Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.
Guilty on 2 counts
Misdemeanors will force mayor out
April 08, 2005
By Dianna Cahn and Oliver Mackson
Goshen – In the greatest test of his career, Middletown Mayor Joe DeStefano got the answer wrong.
DeStefano was acquitted yesterday in Orange County Court on 50 of the 52 counts against him in his municipal corruption trial. His co-defendants, community development chief Neil Novesky and City Court Judge Rich Guertin, were acquitted on all counts against each of them.
But Judge Stewart Rosenwasser found the mayor guilty of two misdemeanors – for how he answered the same question, two years in a row, on city ethics forms that all public officials must fill out. DeStefano answered “no” about whether he had done more than $1,000 worth of business with anyone doing business with the city.
It was a verdict ending in a cliffhanger over whether it would cost the mayor his job.
City lawyer Alex Smith said that the convictions are violations of the mayor’s oath of office, which means DeStefano is automatically out of a job. He said he expects the mayor to “make a statement” today.
Smith’s decision came a few hours after Rosenwasser delivered the complicated verdict, which took 50 minutes to read and explain.
As the other two men left the courtroom yesterday in teary relief, DeStefano was stunned.
“The big conspiracy, about all of us being involved in wrongdoing – the judge said no,” DeStefano said. “He was basically saying I answered a few questions wrong.”
The news that the convictions would cost DeStefano his office was devastating to many in City Hall, who saw the judge’s ruling as a vindication of the three Middletown men.
For the first few hours, many were unsure what the implications of the verdict would be.
It was a lot to digest in a packed courtroom, with more people forced to stand outside. Friends and relatives were squeezed onto the benches, many holding their heads tensely in their hands.
It was a lot for the judge to digest: more than two weeks of testimony and thousands of documents. Prosecutors charged that DeStefano had steered federal development money in ways that benefited his private business and that he and the other officials conspired to cover up the trail. They were charged with crimes ranging from violating conflict of interest law to conspiracy to filing false papers.
Rosenwasser said he could find no evidence of conspiracy or intent to defraud – the two umbrella charges in the 55-count indictment.
On each and every occasion in question, he said, Novesky was only doing his job as head of the office that distributes the federal money.
“As to defendant Novesky,” he said, “I found no credible evidence that he was engaged in any illegal scheme to obtain benefit.”
Novesky was found not guilty on all 23 counts against him.
A sigh sounded through the courtroom, and some people even began to clap.
Rosenwasser then turned to Guertin, who was charged with six counts for his role as both the city’s lawyer at the time the deals were made, and DeStefano’s private lawyer. Guertin drew up the lease and an option to buy the building that DeStefano wanted for his restaurant with a landlord who was to receive a federal loan from Novesky’s office.
While the judge said DeStefano’s actions regarding that loan were in conflict with his office, Guertin didn’t commit any crimes. He acquitted him on all counts and said it set a bad precedent to charge lawyers for conspiracy for giving advice.
“Lawyers don’t become aiders and abettors by giving advice unless there was some kind of demonstrable plan, which I don’t find here,” Rosenwasser said.
But he also reprimanded Guertin for wearing two legal hats.
“Mr. Guertin did his job as private counsel for Mr. DeStefano,” he said. “Perhaps he did less of a good job for the City of Middletown.”
Rosenwasser said the prosecution did not prove DeStefano intended to break the conflict of interest law.
But he said DeStefano knew his leases with federal loan recipients meant he was doing business with people doing business with the city. That meant he should have answered “yes” to a question about that on his 2003 and 2004 ethics disclosure forms. The judge found DeStefano guilty of two counts of second-degree offering a false instrument for filing, for answering “no.”
Hugs and tears filled the courtroom. People waited on line to embrace and congratulate Novesky and Guertin, while they patted DeStefano on the back. Guertin held DeStefano’s mother-in-law an extra moment as she congratulated him and cried for her own daughter and son-in-law.
Later, surrounded by his wife and three of his four children, Guertin said: “All we ever really wanted to do was build up the City of Middletown … the city that we love.”
The toll the trial had taken was enormous. Guertin’s wife, Ellie, said she had trouble sleeping and had suffered other stress-related health problems.
But the family was also buoyed by the kindness they were shown during the 11-month ordeal – like the anonymous gift of chocolates someone left at their door.
For those who have crossed paths with DeStefano during his confrontational 11 years in office, the fact that most of the charges were dismissed didn’t blunt the point of the convictions.
“The mayor is expected to be truthful in all of his dealings,” said police Chief Matt Byrne, who has often found himself in the mayor’s cross hairs. “He clearly lied on his ethical disclosure forms and it was serious enough to be convicted.”
“Whether you’re an ally of Joe DeStefano or not, he’s been around here for a long time and will be sorely missed at City Hall. I think the price that is going to be paid far exceeds the level of guilt. I don’t think it’s fair. If there’s anything that’s good about the whole thing, it’s that it is over.”
– Joe Masi, Civil Service Commission administrator, former alderman
“I’m delighted that it is over and that things were not more severe. It’s hurt a lot of people and changed the relationships inside and outside City Hall. I don’t know what triggered the initial investigation, but I believe that the process was fair.”
– Tom Swierski, Police Commission chairman
“This is the end of what has been a difficult time for the city and its people. Now we can move on and take Middletown in a fresh direction. The sooner we get over what we’ve been dealing with for the past several years, the better off we will be.”
– James Streets, Middletown Republican Committee chairman
“To have everything else taken away was a great victory. But these two minor issues could damage not only him but the city.”
– Alderman Lee Gerow, R-4th Ward
“The team of prosecutors and investigators assigned to this case did their job competently and professionally. We followed the trail of the evidence and presented it to its proper forum: a courtroom.”
– Frank Phillips, Orange County district attorney
“Richard Guertin has an impeccable reputation. I would trust him with my wallet.”
– Norman Shapiro, Middletown lawyer
“Let me say this: I love being a Middletown City Court judge.”
– Richard Guertin
“Tomorrow, we will be heading to Philly. Tomorrow night, we are going to a concert at the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. And Saturday, I am going to watch my other son play tennis. So vindication has its rewards.”
– Neil Novesky, community development chief
“The genesis of the case, three evil city employees, Guertin, DeStefano and Novesky, conspiring to take money – all that goes, except getting one question wrong on a form. This certainly raises questions about the political motivation of the prosecution.”
– Mayor Joe DeStefano
“You have all of Joe’s accomplishments. And unless you were sleeping through the ’90s, you have to understand that DeStefano saved Middletown. Nobody can take that away from him.”
– Alex Smith, Middletown corporation counsel
“In baseball, I am batting .960. But in criminal court, you want exoneration. For a public official like Joe, any public official, even a minor charge raises problems.”
– Jim Monroe, DeStefano’s lawyer
* Reprinted with permission of The Times Herald-Record
Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.
Middletown Mayor Joe DeStefano is acquitted of all charges in his municipal corruption trial. This article is brought to you by Larkin Ingrassia, LLP.