By Jared Chausow
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After The Times Herald-Record reporter Chris Mele wrote a short, favorable feature on the unit, Ryttenberg told him the unit wanted to give him its "public service" award. "Harry started telling me who he knew, how he could help my career," recalled Mele, who later broke many stories on local police corruption. The awards ceremony was held at a community room at the mall, with the sheriff and dozens of deputies present. "My wife and kids and me walk in and Harry called out, "Ten Hut!' and they all jumped to attention. The whole thing was pretty weird."
Fundraising became a major part of the deputies' activities. Ryttenberg dispatched deputies to the shopping malls to sell raffle tickets, at prices ranging from $1 to $20. New reserve applicants were told they needed to work every weekend, and those who failed to sell enough tickets had their deputy shields and IDs yanked. The deputies became such a steady mall presence that shoppers called them "vultures."
"Harry just had dollar signs in his eyes all the time," one reservist said in a deposition. "Everything we did was to raise money. That's all."
Between 1996 and 1999, Ryttenberg's unit held seven raffles, printing tickets worth more than $180,000. But according to the attorney general's lawsuit, none of the state's required licenses were obtained and no records kept of income or award payments. Much of the money simply disappeared, the lawsuit alleges.
One 1997 raffle designed to raise $10,000 offered a prize of a personal computer. Harry drew the winnerthe son of a friend of Ryttenberg's from the Bronx who was also a director of the nonprofit foundation. Several deputies cried foul. "The drawing was rigged," one told the attorney general. Another said she saw Harry palm the ticket right before the drawing.
Much of the raffle sales took place in front of the Wallkill Wal-Mart, and Ryttenberg, according to the lawsuit, arranged for the store to pay him about $3400, in cash, for the deputies to provide security against shoplifters. None of the money showed up in the foundation, the suit contends. Ryttenberg also encouraged his members to take whatever they needed from the store's shelves, according to Spitzer. One reservist and his wife, who ran a nearby shop used as a supply house for the unit, said they were shocked to find "crates and crates" of Wal-Mart merchandise in their backroom, containing everything from flashlights and aftershave to film and clothing. When the reservist's wife asked Ryttenberg about it, he allegedly told her, "never mind," then quickly had the goods relocated.
Despite the raffles, many reservists still didn't get uniforms, and some members wrote an anonymous letter accusing Ryttenberg of stealing raffle funds. An outraged Ryttenberg appeared at the next meeting with several plastic freezer bags of money. "He slammed them down on the table and said, 'Here's your fucking money. I don't want to be involved. I'm not helping you guys anymore,' " said one deputy.
During that period, Ryttenberg deposited about $42,000 in cash into his personal bank accounts, the lawsuit states. Asked if he stole funds, Ryttenberg invoked the Fifth Amendment a total of 104 times during questioning by the attorney general.
Several deputies told the attorney general that Harry kept reservists in line by bragging of his powerful ties. He allegedly told them he was known as the "velvet knife" because of his ability to quietly ruin careers. It seemed believable. They often saw Ryttenberg's name in news stories as a "Pataki spokesman" on matters ranging from million-dollar contracts to investigations. Even Sheriff Bigger told the attorney general's office he gave Ryttenberg a wide berth because of his "political connections."
But Bigger, who faced reelection in 1998, also profited politically, the lawsuit states. Raffle promotions contained pictures of the sheriff, along with statements from him thanking the public for supporting the reserve unit. Ryttenberg also raised over $5000 for Bigger's campaigns, even hosting a New York City fundraiser at the Second Avenue Delicatessen in Manhattan where Ryttenberg was a close friend of the owners.
The sheriff also remained a supporter even after he learned of the incident in which the 17-year-old girl was pulled over. In fact, Bigger told investigators he was aware of several complaints about Ryttenberg's stops. One occurred in July 1995, when Ryttenberg shouted through his loudspeaker at a woman on the Palisades Parkway to stop. The driver, a New York City internal affairs detective, later filed a complaint and Ryttenberg was forced to plead guilty to reckless driving and pay a fine.
Instead of disciplining Ryttenberg, Bigger promoted him to lieutenant in 1996. Bigger denied that politics played any role in his toleration of Ryttenberg's antics, instead citing "stupidity on my part, really." Yet Bigger told The Times Herald-Record after the lawsuit was filed that he was blameless in the affair and had thoroughly investigated each instance of Ryttenberg's alleged misdeeds.
But in late 1998, two other people started looking hard at Ryttenberg. One was the state inspector general who received allegations about Harry's pistol licenses and his unauthorized stops of motorists. The other was a young woman named Maria Ingrassia, whom Harry had asked to serve on the foundation board, apparently assuming she would be a rubber stamp. A nonprofit specialist, Ingrassia asked to see the books.