By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, July 17, 1987
Nicholas Scoppetta is a former commissioner of investigation for New York City who, not unlike many other ex-prosecutors, is now using his criminal-law skills to earn a living as a defense attorney.
And also like many of the other, Scoppetta’s earnings have been enhanced by the business generated from the city’s corruption scandal, which is now a year-and-a-half old and still thriving.
But Scoppetta has lately gained a distinction from his ex-prosecutor peers that he would have just as well done without. He has been described in court testimony as having counseled a client to do something clearly unethical and possibly criminal.
The legal phrase for what he is said to have done is subornation of perjury, and it is a felony.
The Scoppetta client in question was Anthony Ameruso, who is also a former city official. Ameruso, you’ll recall, resigned as Mayor Edward Koch’s transportation commissioner shortly after the citywide scandal broke in January of 1986 — when he realized that his private deal-making and conflicts of interest, as careful as he had been to disguise them, could not survive major scrutiny.
He was right. Soon he was under investigation for skirting the city employee financial disclosure law and for having private business arrangements with people seeking city contracts. In fact, if Anthony Ameruso had been an ex-convict instead of an esteemed ex-city commissioner, he would have violated his parole and been locked up again simply for associating with bad characters.
His immediate problem these days is the testimony he gave to the Martin Commission, a special mayoral body that briefly investigated the corruption scandal last year. Ameruso could see that the investigators were trying to uncover certain of his questionable private investments, so he undertook to hide them.
One of these was his interest in Chief Realty, a limited-partnership real estate company based in New Jersey, in which he had invested $150,000 and had been extended a promissory note from the company for an additional $100,000 share. He did all this knowing that a principal figure in Chief Realty, Frank Lembo, this man who brought Ameruso into this investment, had a close business relationship with Arthur Imperatore, a trucker and real estate developer who was seeking a permit to establish ferry service between New York and New Jersey.
The permit had to be granted by Ameruso’s Department of Transportation. And it was — on Jan. 16, 1986. Eight days later, Chief Realty gave Ameruso the $100,000 promissory note.
Then, on Feb. 19, Ameruso testified under oath before the Martin Commission and swore that he had no such investment. He was told he would have to come back again. Panicking because he could feel the breath of the hounds at his heels, he and his lawyer, Scoppetta, arranged a meeting on Feb. 24 in Scoppetta’s Madison Avenue office with the principals of Chief Realty.
It was there that the decision was made to try to expunge the investment — by writing back-dated checks form Chief Realty to Ameruso, returning his money, and by writing an equally back-dated letter saying that his proposal to invest in the company had been rejected. Now Ameruso could go back and lie to the Martin Commission with his conscience unburdened.
It is for this lying under oath that he is currently on trial in State Supreme Court, on a perjury indictment obtained by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.
Scoppetta was not charged in the indictment but he has certainly been named in court. Two prosecution witnesses who attended the Feb. 24 meeting in Scoppetta’s office said it was Scoppetta’s idea to back date the give-back checks and the rejection letter. The indictment says the checks were handed over to Ameruso by a Chief Realty executive on that day in the men’s room of Scoppetta’s office.
If true, this would suggest that Scoppetta was seeking the protection of being able to say later that the transaction did not take place in his presence. Men’s rooms are to shady transactions what press conferences are to official lies.
Scoppetta is no longer Ameruso’s lawyer. The lawyer-client relationship cannot withstand the stress of a situation where mutual finger pointing may be the only possible route of attempted survival. Because Scoppetta, in order to avoid felony prosecution and/or disbarment, must say that it was somebody else’s idea to prepare the false documents. And Ameruso must say the same.
Ameruso’s new lawyer, Irwin Rochman, has already said it for him, by arguing that his client “believed, based upon conversations with his lawyers, that his dealings with Chief Realty had not become an investment.”
Scoppetta is scheduled to testify in the trial today. Hovering over the former commissioner of investigation will be Canon 7 of The Lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility. It says: “The duty of a lawyer, both to his client and to the legal system, is to represent his client zealously within the bounds of the law,” but it also warns that those bounds include the stricture that “a lawyer shall not participate in the creation or preservation of evidence when he knows or it is obvious that the evidence is false.”