The recently embattled former state senator talks about his political life, his family, his downfall, and his redemption.

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If you live in Westchester, you’re likely as familiar with the name Spano as you are with Rye Playland or the Hutch at rush hour. And, if you’re like many in the county, particularly if you keep up with local and state politics, the surname conjures a number of images—some positive, some negative, some disappointing. In fact, it may seem as if you can’t walk a block in Yonkers without running into a Spano. And, while that may be an exaggeration, it’s not all that far from the truth. The Spano family is large—in many ways, larger than life—both in number and in influence, particularly in Yonkers. 

Nicholas A. Spano, 62, the robust, charismatic, down-to-earth lobbyist and former Republican state senator, was born in 1953, the eldest of 16 children, including his younger brother, Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano. (Interestingly, they are not related to Andy Spano, who served as county clerk from 1982 to 1994 and county executive from 1998 to 2010.) Like the mayor, Nick is very much his father’s son. In fact, throughout his childhood and throughout his life, his father’s mantra—“Take one step at a time, put one foot in front of the other, keep moving, and don’t look up the mountain”—has resonated with him and served him well. Like his dad, Leonard, a onetime Marine who spent years delivering oil before he entered politics, Nick Spano is a family man and a people person—not just in the social sense, but in the public-service sense.  

What was it like being one of 16 kids? “Well, let me say it was an experience growing up,” Spano says. “We’re a close family, and 15 out 16 of us are still in Yonkers. My sister is the one that moved far away—to White Plains.”

Brother Mike Spano, 51, remembers his childhood family life as “organized chaos. My father had a rule that if he wasn’t there, then the oldest was in charge. That was most often Nick,” the mayor says with a laugh. “He always loved being ‘Joe-in-Charge.’”

 
Leonard and Josephine Spano with their 16 children


When Leonard Spano wasn’t there, it was because he was out working—working hard, initially delivering ice and coal. Little did he know that his unassuming business venture would one day lead to what many see as a local political dynasty. Says Nick Spano, “My grandfather, my namesake, came to America from Italy a hundred years ago. He started an ice-and-coal business that would take him door-to-door in Yonkers. I worked in that business from a very early age with my father and my cousins.” 

Spano says his grandfather had a reputation as “not only a hard worker but as a caring man who put people above business. When his customers couldn’t pay, my grandfather would tell them to hold off until they had it.” 

Leonard Spano learned a lot from his father, including how to work with and treat people. Another of Nick Spano’s brothers, Lenny, 56, who is the executive director of the Westchester School for Special Children, says that their father “lived by the adage that talk is cheap and what counts is what you do. He told us to never let people know what you’re thinking. He wanted us to look after each other and be accountable.” 

By the time Leonard Spano took over the business, the company’s focus was on oil. “Mike Brilis, who owned a small Greek diner on Riverdale Avenue, kept telling my dad to get into politics,” Spano recalls. “In 1967 at age 37, my dad, who had 11 kids at the time, took him up on it. He went out and bought his first suit and he’d work from 6 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon installing boilers and delivering oil. Then he’d go home, put on that suit, wash his hands, and go door-to-door shaking hands while running for county legislator.”

Leonard lost that year but won a seat on the county legislature  in 1971 and continued to hold elected positions for the next 28 years.

Six-year-old Nick Spano (left), the eldest of 16 children born to Leonard and Josephine Spano;  Nick Spano and his brother John, the second eldest in the family.

“If there’s anything I learned from my dad, it was patience and determination,” Nick Spano says. “He also taught me to treat people as I wanted to be treated and to respect the dignity of every person, whether they were pumping gas or a member of Congress.” 

Spano graduated from Iona College in New Rochelle and, at 24, set his sights on a seat in the state assembly. His opponent was a 12-year incumbent, but Spano worked the Yonkers streets, just as his father had. He won that first election by 600 votes. “I was two years out of college when I ran,” Spano recalls. “I’d get so nervous before I had to speak in front of people that I’d shake. My pupils would dilate from the stress and the audience would get blurry in front of me. It was something that I had to force myself to overcome.” 


Senator Nick Spano and President Bill Clinton at an American Red Cross event in Westchester


Spano went on to serve 28 years in the legislature between the assembly and the senate. Yet mention the “Spano dynasty” or suggest that the Spanos are Yonkers’ version of the Kennedys and Nick Spano bristles.

“Those characterizations usually come from our critics and the family shies away from that sentiment,” he contends. “This is not a monarchy; no one has given us anything. We have worked hard and no one has appointed us. We proudly but humbly asked for people’s support.”

In the Senate, Spano was named chairman of the Mental Hygiene Committee. He went on to serve on the Rules, Transportation, Finance, Education, Health, and Racing, Gaming, and Wagering Committees; chaired the Senate Investigations Committee; and became the senior assistant majority leader. Former assemblyman Richard Brodsky met Spano back then and worked with him throughout his tenure in the legislature. “He grew enormously in the Senate. He started at a very young age and it was hard to know what he cared about at first,” Brodsky says. “When he was put in charge of that Mental Hygiene Committee, he put his heart into it and it changed him as a political figure.”

“I had no idea what the committee was about or why they gave it to me,” Spano recalls. “During meetings, I would take notes, and, when the meeting was over, I’d look at my staff and ask them what everyone was talking about.”

Spano would use this model of delegation and teamwork throughout his tenure. Surrounding himself with the right support has served him well throughout his career.

Then Assemblyman Nick Spano debating a bill from the assembly floor in 1980.


“People expect that because you’re an assemblyman or a senator, you know everything and somehow because you were elected you’ll be granted instant smarts, but it doesn’t work that way,” Spano says. “I recognized what I knew but, more important, I recognized what I didn’t know. I hired people smarter than me and who taught me what I needed to know.”

Spano chaired the Mental Hygiene Committee for eight years as the state was deinstitutionalizing the system, closing down the outdated hospitals and centers that warehoused people who were mentally ill and those with disabilities. It was seen as a move in the right direction, but the politicians made a crucial mistake.

“People weren’t treated properly, so the state began shutting facilities down, but they did it without building any community supports to replace the institutions,” Spano says. His committee addressed the issue and devised a way to provide help for this vulnerable population in a different way without burdening the taxpayers. To do this, Spano used his influence to make connections with fellow politicians on both sides of the aisle, worked his constituents, and did a fair amount of compromising.

“Ultimately, we passed the Community Reinvestment Act, which captured savings from the close of the facilities and reinvested the resources to build a community-based mental-health system all across the state,” Spano says. “I’m very proud of the work we did.” 

Spano knows that “families with kids with developmental disabilities have enormous problems and they don’t have the time, resources, or tolerance to lobby for their cause. On this committee, I recognized that I was, in effect, their lobbyist and the voice for people who often don’t have a voice,” Spano says.

Spano recalls watching the news during a blackout in Yonkers. Patients with severe disabilities from Richmond Community Services were being moved by ambulance to local hospitals because there was no power available for their medical equipment. Spano called them the next day to find out why they didn’t have a generator. The answer was simple: The organization couldn’t afford one.


“Within two days, I was able to get a grant for $250,000 from the State of New York, and, within a month, the generator was installed. They put a plaque on the generator with my name on it,” Spano says with a laugh. It was just one example of Spano's influence.

In 2004, he faced his most serious political threat from Andrea Stewart-Cousins, winning the election by a razor-thin 18 votes. Two years later, Stewart-Cousins, with the backing of the Clintons and Governor Andrew Cuomo, defeated Spano. Despite losing the senate seat he’d cherished, Spano transitioned to lobbyist and founded Empire Strategic Planning, where he could use his years of experience to continue to effect change, only now as a hired gun.

 

Then, one day in February 2012, the FBI knocked on his door. Spano’s life would never be the same. According to the FBI, Spano had begun accepting $1,500 monthly payments in 1993 from a White Plains insurance company to act as its outside consultant. In 1996, after the firm was awarded a lucrative contract, Spano’s payments increased to $5,000. In 1999, they went to $6,000, and, by 2002, the company was paying Spano $8,333 per month or $100,000 a year. The payments were made to a corporate entity called ONAPS (“Spano” spelled backward), which later changed its name to HVM Corp. Neither ONAPS nor HVM had any employees. The company also had no office and the FBI claimed it was used by Spano simply to receive payments from the insurance company. 

“He called me the day before it all went down,” recalls Brodsky. “I did an awful thing as a friend and started to yell at him. What he did was so stupid, careless, and wrong, and it wasn’t a momentary mistake. I said, ‘What were you thinking?’ Sometimes, smart and good people do terribly wrong things.”

 
Former New York State Senator Nick Spano and his attorney, Richard Levitt, talk to the media outside the US Courthouse in White Plains in February, 2012. (Photo by  Xavier Mascareñas/The Journal News; From The Journal News, February 10, 2012 © 2012 Gannett-CN. All rights reserved.)


Spano pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing and impeding the due administration of the Internal Revenue laws and was sentenced to one year and one day in the Schuylkill Federal Prison Camp in Pennsylvania. The prosecutor had asked for 18 months; Spano’s attorney argued that Spano had done much good for people with disabilities. 

Though Federal District Court Judge Cathy Siebel had received numerous letters of support and pleas for leniency for Spano, she pulled no punches at his sentencing when, according to the New York Times, she said, “The public is sick and tired of the powerful and fortunate not paying their share in taxes. And it also seems that the public is tired of politicians treating election to Albany not as an opportunity to serve but as an opportunity to line their pockets.”

“It was a very dark and scary part of my life because, all of a sudden, I wasn’t in control,” Spano recalls. “I had to give up my freedom. It was very, very scary. Thank God, I had a supportive family and a wife who held my hand through it all.”

During that time, Spano’s mother took a fall coming down a flight of stairs and fractured her skull. For a while, she had difficulty processing information and her awareness was impaired. “I remember the day I left for prison,” Spano says of that day in July 2012. “She wasn’t aware of where I was going, and we didn’t tell her. I told her I was going to work, like it was nothing, and I turned and walked, crying hysterically, all the way to the car.” 

Spano says his father gave him the same advice he’d been giving him his whole life: “Don’t look up the mountain, just keep moving, one step at a time.” The elder Spano also added, “Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine.” 

In prison, Spano spent his time working out, dropping 38 pounds, and volunteering to teach courses on how the American governmental system works. “When I went in, rather than sit and sulk and moan, I thought that I’d better make the best of it. The course I taught took a lot of time to prepare, which was good because it kept me occupied,” Spano says. “I leaned a great deal.”

His wife of 13 years, Linda, who is from a political family from Greene County, was a source of strength during this difficult time. “I never missed a single visiting day,” she says. “The first two weeks were really tough for him, but he is quick to figure things out, and he got himself into a routine. He was still Nick Spano.”

Spano was released in February 2013 after eight months, and makes no excuses for what led him to prison in the first place. “I made a mistake. I admitted my mistake and I paid for it,” Spano says. “It was time to turn the page and move forward.” 

 “F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in America, but Nick Spano is having a second act.” - Richard Brodsky

Though Spano “paid an awful price,” says Brodsky, “the important thing is that Nick rejoined society in a productive way.”         

These days, Nick Spano still lives in Yonkers and divides his time between his offices in White Plains and Albany, where he has an apartment. Spano “paid an awful price,” says Brodsky, “the important thing is that Nick rejoined society in a productive way.”         

Though he enjoys his work in the private sector, “of course, I miss it,” he says of his years as a senator. “Every time I’m in the capital, I want to take my seat, grab the microphone, and get back to work.”

Several of his lobbying clients left when he was convicted, and Spano continues to represent organizations that work with people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. He’s also been appointed chairman of the board at Richmond Community Services, a Yonkers program that supports people with severe disabilities. Spano continues to represent organizations that work with people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. He’s also been appointed chairman of the board at Richmond Community Services, a Yonkers program that supports people with severe disabilities. 

“Nick Spano’s vast experience in Albany, service on the Senate Health Committee, and time as chair of the Senate Mental Health Committee have enabled him to deliver great value to GNYHA’s [Greater New York Hospital Association] government affairs activities,” says client GNYHA’s senior vice president of communications, Brian Conway. “He consistently provides excellent service and solid counsel for our organization in the state capital.” 

 
Spano with his wife, Linda


People “were willing to stand by Nick after his mess because he always stood by them,” Brodsky says. “F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in America, but Nick Spano is having a second act. He understands that it is not just about becoming successful again. It is about redeeming himself. I think he has.”

When Spano does kick back, it is usually with the extended Spano clan. Linda and he each have two children from previous marriages and four grandchildren, with another on the way. Squeezing time in to the Nick Spano schedule isn’t easy, but it is something Linda has made a priority. “I try to bring him down from his hectic pace,” she says. Sometimes I have to say, ‘Stop!’ and when we go to dinner or a movie, we make sure we don’t talk business.” 

For Spano, the fun part is easy. “My fun is with my family. I love to cook, have everyone over, have a barbecue around the pool, and spend time with my grandchildren. I’ve become one of those grandfathers that I used to mock. When the kids come over, I just melt,” he says. “Life is great. I’m able to do what I want, which is something you can only really appreciate when someone takes it away from you.”


Tom Schreck lives in Albany, New York, with his wife, Sue. He is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and is the author of six novels.

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