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.
Ramirez accused Espada of making "a cynical attempt to draw attention away from his ongoing criminal trial."
Espada's trial has been under way for two weeksit will go to the jury on November 13, after a holiday break. But the usually talkative pol has been under a court-ordered gag rule. The tapes were not admitted into evidence, and Espada's top-notch lawyer, Fred Hafetz, has based his defense on campaign law, not political influence.
Prior to the trial, however, Hafetz sent Espada to a nationally renowned polygraph expert, Richard Arther, who administered two separate lie detector tests and found Espada to be truthful in his claims.
What's not clear from the tapes is whether any of the politicians actually exercised the influence they claimed to have. And some references, while intriguing, are also hazy. For instance, when Gidron complained that Congressman Eliot Engel owed him $400,000, he may have been referring to Engel's opposition to the state's plan to buy a piece of property from the auto dealer; or it might have been something else. Still, the tapes provide a rare, inside look at the way men of power speak when they assume their constituents are out of earshot.
APRIL 23, 1998: ESPADA AND RAMIREZ AT THE EAST TREMONT DINER
Roberto Ramirez: [To a colleague] Hey . . . how are you? OK, we'll talk . . . Give me a call.
Pedro Espada Jr.: The folks from the old regime. That was [veteran Bronx political insider] Murray Lewinter, right?
Ramirez: Yeah . . . Word is going to spread that we were meeting [inaudible]. So what? How you doing?
Espada: Same old shit, my friend [inaudible]. Is it still important that I retire from politics?
Ramirez: That would help to alleviate some tensions. If you sit it out, there's peace in the valley. No primary, except for me.
Espada: You're getting a primary?
Ramirez: Yeah, but . . . we'll see. This guy Soto is going to run [inaudible].
Espada: I've decided to retire.
Espada: What are you going to say?
Ramirez: I'm going to say that it's the best news [inaudible] a lot of courage to do this. [Bronx politicians] Ruben [Diaz] and David [Rosado] will also say nice things.
Espada: What about [Bronx borough president] Freddy [Ferrer]? [Inaudible] he should . . . if we have peace.
Ramirez: That may take some time.
Espada: And how's our friend Johnson?
Ramirez: The powers that be, and they have spoken. What you've shared with [inaudible] this decision is very important.
Espada: Important? You said it would bring peace. The harassment should stop.
Ramirez: Yes, and it will. Issue the press release, OK? [Inaudible] because I'm sure this whole Johnson thing is just a waste of a lot of time and money.
Espada: You're talking in riddles. What's the bottom line here? My father has cancer. [Inaudible]
Ramirez: I'm sorry [inaudible] when it rains, it pours.
Espada: I just want to know where we stand.
Ramirez: I like you. I'm glad we're not fighting. There aren't that many smart [inaudible] tough people around [inaudible] maybe three or four.
Espada: You've spoken to Johnson about our talks?
Ramirez: Yes. But I just got my lawyer's license [inaudible] pass the bar [inaudible]. He will get spoken to and I expect that, unless people get stupid [inaudible] everything's going to be OK. It'll work out for everybody. When will you release the statement?
Espada: I'll do it today. I'm going to send it to everybody [inaudible] a general release.
Ramirez: Good. I'll talk to my people [inaudible]. This is going to cut down on a lot of work.
Espada: I'm going to visit [inaudible].
Ramirez: OK. How's the federal piece coming along?
Espada: It costs us hundreds of thousands [inaudible]. It's hurt our business. . . .
Ramirez: This whole thing is bad for business.
Espada: Roberto [inaudible]. The federal investigation will not produce problems. They are actually quite professionally [inaudible].
Ramirez: Yeah. . . . Well, I hope everything works out.
Espada: I'll give you a call when I reach Hicks [inaudible]. I'm going to ask Hicks to call [Democratic party activist] Bill Lynch.
Ramirez: Yeah, I know you've been talking to Bill [inaudible] about the federal piece.
Espada: About everything. I know Bill since 1985. I've asked for his guidance [inaudible]. He's very sick.
Ramirez: I look forward to reading Mr. Hicks's piece.
Espada: I've got it [inaudible].
MAY 1, 1998: GIDRON, SHARPTON, SEABROOK, SERRANO, AND ESPADA AT DICK GIDRON'S EAST TREMONT AVENUE AUTO DEALERSHIP
Dick Gidron: . . . Let's stop the small talk for a minute. I want to convene this meeting. The Bronx County Committee [inaudible] but Gidron don't need Freddy, Roberto; I'm a businessman. I just want to see if we can help avoid fights.
Al Sharpton: I met with Roberto over lunch in the city.
Gidron: Yeah . . . what happened?
Sharpton: We got off to a bad start. He started cussin' [inaudible] 'fucking this and that' and I said, 'First, do you want to curse [inaudible]? I can be a reverend or I can let my street out' [inaudible]. He calmed down. He said he don't understand why I'm interfering in the Bronx.
Larry Seabrook: Interfering in what? [Inaudible] does he think he is?
Jose Serrano: I can't believe he told Sharpton, a citywide leader, to stay out of the Bronx.
Sharpton: Hey . . . I set him straight [inaudible].
Seabrook: What was he talking about? [Inaudible] What about the Bronx?
Sharpton: When I went to Co-op City to open the New Political Club.
Seabrook: Bullshit. We control Co-op City.
Sharpton: Let me tell [inaudible].
Seabrook: . . . We can't let him dictate.
Sharpton: Anyway, I said I had several interests in the Bronx. . . . I said Seabrook should be congressman [inaudible]. It's a black district. Espada and his son are my friends . . . [inaudible]. They helped me and Serrano . . . [inaudible] . . . if you mess with him, I'll spend all summer in the Bronx.
Gidron: See . . . fucking Roberto [inaudible] [Congressman Eliot] Engel owes me $400,000 [inaudible] ain't gonna give me my $400,000 so I definitely want him out [inaudible]. I told Freddy and I told Roberto. . . . They have to keep their word.
Sharpton: Well, Roberto did say that Seabrook should be congressman, but not this time.
Gidron: I'm supporting Seabrook now [inaudible]. That fucking Engel owes me $400,000 and the district is black. It should be Seabrook now [inaudible]. Keep their word.
Serrano: You know [inaudible]. He's my colleague . . . and I can't officially take sides but he knows I'm with Seabrook, Sharpton, and Espada.
Sharpton: [Inaudible] He said that [Assemblywoman] Gloria Davis says Serrano is antiblack [inaudible] something back in Roberto's race against Gloria.
Serrano: Yeah . . . I supported Roberto. I was also the only one to support Jesse in '84 and '88 and Dinkins [inaudible] antiblack. I can't believe him.
Sharpton: Well, he said [inaudible] "You like all my enemies." He said Espada has problems . . . some legal problems. If he runs, he has more legal problems. [Inaudible] He said if Espada runs, Serrano gets a primary [inaudible]. It's war, he said.
Gidron: You see, this is bullshit [inaudible] crazy talk. Espada, what's going on?
Pedro Espada Jr: Well . . . I can't . . .
Gidron: Are you gonna run?
Espada: I don't want to, but they're harassing me and my friends and my businesses . . . I may have to run.
Seabrook: Tell him [inaudible] harassment.
Espada: They've got Johnson doing a number on me.
Sharpton: The feds cleared Espada [inaudible]. The feds don't play and they cleared him.
Gidron: What are they saying [inaudible]?
Espada: It has to do with my '96 campaign, and they're harassing my son, too.
Gidron: This is bullshit. I can resolve this shit easily. Bob is my friend. He [inaudible]. He helped me with Velella. He helped me with my son. He helped me with you, Seabrook. I'll call right now. This sounds [inaudible].
Seabrook: That's true, they had Velella with the school board mess and they haven't touched him. They do not [inaudible]. But it's Freddy. Freddy calls the shots. He's the one that did me [inaudible] him, Engel, and [former Ferrer aide Clint] Roswell.
Gidron: Bob's not there. I'll call Freddy and Roberto.
Serrano: [Inaudible]. How's he going to say I'm antiblack [inaudible].
Sharpton: You don't have to defend [inaudible]. That's what he said. You were there for me. Freddy and Roberto were with Ruth [Messinger, during her 1997 mayoral bid], and Freddy never really supported Dave [Dinkins] [inaudible].
Gidron: Freddy's away. I left a message for Roberto, and too [inaudible]. They'll call back. [Inaudible] I wouldn't support Dave. I gave Dave a lot of money. I sold one fucking car . . . one lousy car [inaudible] the whole time.
Sharpton: You did better than a lot of people [inaudible] with Dave.
Gidron: That's why I'm supporting [then U.S. Senator] D'Amato [inaudible]. They're angry, but he comes through [inaudible] not one car. Look, I commit myself to setting up a meeting [inaudible] right here with Freddy, Roberto, and Bob Johnson.
Seabrook: Bob will come?
Gidron: Look, Bob's my friend. I can get Bob on board, but Freddy can be hardheaded [inaudible]. But this is bullshit. Have you spoken to Freddy or Roberto?
Espada: I've had meetings with Roberto. He wants me to retire. He wants me to issue a press release announcing that I am out of politics. After I issue this, then he'll drop the investigation.
Gidron: Do you want to run?
Espada: I want to be left alone, and I don't want them messing with my son, Councilman Espada.
Serrano: [Inaudible] I want to be left alone too. I'm the most senior Latino public official and [inaudible] more than Roberto and Freddy.
Sharpton: Freddy punked [inaudible]. I went the distance. You're looking at the next mayor right here [inaudible], or maybe it will be Serrano, but not Freddy.
Gidron: Look, fellas [inaudible]. I gotta sell some cars. To summarize, I'll be talking to Bob, Freddy, and Roberto [inaudible] Serrano should be left alone. I mean, we haven't worked that closely, but Brother Al here [inaudible] he likes you. Espada will not run and the bullshit will stop and they have to keep their word with Seabrook. Now, we're all men [inaudible]. Let's keep our word.
JUNE 4, 1998: ESPADA AND RAMIREZ OUTSIDE THE VILLA BARONE RESTAURANT IN THE BRONX:
Ramirez: You should come inside [inaudible].
Espada: No. I wouldn't feel comfortable [inaudible]. Engel did well.
Ramirez: [Inaudible]. Everything is going well. Seabrook isn't running.
Espada: He's not? Nobody [inaudible] they won't take him seriously.
Ramirez: It's a good decision. He can't win . . . [inaudible] . . . [City Council member Larry Warden] wasn't going to win, either. I got your message . . . [inaudible]. Let's sit here. . . . I'm getting old.
Espada: Yeah [inaudible]. This is good.
Ramirez: You mind if I smoke?
Espada: [Inaudible] I was at the Yankee game.
Ramirez: You look composed [inaudible].
Espada: I'm very pissed. Johnson's harassing my goddaughter [inaudible] that's fucked up [inaudible] worst than fucking [ex-special prosecutor Ken] Starr [inaudible].
Ramirez: I was told everything was OK [inaudible]. The only condition was your withdrawal. Freddy knew it [inaudible] Johnson was told. Senator, the powers that be are on board.
Espada: Listen [inaudible]. They said don't trust you. I told my people based on what you said [inaudible]. I told them you said it was a big waste of time and money. Have you [inaudible]. You've been fucking with me.
Ramirez: No. No. I've spoken to the powers that be. Maybe they're fucking me too [inaudible]. If I can't get support, I'll retire too.
Espada: [Inaudible] I'm running.
Ramirez: No [inaudible]. That's not good.
Espada: I'm running and my brother is running.
Ramirez: With an indictment [inaudible].
Espada: With 10 indictments. We're running.
Ramirez: Don't make any final decisions on [inaudible]. I'm going to see my guy at Yankee Stadium tomorrow. He'll tell me [inaudible]. I'll find out.
Espada: What guy, Roberto? It's late [inaudible].
Ramirez: The intermediary [inaudible]. I've got a license, man [inaudible]. I worked hard for it, I've got to be careful [inaudible]. If I can't turn it around, the fight will be clean [inaudible]. They'll [sic] be no dirt about the indictment [inaudible]. You've been a gentleman [inaudible]. This is bad for business.
Espada: Roberto [inaudible]. Have a good meeting tomorrow.
Ramirez: We still may be able to get lucky.