Mayor on Trial

DeStefano, two others accused of fraud
March 07, 2005
By Dianna Cahn and Oliver Mackson

Goshen - Joe DeStefano is ready for the fight of his life and it will play out in Orange County Court beginning today.

The Middletown mayor, City Court Judge Rich Guertin and community development czar Neil Novesky begin their nonjury trial today. They're facing a 55-count indictment handed up in the wake of a May 6 raid on City Hall. The prosecution's case is built on a paper trail generated by seven leases DeStefano signed with landlords and tenants, all of whom received U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds through Novesky's office. The prosecution contends that DeStefano, Novesky and Guertin knowingly broke seldom-prosecuted laws by getting involved in those deals.

These are the charges the men face:

First-degree tampering with public records, a felony
Maximum 2< to seven years in prison
Counts: DeStefano, 10
DeStefano is accused of putting false information about his indirect business dealings with the city on ethics and audit forms. The forms are meant to give transparency to the business dealings of public officials.

First-degree falsifying business records, a felony
Maximum 1< to four years
Counts: DeStefano, 12; Novesky, 2
Relating to many of the same disclosure forms, this charge focuses on intent to conceal another crime.

First-degree offering a false instrument for filing, a felony
Maximum 1< to four years
Counts: DeStefano 12, Novesky 2
Also relates to many of the same forms. Accuses both men of putting false information on records submitted to City Hall.

Issuing a false certificate, a felony
Maximum 1< to four years
Counts: DeStefano 2, Novesky: 2
Accuses both men of putting false information on documents pertaining to two of DeStefano's real estate deals.

Defrauding the government, a felony
Maximum 1< to four years
Counts: one each
Accuses all three men of scheming from 1997 to 2003 to deceive government agencies and gain property worth more than $1,000.

Official misconduct, a misdemeanor
Maximum one year in jail
Counts: DeStefano 7, Novesky 8; Guertin, 2
Accuses the trio of abusing their power to obtain benefit.

DeStefano is accused of benefiting from business deals with recipients of HUD loans. Novesky's office processed the loans. Novesky stood to gain an inherent benefit by assisting the mayor, who holds the power to appoint him. Guertin, as the city's lawyer, had a responsibility to keep Novesky's office clear of conflicts of interest. Guertin stood to doubly gain from the transactions: DeStefano had power to promote him, and Guertin was both the city's lawyer and DeStefano's private lawyer and was paid for drawing up DeStefano's business contracts.

Engaging in a prohibited conflict of interest, a misdemeanor
Maximum one year
Counts: DeStefano, 6; Novesky, 6; Guertin, 2 (The judge recently dismissed an additional two counts against Guertin)

Attempted Engaging in a Prohibited Conflict of Interest, a misdemeanor
Counts: DeStefano and Novesky one each

The three are accused of violating a law prohibiting public officials from entering directly or indirectly into a business agreement with the city they work for and directly or indirectly benefiting from the deal.

Fifth-degree conspiracy, a misdemeanor
Maximum one year
Counts: one each
Accuses all three of committing the indicted crimes in a scheme to help DeStefano benefit from HUD funds earmarked for small cities.

The players

The judge
Judge Stewart Rosenwasser is the least senior of Orange County's three criminal court judges, but in his five years on the bench, he's had plenty of preparation for a long, complicated, attention-getting trial.
In 2002, Rosenwasser presided over the trial of Brian Lynch, a Scotchtown man accused of stealing money from his neighbor, a 9/11 widow named Heloiza Asaro, whose firefighter husband, Carl Asaro, was killed at the World Trade Center. A jury convicted Lynch. An appeals court gave him a new trial, and Lynch hired a celebrity lawyer named Joseph Tacopina. The retrial could've put Rosenwasser under a media microscope, but Lynch pleaded guilty.
Rosenwasser is known for his witticisms from the bench and his tough stance against people convicted of violent crimes, earning him the nickname "Maximum Stew." But people who appear in his courtroom say there's a lot of substance to go with the style, and the judge is just as capable of quoting Faulkner from memory as he is of coining a quip.
Rosenwasser's zeal for fairness was evident last year in the case of Dr. Mahavir Singh, a New Windsor physician who was cleared of accusations that he molested patients. Rosenwasser acquitted him after a non-jury trial, then delivered an explanation of why Singh was not only not guilty, but utterly innocent.

The law clerk
John Goldsmith's grandfather opened the first auto dealership in Middletown, ran a five-and-dime store in the city and worked as a locomotive fireman for the Ontario & Western Railroad.
The younger Goldsmith is now the man behind the scenes of what's arguably the biggest trial in the city's 116-year history. Judge Stewart Rosenwasser may be presiding over the trial, but as his law clerk, Goldsmith does a lot of the heavy lifting to get cases ready for trial.
Goldsmith, 41, was an Orange County prosecutor from 1988 to 1994. He was in private practice in Middletown between 1994 and 2000.
Goldsmith has been the judge's law clerk since Rosenwasser took office in 2000. He also has a night job: town justice in the Town of Mount Hope.

The prosecutor
Chris Borek gets the big cases.
There was the time five years ago when he prosecuted two men for the murder of Dominick Pendino, a young father who vanished at the end of a bloody trail in his driveway in the Town of Newburgh. No one had ever prosecuted a murder in case in Orange County without having a body as evidence.
Borek won murder convictions against both defendants, Larry Weygant and Greg Chrysler.
Borek, 39, is a native of Queens. He moved to Orange County in 1993, after a four-year stint with the Manhattan district attorney's office.
Borek was an Orange County prosecutor for seven years then moved to the office of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Borek returned to Goshen in 2003 and was later promoted to chief trial assistant, one of a handful of supervisory jobs in the district attorney's office. He also supervises investigations conducted by the office.

The second-seater
The Middletown case is so complicated, a second prosecutor has been tapped to assist senior prosecutor Chris Borek.
The "second-seater" is Assistant District Attorney Dave Meffert, 34, who started at the Orange County district attorney's office on Sept. 10, 2001.
Meffert worked as a criminal defense lawyer in Texas, including one case in which he represented one of the first juveniles in that state to be prosecuted as an adult for slapping a teacher.
Meffert also worked as a prosecutor for the City of San Antonio, where he handled all the city's code-compliance cases.
The second-seat prosecutor does everything from make sure that documents are in order for the trial to ensuring that witnesses are ready to go on the days they're scheduled.

DeStefano's lawyer
Jim Monroe has fewer law years under his belt than his colleagues on the case, but he will carry the heaviest load.
Monroe is better known for his civil litigation in federal and state court than in the halls of Orange County Court. He'll be representing the case's central defendant, Middletown Mayor Joe DeStefano.
Monroe has worked closely on several cases with Bob Isseks, a prominent civil rights lawyer who serves as part-time counsel for the City of Middletown. The two are coordinating a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of Orange County Jail inmates, who allege their constitutional rights were violated when they were strip-searched at the jail.
Monroe sees DeStefano's defense as more straightforward than the "complex litigation I am normally accustomed to."
Monroe became a lawyer in 1997. He's worked at what is now Dupee, Dupee and Monroe ever since and became partner in 2000. While he's never prosecuted a case, he's backed by a criminal defense law partner and two lawyers at the firm who were assistant district attorneys in the county.

Novesky's lawyers
In nearly four decades practicing the law, Pat Burke has reached across the spectrum of the profession.
He was an assistant U.S. attorney and a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force for the Southern District of New York before he went into private practice in the early 1970s. Since then, he's run the gamut of defense law.
He's been involved in federal high-profile cases. He's also represented municipalities, like the First Amendment case he won along with his son, Mike, on behalf of the City of Newburgh after it was sued by city firefighters.
The two Burkes - of Burke, Miele and Golden in Goshen - fought and won another case last summer when federal authorities indicted a Ramapo police officer charged with lying to an FBI agent and distributing cable boxes. The case was dismissed.
Now, the father and son are teaming up again to represent Neil Novesky, Middletown's community development chief, who is fighting 23 counts in the indictment. The elder Burke says he enjoys working with his son, who's been a lawyer since 1997.
"We are different people and we approach things differently. In fact, I do learn things from his approaches," said the senior Burke. "One and one adds up to more than two."

Guertin's lawyer
They say that getting cross-examined by John Ingrassia is like Chinese water torture.
He never raises his voice and always presents his questions as a gentleman. But by the end of his questioning, his subject is shaking.
Ingrassia exclusively practices criminal defense law ranging from white collar to assault.
Now he's representing Middletown Judge Rich Guertin, whose own career had never before been marred by allegations of wrongdoing.
"John is one cool customer and a very nice guy on top of that," said fellow lawyer Sol Lesser. "He's one of two or three people other than myself that I would feel comfortable representing a family member."
Ingrassia comes from the rooted Ingrassia clan, a politically active family whose patriarch, Angelo Ingrassia, went from Black Dirt farmer to senior judge on the state Supreme Court.
Ingrassia became a lawyer in 1989. He worked four years for the Orange County district attorney's office before joining Larkin, Ingrassia & Brown, LLP. In 2000, the firm added Ingrassia to its shingle. Ingrassia later brought his father into the firm after the judge retired and has been known to bring the elder Ingrassia to court for "good luck."

* Reprinted with permission of The Times Herald-Record

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

*Prior results do not guarantee similar outcome.