Ameruso Pins His Hopes on a Tricky Technicality

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, July 14, 1987

News of scandal has become so routine in this city and the press so bored or jaded that the perjury trial of Anthony Ameruso, Mayor Koch’s fallen commissioner of transportation, has drawn but the slimmest of coverage.

Only Rob David of this newspaper has reported on the full course of this week-long trial. Other reporters came for the opening day and appeared suddenly again yesterday for the summations.

This absence of attention presumably met with pleasure from Ameruso’s defense team, who wanted to stir as little community interest as possible. It had to be part of their thinking, when they opted for a non-jury trial, that a judge immersed in legal esoterica would be more susceptible than a lay jury to the technicalities they would use as Anthony Ameruso’s prayer of a defense.

The issue at the case’s heart is whether Ameruso was lying when, in March of last year, he went before the Martin Commission that was then investigating the city corruption scandal and denied under part that he had ever had any investments other than those already revealed.

What he was denying, and trying to hide, was the $250,000 investment he had made in Chief Realty, a New Jersey company whose principals were linked to another company that was seeking a ferry permit from none other than Anthony Ameruso, the transportation commissioner. The permit was granted.

Ameruso’s defense team, led by Irwin Rochman, argued through the trial — and again in summation yesterday — that there were two reasons why Ameruso had not committed perjury. Reason One was that an earlier lawyer, Nicholas Scoppetta, had advised Ameruso that denying the investment would be “technically correct.” And Reason Two was that the signature page covering his investment had by oversight never been filed with the state government in Trenton, which constituted the “technical” basis for Scoppetta’s Reason One.

“Given that clear, unequivocal advice, Anthony Ameruso followed that unequivocal advice…from Nicholas Scoppetta, one of the most respected, ethical lawyers in the city.” This was Rochman yesterday, asking Supreme Court Justice Thomas Galligan to believe that a lie is not a lie so long as someone of reputation says it’s okay to utter it.

Beyond this tortured logic, there is still another reason why the argument is a flat tire. Scoppetta’s advice apparently wasn’t unequivocal. The lawyer testified that he gave Ameruso not one, but two, recommendations about his testimony. As the preferred route, he urged Ameruso, he said, to disclose the investment, but when Ameruso balked at this and asked his legal opinion if Ameruso should deny the investment under oath, Scoppetta responded that “as a technical matter,” such an answer would not be perjury.

After listening to the evidence in this trial, it comes as anything but a surprise that Anthony Ameruso chose the option he had insisted on — the right to cover up. As the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Daniel Castleman, said in his summing up yesterday, “The evidence shows that he latched onto whatever he could justify what he was going to do anyway.”

Rochman, the defense attorney, is to be commended for his good sense in not trying to portray his client as ethically minded or morally motivated. These would be risky characterizations indeed for any of the numerous senior officials who have abruptly resigned in order to preserve their pensions, presumably to help defray their defense costs. Ameruso’s untouchable pension is $49,500 a year.

Rochman instead chose candor about Ameruso, relying as ever on his prayer for the judge’s devotion to technicality. For example, the defense attorney conceded to the judge: “The conduct attributable to Anthony Ameruso on Feb. 23 and 24 certainly is not praiseworthy.” He was referring to the two days in 1986 when a frightened Ameruso, learning that the Martin Commission investigators had sniffed out his Chief Realty investment as well as his quid pro quo of the ferry permit, ran to his business partners and begged them to let him out of the deal and to erase all the incriminating tracks.

“I am in trouble. I’m under investigation.” This is what Anthony Ameruso said on Feb. 23, according to Frank Lembo, one of those Chief Realty partners and a prosecution witness at the trial. Lembo also described in telling detail Ameruso’s appearance when the two sat down in a diner on Jericho Turnpike that day for a meeting that had been anxiously requested by Ameruso: “He was like green, he was shaking, he was sobbing, he was crying. He was in very bad shape.”

Ameruso still looked in very bad shape through the trial as he sat black-faced and ashen of complexion. It was clear that he would never take the stand in his own behalf, because neither his health nor his testimony could stand up.

All this man has left, because of the punishment self-inflicted by his own greed and malfeasance, is the support of his family, who have been there every day in that lonely courtroom. And should he be found guilty, it will be that family he will undoubtedly consider when he ponders whether he should make a trade — his freedom, or at least a shortened jail term, in return for fresh information he might have about corruption in the city government. 

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