By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Former state senator Pedro Espada Jr., a maverick Democrat at odds with his county political organization, had a problem. He was the target of an intense investigation by Bronx district attorney Robert Johnson. Espada viewed the probe as nothing more than a political squeeze play. Moreover, he had been led to believe that if he didn't run for office, the problem would go away. Trading political favors for criminal immunity was obviously illegal, but Espada figured he had little alternative. After all, this was the Bronx. He put the question to the man sitting across from him, Bronx Democratic county leader Roberto Ramirez.
"Is it still important that I retire from politics?" asked Espada.
"That would help to alleviate some tensions," answered Ramirez. "If you sit out, there's peace in the valley . . . "
Espada pressed for a specific assurance. "You've spoken to Johnson about our talks?" he asked.
"Yes," said Ramirez. The county leader then referred to his own status as a new lawyer who had recently passed the bar. "But I just got my lawyer's license. . . . He will get spoken to and I expect that, unless people get stupid . . . everything's going to be OK. It'll work out for everybody."
But it didn't. Even after Espada agreed to quit politics, the inquiry continued. And on June 21, 1998, just days after an angry Espada redeclared his candidacy for his old senate seat, Johnson announced indictments against him and two aides. Espada was charged with diverting $221,000 in federal Medicaid funds from his health clinic to his campaign and that of his son, City Councilman Pedro G. Espada.
Those indictments might well have gone down as just another sad chapter in the Bronx's long history of political chicanery, except for one thing: During a six-month period in which he spoke repeatedly to Ramirez and others about his looming political problems, Espada carried a tape recorder with him. On it, he captured a series of remarkably frank statements about the relationship between politics and law enforcement in the city's poorest borough.
Transcripts of those tapes, obtained by the Voice, depict some of the borough's most powerful political figures discussing how political ties could be used to influence the D.A.'s office.
In a second conversation with Espada, Ramirez expressed surprise that the D.A.'s investigation was continuing.
"I was told everything was OK. . . . The only condition was your withdrawal. [Borough President] Freddy [Ferrer] knew it . . . Johnson was told. Senator, the powers that be are on board."
When Espada told him he had decided to run after all, Ramirez told him to hold off, that he would ask someone he called "the intermediary" about the investigation. "He'll tell me . . . " said Ramirez, who again brought up his law license as a reason for caution. "I worked hard for it, I've got to be careful. . . . "
In another startling meeting recorded by Espada, auto dealer Dick Gidron, the wealthy former chairman of the Bronx Democratic Committee, which picks judicial candidates, bragged openly in front of Espada, Reverend Al Sharpton, Representative Jose Serrano, and State Senator Larry Seabrook of his influence with Johnson.
"This is bullshit," Gidron said of Espada's problems. "I can resolve this shit easily. Bob [Johnson] is my friend."
Johnson, Gidron told the group, had helped him with the much investigated, but never indicted, Republican state senator Guy Velella; with Seabrook, who was also the subject of past probes; and with Gidron's son, Richard, who pleaded guilty in a 1991 federal money-laundering case.
"He helped me with Velella. He helped me with my son. He helped me with you, Seabrook. I'll call right now. . . . " Gidron said.
Two weeks ago, the Voicereported that Velella was also snared on Espada's tape recorder. In that February 4, 1998, discussion at Velella's Bronx office, the Republican-Conservative instructed Espada this way: "Meet with Ramirez. He and Freddy [Ferrer] can deal with Johnson . . . especially Freddy, he can."
Espada's tapes have stirred considerable anxiety in Bronx political circles, and have elicited an array of responses.
Velella said he didn't recall the meeting, but didn't dispute the tape's contents. Ferrer spokesman John Melia called the tapes a "nutty and desperate" move by Espada. Johnson's spokesman, Steven Reed, called them "a whole lot of nonsense. The D.A. will not [have] and has not had conversations with people outside the office about investigations or other matters mentioned on these alleged transcripts."
Serrano confirmed the meeting with Gidron, but said he didn't recall specifics. "There were [sic] a group of people who were having angry moments with the Bronx Democratic leadership. Espada presented himself as another victim; now we find out we were the victims." Gidron and Seabrook did not return calls.
Ramirez declined to be interviewed about the transcripts but released a written statement in which he said that he had met with Espada at least six times in the spring of 1998.
"Each one of these meetings lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half; each was arranged at the specific request of Mr. Espada, and each incidentally occurred after he publicly stated he would not be seeking elective office," he said.