Someone Else's Money

Queens Maverick Tagged in Campaign Funds Scam

"I was told that the campaign finance system and Manhattan D.A. feel there is a problem generally in terms of fraud," said the ex-lawmaker. "And they are looking to make an example of someone. Well, they got Rita Stark, and I am the person."

Rita Stark returned none of the messages left at her real estate office on Jamaica Avenue. The business was founded by her father, Fred, an immigrant from Austria, in 1923. A builder of small homes and shopping centers, Fred Stark was considered Queens' largest real estate investor by the time of his death in 1988. One of those he sold property to was Leffler's father, who was in the trucking business.

"There is a long relationship," said Leffler. "I knew the Stark family for many years." He also worked with Rita Stark for several years on the board of the Hollis Chamber of Commerce, where Leffler served as the unpaid general counsel. "I have a letter here in which Rita praises me to the heavens as a great councilman," said Leffler.

Stark, however, was an odd match as a supporter for a politician who won steady backing from tenant groups in his campaigns. She has been accused of allowing several properties, including residential apartment houses, to fall into disrepair. Officials of the Jamaica Arts Center have for years complained that Stark has left the next-door Jamaica Savings Bank headquarters, a stately but ailing old beaux-arts-style structure, to deteriorate into a graffiti-scarred shell.

In 1996 the building was designated a landmark by city officials. But at Stark's request, in a rare move, the council overturned the designation. Former Queens councilman Archie Spigner, also a recipient of Stark campaign gifts, was the main foe of the designation, but Leffler acknowledged that he had also opposed it.

Stark has also been unpopular among merchants and activists in the Rockaways, where a shopping mall on Mott Avenue built by her father has also deteriorated, with many stores now vacant.

Newsday reported last year that local politicians were so frustrated by Stark's refusal to either rent the vacant shops or sell the property that they demanded the mall be condemned.

Stark's 1999 contributions represented the first major infusion of cash into Leffler's borough presidency campaign. But when two formidable opponents—former councilwoman Helen Marshall, who had the backing of the Queens Democratic organization, and ex-school board president Carol Gresser—entered the race early last year, Leffler quickly found himself strapped for funds. His hoped-for support from labor unions never materialized, a casualty of several votes Leffler cast on the council opposing labor-backed bills, such as the first living-wage legislation.

Nor did he obtain another much sought-after prize, the endorsement of The New York Times. "He thought he had earned that, as such a good-government advocate," said one supporter. Instead, the Times nod went to winner Marshall. Leffler ran a distant third in the race, with 24,416 votes, less than a third of Marshall's total, and slightly more than half the votes garnered by runner-up Gresser.

"I gave the voters of Queens their first real choice for borough president in history," said Leffler. "In a campaign you come in contact with a host of people. How much responsibility do you take for what they do?"

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