Melius, had mobilized against him. They collected 300 signatures on a petition against his plans and hired an attorney, John Flanagan, currently the Republican majority leader of the State Senate, to fight him.

In place of the obstructionism of the past, Melius retained a respected former town attorney and zoning expert, Arthur Goldstein, who aside from his formidable expertise was known for his charm, humor and personal modesty.

Goldstein also knew more about the town zoning code than anyone else because he had written it. For Melius, he invented a new zoning category tailor-made for Oheka. It was confined to officially designated historic properties of more than 15 acres. That description fit only Oheka. It was crafted to allow commercial use in the name of generating revenue to assist in what was now portrayed as Melius’ singular mission, preservation.

Goldstein called the category a “historic overlay district.” In Huntington, as in many areas, there is a firm prohibition against what is known as “spot zoning” — a zoning designation that applies to only one property. While Oheka was the only property affected, the “overlay district” did not directly refer to Oheka.

Among town officials it was known as “the floating castle district.”

Goldstein launched a charm offensive, meeting with neighbors, and received big support from Ellen Berkowitz Schaffer, an assistant town attorney and a local civic leader, and Joan Cergol, a public relations specialist. Five years later, Cergol became a special assistant to Petrone. In December, she was appointed to the town board.

Under her guidance, the castle was opened for public tours that filled up with schoolchildren and town residents.

A nonprofit, Friends of Oheka, was created to support and accept donations for the restoration. Several years earlier, Melius had named Schaffer, a close friend, the castle’s curator. She was deeply involved in creating Friends of Oheka and later became its board president.

“The truth was that he performed miracles there and saved us from the horrors of an empty building that was attracting teenagers,” Schaffer said in an interview.

Melius began connecting with the influential Cold Spring Hills Civic Association. He invited members to Oheka and allowed them to hold free parties there, as well as association meetings. He hosted holiday events for neighborhood children.

Schaffer was the civic association’s past president and an adviser to its board. At her urging, it decided to support Friends of Oheka, arguing that Melius needed an ample revenue stream for the restoration.

Goldstein took note of neighborhood concerns and acknowledged them in the restrictions that accompanied the new zoning category. The final proposal allowed for the hosting of only one event at a time, with no more than 220 guests. The castle’s exterior could not be altered and only one small “Oheka” sign was permitted. Perhaps most significantly, the building could not be expanded, limiting the possibility of truly large events.

By the time the town board took up Goldstein’s proposed new zoning category in December 1997, civic association members were holding their meetings at Oheka, residents were touring the castle and their children were attending spectacular holiday parties there.

The resolution to approve the “floating castle zone” was sponsored by Petrone, Huntington’s supervisor.

News accounts reported that hundreds attended the board’s hearing, with 19 speakers, according to the official transcript. Civic association members and professional experts on Melius’ team were among those who spoke in support.

Because she was a town attorney, Schaffer said at the meeting that it would be “totally inappropriate for me to comment.” She then presented a slideshow on the castle’s history.

Ted Owens, then the president of Friends of Oheka, told the board that permitting “some limited commercial use” was essential to the castle’s survival. “It is only these operations that do generate enough money to maintain and restore the building,” he commented. He said, though, that the operations had to be limited, as they were in the proposed restrictions, to minimize the impact on the neighborhood.

Among the opponents was Dunn, the target of Melius’ $10 million suit. She said she wondered why the board would even consider a zoning provision for Melius after he had ignored safety and zoning regulations for years. She asked why they would allow him to operate a large business in a residential neighborhood, disrupting the quiet life she and her neighbors had once enjoyed.

“I don’t understand how zoning codes and fire codes and safety laws go completely unchecked,” Dunn said. “I don’t understand how property taxes remain in arrears, yet this board continues to entertain this application. None of this seems to matter.”

And she expressed astonishment that no one on the town board felt compelled to come to her defense after Melius’ libel lawsuit, which was based on her public comments and her correspondence to the town as a Huntington citizen.

“He seeks out his most vocal opponent and sues her for $10 million, and what does the town board have to say about that?” she said in frustration. “Nothing.”

In the end, the board voted unanimously to approve the new zoning category that allowed commercial use of Oheka, a little more than a year after the zoning board had rejected Melius’ last attempt. In addition to Petrone, board members Budd, Israel, Donald Musnug and Susan Scarpati-Reilly approved the zoning.

The board’s action, Petrone said, enabled the castle to become “a benefit to that community.”

The complaints about noise and fire hazards were routine in issues of this sort and Melius’ donations had nothing to do with the council members’ votes, he said.

Petrone said Melius worked hard to win over the community. “That was Gary’s basic mode of operation,” he said. “He would come in and want to be part of the political process. My guess? He probably contributed to all the politicians on Long Island.”

Restrictions eased

The libel suit against Dunn, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was eventually settled. She moved out of the neighborhood.

But at the tumultuous hearing, she cautioned that the zoning change was likely the first step toward something further. “I have a very strong feeling that he is just getting warmed up,” she said.

She was right. Virtually every important restriction enacted in 1997 was eliminated or eased over the next few years.

In 2002, the board relaxed the limit on the number of guests at events and removed the ban on building expansion.

In 2003, it allowed construction of a temporary banquet facility.

In 2004, it permitted Melius to add signs and approved operation of a 50-room hotel and a health spa, which has yet to be built.

Petrone said that while he couldn’t remember specifics, the changes had community support. “Anything that took place at Oheka the community was involved in and spoke for,” he said.

Melius portrayed things similarly. His neighbors, he said, told the board, “Give him what he wants. We trust him.”

Soon, the number of events was burgeoning. Celebrity weddings hit the entertainment pages regularly. John Gotti Jr.’s lawyer promoted boxing matches through a company called Explosion Promotions. Political meet-and-greets became a staple.

The board’s decisions were worth tens of millions of dollars.

Melius repurchased the castle from Yokoi’s family during a booming real estate market in 2003. He paid $6.9 million, roughly $15 million less than the recorded price that Yokoi had paid 15 years earlier.

But Melius still held onto an idea for a bigger score — a condo development on the grounds, on a far grander scale than he had envisioned years before.

By now, he had demonstrated that he was a bona fide political player.