Desso’s ‘all-in’ style ques­tioned

Per­sonal re­quests, co­zi­ness with de­vel­op­ers raise concerns in N. Green­bush

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Lau­ren Stan­forth

North Green­bush

The ha­rass­ing texts from an anony­mous phone num­ber be­gan the same day that restau­rant owner Michael Moscatiello wrote a so­cial me­dia post ac­cus­ing North Green­bush Su­per­vi­sor Louis Desso of en­gag­ing in pay-toplay prac­tices with lo­cal de­vel­op­ers.

“Just keep desso out of your con­ver­sa­tion, U r cre­at­ing big prob­lems for your­self,” read one of the texts sent on Sept. 7, 2017. “U don’t have the power to bring down a man as pow­er­ful. As lou,” said an­other.

The texts, some laced with ob­scen­i­ties, also di­rected in­sults at Moscatiello’s adult son. Moscatiello, who has op­er­ated his Ital­ian restau­rant in North Green­bush for 25 years, filed a re­port with State Po­lice — but no ar­rests were ever made.

He be­lieves the taunts came from one of Desso’s sup­port­ers.

“This guy is a bully and he just kind of took over this town,” Moscatiello said.

The fric­tion be­tween the two be­gan af­ter Moscatiello hosted a packed po­lit­i­cal fundraiser for Desso in 2015, and Moscatiello said Desso kept blow­ing him off about not pay-

ing the bill, which to­taled more than $6,000. Desso claims that, de­spite the $1,000 limit in North Green­bush for in-kind con­tri­bu­tions, Moscatiello agreed to waive the cost as a cam­paign gift. As ques­tions be­gan to mount about Desso’s cam­paign dis­clo­sures, Moscatiello filed a com­plaint in small claims court to dis­suade any spec­u­la­tion that he vi­o­lated con­tri­bu­tion lim­its. In Jan­uary, a Rens­se­laer city court judge ruled the su­per­vi­sor had to pay Moscatiello the max­i­mum $5,000 award al­lowed in such cases.

The restau­ra­teur said the in­ci­dent is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the at­mos­phere in this Troy sub­urb ever since Desso, a for­mer Town Board mem­ber, was elected su­per­vi­sor in Novem­ber 2015.

Desso, a self-de­scribed re­cov­ered al­co­holic who has worked in the sub­stance abuse field for the last three decades, has en­gaged in ac­tiv­i­ties that have raised ques­tions about his ethics and his re­la­tion­ship with de­vel­op­ers. Since he was sworn in as su­per­vi­sor in Jan­uary 2016, Desso has re­quested the town as­ses­sor re­duce his home’s value and ob­tained ap­proval from the Town Board to have a sewer line ex­tended to his now sub­di­vided prop­erty — which is also the fu­ture site of his son’s home.

When the public tried to ask about the Moscatiello restau­rant bill case at a Town Board meet­ing, Desso backed a de­ci­sion to pro­hibit any com­ments on that sub­ject.

In re­cent years, records show Desso’s cam­paign ac­count has taken in more money than al­most any town leader in the Cap­i­tal Re­gion, much of it from de­vel­op­ers with busi­ness be­fore the town. They in­clude David Mulinio, who has been ac­tively de­vel­op­ing projects along Route 4 and last month ar­ranged for free fill to be dumped next to Desso’s house to as­sist with the con­struc­tion of a house for Desso’s son, Jonathan, who is Rens­se­laer County District At­tor­ney Joel Abelove’s spokesman.

“He uses his po­si­tion in gov­ern­ment and in­flu­ence to en­rich him­self,” said town Demo­cratic leader Charles B. Smith, one of Desso’s most vo­cal crit­ics. “Cor­rup­tion has no party la­bel.”

But Desso said any ques­tions about his in­tegrity are only the re­sult of Democrats who want to gain con­trol of town gov­ern­ment. He also sug­gested that he may be a tar­get be­cause he is Ital­ian-amer­i­can.

Desso said he does not re­quest cam­paign money in ex­change for fa­vors and noted that he has done pos­i­tive things for the town of 13,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing low­er­ing prop­erty taxes and re­ceiv­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in grants for road­way and wa­ter-line im­prove­ments.

“Peo­ple want to make stuff up and throw stuff at you,” said Desso, 64. “You fol­low the law and you do what’s right.”

Many hats

Desso’s po­lit­i­cal life has been touched by other con­tro­ver­sies since he first tried to run for Town Board in 2005. In 2010, when he was both an elected Town Board mem­ber and a county leg­is­la­tor, a court rul­ing pro­hib­ited Rens­se­laer County of­fi­cials from hold­ing two elected seats si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Desso and the two other Rens­se­laer County leg­is­la­tors im­pacted by the rul­ing voted along with other Repub­li­cans to amend the county’s laws to al­low the prac­tice to con­tinue. Desso then got his Town Board seat back.

In 2013, while Desso still held both elected po­si­tions, he was also hired as Rens­se­laer County’s new deputy com­mis­sioner of men­tal health — tak­ing an $82,000-a-year po­si­tion that hadn’t ex­isted in five years. The hire was notable be­cause Desso was a Rens­se­laer County elected of­fi­cial and the civil ser­vice rules gov­ern­ing the ed­u­ca­tional re­quire­ments for the post were changed, al­low­ing him to qual­ify for the po­si­tion.

Desso had pre­vi­ously worked as an ad­min­is­tra­tor at St. Peter’s Ad­dic­tion and Re­cov­ery Cen­ter, and county of­fi­cials said Desso’s new po­si­tion was purely ad­min­is­tra­tive and not clin­i­cal. He then re­signed his job as county leg­is­la­tor, but stayed on in North Green­bush as a Town Board mem­ber.

In 2016, about four months af­ter as­sum­ing his new role as su­per­vi­sor, Desso ap­plied to the North Green­bush as­ses­sor to have his home’s $372,692 mar­ket value re­duced. He said he had been mean­ing to do it for years, and had the same right as any town res­i­dent to con­test his assess­ment. North Green­bush as­ses­sor John Harkin ex­pressed his dis­com­fort with han­dling it him­self, so the case was for­warded to the neigh­bor­ing assess­ment board in Brunswick. Desso’s assess­ment was even­tu­ally re­duced; the change re­sulted in an es­ti­mated 16 per­cent tax cut.

Other town of­fi­cials who have been pre­sented with re­quests from the su­per­vi­sor have not al­ways re­cused them­selves from of­fi­cial de­ci­sions, ac­cord­ing to a re­view of town meet­ing min­utes. The Plan­ning Board ap­proved Desso’s sub­di­vi­sion of his prop­erty on Stephen Drive in prepa­ra­tion for his son’s home con­struc­tion. The Town Board ap­proved Desso’s re­quest to have a sewer line ex­ten­sion run to his prop­erty and that of a neigh­bor. The Zon­ing Board of Ap­peals last month ap­proved a re­quest to have the fill dumped on the site where Jon Desso’s house will be con­structed.

“It’s tough in small towns,” said North Green­bush Zon­ing Board of Ap­peals Chair­man Richard French. “If I re­cused my­self ev­ery time some­one I know was in­volved, I’d never hear cases.”

Desso said the town is not pay­ing for his new sewer line, which he orig­i­nally tried to get by pe­ti­tion­ing his en­tire neigh­bor­hood. But the other res­i­dents did not want the ex­ten­sion to their homes.

J.R. Casale, owner of Casale Con­struc­tion, is do­ing the work. In March, Casale was among nine peo­ple who went be­fore the Town Board and praised Desso — at a time when the board had at­tempted to ban oth­ers from com­ment­ing on Moscatiello’s small-claims case against Desso.

Casale said last week that he has known Desso his whole life but is go­ing to bill him for the sewer work his com­pany is do­ing, which Casale es­ti­mated will cost Desso about $10,000. “Ev­ery­one is look­ing at it like Louie got a fa­vor, but no,” Casale said. “I knew Louie since he was a kid, but he can’t do noth­ing for me as su­per­vi­sor.”

Desso’s po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tion to oth­ers in con­struc­tion and devel­op­ment, how­ever, has raised ques­tions.

Desso’s cam­paign ac-

count has re­ceived $61,378 in con­tri­bu­tions since

2015 — putting him near the top among in­cum­bent town su­per­vi­sors in the Cap­i­tal Re­gion. Colonie Su­per­vi­sor Paula Ma­han, a Demo­crat who over­sees the largest town in the re­gion, is a dis­tant first in that cat­e­gory with $201,670 col­lected dur­ing the same pe­riod.

Still, Desso’s fundrais­ing is nearly triple what Guilder­land Su­per­vi­sor Peter Bar­ber has brought in — and Guilder­land has three times the pop­u­la­tion of North Green­bush.

Friends with in­ter­ests

The most siz­able con­tri­bu­tions to the Friends of Desso com­mit­tee came from de­vel­op­ers with busi­ness be­fore the town, in­clud­ing $1,000 from Mulinio’s lim­ited li­a­bil­ity com­pany, 16 North Devel­op­ment; $1,000 from Cole’s Col­li­sion; and two con­tri­bu­tions of $1,500 each from Hodor­owski Homes real es­tate bro­ker John Mesko and his wife .

Cole’s Col­li­sion owner John Cole also gave for­mer Rens­se­laer County Deputy Ex­ec­u­tive Chris Meyer $5,000 — Meyer’s largest sin­gle con­tri­bu­tion — in Au­gust, around the same time the county’s in­dus­trial devel­op­ment agency voted to grant a 10-year pay­ment-in-lieu of taxes agree­ment for a new Cole’s Col­li­sion site on Route 4. Meyer was ac­tively run­ning a cam­paign for county ex­ec­u­tive at the time.

Robert Pasinella, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Rens­se­laer County’s IDA, said Cole put in his ap­pli­ca­tion for tax breaks in late 2016, well be­fore the 2017 con­tri­bu­tions were made. Cole couldn’t be reached for com­ment.

“Whether it’s John Cole or any other de­vel­oper, we don’t know the cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions that come in, and it did not in­flu­ence us,” Pasinella said.

John Panichi, CEO of Benetech in North Green­bush, also gave Desso $1,000 last year. Panichi said he does not be­lieve that Desso ex­changes con­tri­bu­tions for fa­vors — only that Desso is com­mit­ted to low­er­ing taxes and bring­ing busi­ness to North Green­bush.

“I think if you look on balance with what he’s done and what he’s ac­com­plished, we haven’t had any­one who has ac­com­plished so much in such a short pe­riod of time to make the town a bet­ter place,” said Panichi, who is also chair­man of the North Green­bush In­dus­trial Devel­op­ment Agency.

Panichi ac­knowl­edged that Desso has a large amount of cam­paign cash. “I guess he feels he needs a war chest,” he said. “It’s a very large war chest given the size of our town . ... He’s an all-in guy.”

Desso touts his abil­ity to make North Green­bush more ac­ces­si­ble to in­com­ing busi­nesses. But his relationships with de­vel­op­ers have over­lapped with his per­sonal fi­nances.

At a town Plan­ning Board meet­ing in June 2016, Cap­com Fed­eral Credit Union had ap­plied to mod­ify its drive-up and teller win­dows at its new branch on Route 4.

Desso spoke dur­ing the public com­ment pe­riod, say­ing the town had been wait­ing a long time for a ten­ant for that site and to “please not put any un­nec­es­sary ob­sta­cles in for this ap­proval,” ac­cord­ing to min­utes from the meet­ing.

About a year later, Desso ob­tained a $200,000 mort­gage from Cap­com — the sev­enth mort­gage or home eq­uity loan he has taken out on his res­i­dence since 1991. Last week, Desso said the re­fi­nanc­ing he did with Cap­com was the same that any in­di­vid­ual would re­ceive. A Cap­com spokesper­son said the bank does not com­ment on any in­for­ma­tion re­lated to its cus­tomers.

“They’re all re­fi­nances,” Desso said. “Col­leges and cars — I gave my kids too much.”

Desso said dur­ing his first term as su­per­vi­sor “I worked like a ma­niac,” and said he pri­vately asked Town Board mem­bers if they would vote to in­crease his $18,000-a-year su­per­vi­sor salary to re­flect a full-time job. But he said he dropped the sub­ject when he got no sup­port. In Jan­uary of this year, Desso lost his county job af­ter he op­posed Steve Mclaugh­lin’s can­di­dacy for county ex­ec­u­tive. Mclaugh­lin, a Repub­li­can, won; Desso now works as a spe­cial as­sis­tant to the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit New York As­so­ci­a­tion of Al­co­holism and Sub­stance Abuse Providers.

Free dirt

As far as the fill Mulinio had brought to Desso’s prop­erty a few weeks ago, Desso sees no eth­i­cal prob­lems with the ar­range­ment.

“I was asked if I wanted the dirt trucked out if it was free, and I said ‘yeah.’” he said. “I haven’t done any­thing wrong, and I’ve fol­lowed the let­ter of the law.”

Last year, the Times Union re­ported the FBI had launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the cir­cum­stances in which con­struc­tion ma­te­rial — top­soil — was trucked from a Saratoga County de­vel­oper’s con­struc­tion sites in Brunswick to the 1,200-acre dairy farm of town Su­per­vi­sor Phil Her­ring­ton. No one has been charged or ac­cused of wrong­do­ing in that in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which re­mains open.

Mulinio told the Times Union the dump­ing of fill next to Desso’s prop­erty ben­e­fited the con­trac­tor, Evo­lu­tion, that he was help­ing. Mulinio said the fill, which also went to about six other lo­ca­tions, came from Hud­son Val­ley Com­mu­nity Col­lege, which is build­ing a $14.5 mil­lion Cen­ter for Ad­vanced Manufacturing Skills. HVCC spokesman Den­nis Kennedy said there are loads of fill leav­ing cam­pus regularly, and that its con­trac­tor, Bette and Cring, and its sub­con­trac­tor, Evo­lu­tion, are re­spon­si­ble for its dis­posal. If fill went to Desso’s house it was “not at the di­rec­tion of the col­lege,” Kennedy said.

Long as­so­ci­a­tions

Mulinio and his busi­ness part­ner Frank Lanni fol­lowed an un­usual path to be­com­ing de­vel­op­ers. As young men in 1992, they were sen­tenced to fed­eral prison for con­spir­acy to sell co­caine, as part of a larger case that un­cov­ered a drug ring in Troy. Mulinio, who has also had a lawn and land­scap­ing busi­ness, has been de­vel­op­ing prop­erty for the past decade.

Mulinio, who also runs the Field of Hor­rors in Brunswick dur­ing the Hal­loween sea­son, has had other po­lit­i­cal bat­tles in Rens­se­laer County. He sued the city of Troy in 2010 al­leg­ing his le­git­i­mate bids were be­ing pur­posely passed over. In 2013, for­mer Troy mayor and now Rens­se­laer County leg­isla­tive em­ployee Harry Tu­tun­jian pur­sued ha­rass­ment charges af­ter he said Mulinio spit on him while Tu­tun­jian was mayor.

The de­vel­oper, how­ever, said his drive is to solely im­prove his com­mu­nity — just as it is with his friend, Desso.

“Here’s a man who com­pletely turned the town around in a pos­i­tive way,” Mulinio said. “He has low­ered taxes. He has brought in a pos­i­tive sur­plus for the town. He has a pas­sion for North Green­bush.

“This guy loves this town,” he said, “and the peo­ple in it.”

Lau­ren Stan­forth / Times Union

Michael Moscatiello in his of­fice at his restau­rant in June 2018 as he looks over copies of ha­rass­ing texts he says he re­ceived from an anony­mous num­ber in Septem­ber 2017.

Lori Van Buren / times union

fill is seen next to north Green­bush Su­per­vi­sor Louis desso’s house on Stephen drive on tues­day in Wy­nantskill. the fill was ar­ranged to be dumped for free by lo­cal de­vel­oper david mulinio.

Desso

Mulinio

Lori Van Buren / times union

north Green­bush Com­mons on rt. 4 on tues­day in north Green­bush. the com­mons was built by de­vel­op­ers david mulinio and frank Lanni. mulinio ar­ranged to have free fill brought over to the prop­erty of north Green­bush Su­per­vi­sor Louis desso so as to help with the con­struc­tion of a house for desso’s son.

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