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Although no action was ever taken against Rivera, the city's Department of Investigation reported in 1987 that he not only lied about where he lived but also failed to disclose an old gun conviction that sent him to jail for a seven-month stretch back in the late 1950s.
Rivera, 65, took over the reins for Bronx Democrats in early February, succeeding his friend and ally Roberto Ramirez who stepped down to become a full-time lawyer and campaign consultant.
An affable and progressive politician, Rivera has represented the borough for 20 years, first in the assembly and later in the City Council. Two years ago, facing term limits, Rivera quit the council and ran for and won Ramirez's old assembly seat in Kingsbridge.
Last summer, Rivera got his biggest media exposure yet when he was arrested and jailed along with Ramirez and Reverend Al Sharpton for trespassing at U.S. Navy bombing sites in Vieques, Puerto Rico. His influence expanded when his son, Joel, 23, was elected to his former City Council seat last year. In February, the younger Rivera was named council majority leader.
The Bronx party leadership post gives Jose Rivera major clout in city, state, and even national elections. But Rivera's new role also casts a spotlight on a political veteran who has long been alleged to live outside the borough he is supposed to represent.
A July 1987 DOI report obtained by the Voice shows that investigators were asked to check Rivera's credentials after he emerged as a candidate to take over a City Council seat vacated by Fernando Ferrer, who had been named borough president.
Investigators found that the residence Rivera listed on a mandatory disclosure forma studio apartment in a private home at 2397 Tiebout Avenue in the Bronx's Fordham sectionwas actually a 10-foot-by-10-foot single room at the rear of someone else's apartment, one that afforded little privacy.
"The door separating Mr. Rivera's room from the front part of the apartment is loosely secured by a rope," wrote investigators. "The room has neither a bathroom nor a kitchen. Mr. Rivera has testified that he has use of the bathroom facilities of an apartment on the second floor and that he enters his room by means of a back stairs through that second-floor apartment."
Rivera's landlady couldn't tell investigators how much rent the assemblyman was paying or when he moved in. Neighbors questioned by DOI failed to recognize their fellow tenant.
Rivera began listing the Tiebout Avenue address as his residence in March 1987, just days before a Voice article by William Bastone revealed that the assemblyman didn't live at his then official residence, an apartment at 1986 Grand Avenue. Not only did Rivera not have a telephone at the address, Bastone reported, but someone else was living in the apartment.
The city probers later confirmed the Voice's findings, reporting that "based on all credible evidence," Rivera never lived at the Tiebout Avenue and Grand Avenue apartments, or at a prior address at 1928 University Avenue. Rivera used each location, DOI stated, "merely as an address to register to vote, register an automobile and receive mail."
Such practices are hardly new. The Bronx has long been plagued by politicians who collect paychecks for representing the borough, while sleeping elsewhere. But fake residences are difficult to prove in court and rarely prosecuted. In Rivera's case, there's no evidence that law enforcement authorities ever pursued the matter.
In any event, the subject wasn't one the new county leader chose to discuss, failing to return repeated calls to his Bronx office.
But where does the legislator really live? In 1987, investigators found that Rivera and his wife, Blanche, were co-owners of a brick-faced ranch house in Elmont, Long Island. Purchased in 1980, the home is nestled next to Belmont Park Race Track and less than a mile from the city line. Rivera kept an unlisted phone there and neighbors told DOI that Rivera was "a frequent and regular visitor" and regarded him as "a resident."
Nassau County records show that Rivera and his wife were listed as co-owners until June 1987, when ownership was switched to Blanche Rivera, who is still the owner of record. Rivera claimed to investigators at the time that he had been separated from his wife for six years. But he acknowledged that they continued to share bank accounts and hold a joint American Express credit card that Rivera used regularly.
After the DOI report, Rivera continued to hopscotch around the borough. His current listed address is an apartment building in Fordham Hill, where he moved after listing an address at 2438 Morris Avenue when he ran for the City Council in 1997.
Investigators apparently caught the old gun conviction in a routine check as part of the same background investigation. Details are sketchy, but DOI reported that Rivera was convicted in 1957 of a misdemeanor violation for possession of a loaded firearmin his case, a .25-caliber Browning automatic. Although Rivera served seven months, he said that he had not listed it on his disclosure form because a lawyer told him he had been designated a youthful offender and the record had been expunged. In fact, Rivera would have been at least 20 at the time and treated as an adult. Rivera said he initially listed the offense, then erased it on his lawyer's advice. In this instance, investigators determined that Rivera was telling the truth: The document he submitted had white-out over the initial entry.
Rivera, however, has never made any bones about his hardscrabble background. He was a steel worker and later a carpenter and founded a group called United Tremont Trades that tried to place blacks and Latinos in construction jobs. The organization made him some odd friends, however. In 1982, Rivera sent a federal judge a ringing character endorsement for Vincent DiNapoli, a top figure in the Genovese crime family and convicted racketeer who owned several construction firms.