Finding the Limits of What’s Permitted by Law

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, July 10, 1987

There is every reason to go back and reexamine the facts when someone you’ve written about suggests you’ve done him wrong.

On Wednesday, during a recess in the perjury trial of Anthony Ameruso, who was the city’s commissioner of transportation until he resigned last year amidst the heat of the ongoing corruption scandals, Ameruso’s former lawyer, Nicholas Scoppetta, came over and asked me to reconsider what I’d written about him. 

I shall make that attempt here. What I wrote earlier about him, in a column on Tuesday, was that the perjury trial had produced testimony that he had counseled his client “to do something clearly unethical and possibly criminal.”

Indeed such testimony was given. Two of Ameruso’s former business associates — whose New Jersey real estate company he had been allowed to invest in at a time when people closely associated with the realty company were seeking a ferry permit from Ameruso as transportation commissioner — testified last week that Scoppetta had played a central role in the decision to back date a document.

The purpose of the back dating was to make it appear that Ameruso had never been an investor in the company and, by extension, to remove the appearance, and perhaps the realty, that Ameruso had granted the permit in return for the boon of being let in on this lucrative enterprise.

One of the witnesses, Edward Morris, testified that it was Scoppetta who had suggested the back dating — to Feb. 18 — at a meeting in Scoppetta’s office on Feb. 24, 1986.

The significance of Feb. 18 is that it was one day prior to Ameruso’s first appearance before the Martin Commission, investigation the corruption scandal, where the transportation commissioner gave a less than candid answer to an imperfectly worded question about his private investments. A month later, he appeared again before the Martin Commission and gave more answers that he is now on trial for perjury.

In my earlier column, after consulting with criminal justice sources, I characterized as subornation of perjury what the testimony said Scoppetta had done.

The assistant district attorney trying the case, Daniel Castleman, reacted to that by telling me that what the testimony described was not specifically subornation of perjury and that Scoppetta was not under scrutiny for this.

I asked Castleman whether it was misconduct of another variety if a lawyer advised the back dating of a document. He answered in the affirmative but stressed that it was Ameruso on trial and therefore the object of his attention — and not Scoppetta.

Scoppetta vehemently denied that he counseled Ameruso to back date any document or to give false testimony or to do anything illegal or unethical at all. He challenged the truthfulness of the prosecution witnesses, who he pointed out had been granted immunity from prosecution for destroying records of the real estate company, Chief Realty, which they did to alter the history of Ameruso’s investment.

He asked me, reasonably, to consider such factors as his willingness to testify before the grand jury without immunity and his career in community service. He has been a prosecutor locally and federally, a teacher of law and commissioner of investigation under Mayors John Lindsay and Abe Became.

This is a reputation of worth. I wish I could say I found his entire role with Ameruso of equal merit. His may have been technically correct lawyerly conduct, but that’s the best judgement it could hope for.

The perjury trial hinges on whether Ameruso lied on March 27 before the Martin Commission when he denied that while transportation commissioner he had any investment other than one he had made in a different, and also questionable, entity known as Spring Street Realty.

In fact, he had invested $150,000 in case in Chief Realty, but when things got hot, the money was returned, the ledgers were altered (some pages were destroyed) and the back dated letter was written saying, “The general partners of Chief Realty, a limited partnership, have decided not to accept your proposed participation as a limited partner.”

Scoppetta says he knew nothing of the contents or dating of this letter or of any of the other coverup activity.

He says he urged Ameruso to tell the Martin Commission that he had “tried to” invest in Chief Realty but that because of “adverse publicity,” the company had given back his investment and he had received no benefit. 

Scoppetta says he also gave his client another option: Ameruso could deny the investment and, “as a technical matter,” he would not be committing perjury — primarily because a signature page documenting the investment had not been formally filed with the New Jersey State government. Scoppetta said he offered this secondary course only because Ameruso was balking at telling any story approximating the truth and badgering him for a technical opinion on whether a denial would be perjurious.

Ameruso, of course, chose the denial option. Scoppetta says he was upset at his client for not choosing the candor he had recommended but did not advise him to retract his testimony because Scoppetta regarded it as “technically correct.”

During the weeks prior to this March 27 testimony, when Scoppetta’s role was to research and advise Ameruso on whether Ameruso’s money in Chief Realty had actually become a legally constituted investment, Scoppetta never asked Ameruso for any documents — not the signature page he had signed, not the checks Chief Realty had given him in refunding his money, not the letter saying his “proposed participation” had been rejected.

Scoppetta explained his extraordinary incuriosity by saying he considered such a document search unnecessary because he fully expected his client to acknowledge the investment when he testified.

I don’t believe, from what has transpired in the courtroom, that it’s unfair to speculate that Scoppetta sought to know as little as possible about Ameruso’s affairs while still remaining professionally able to counsel him on how to extricate himself from the investment.

Scoppetta described his role this way in a phone conversation yesterday: “In advising a client under these circumstances, it may not be the kind of advice you give to a son or daughter on how they should conduct themselves. But I’m obligated to give a client the limits that the law permits when answering questions under oath.”

There are official forums for deciding questions of legal ethics and attorney conduct. The purpose of this effort was merely to air some of the issues and circumstances.

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