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For almost a quarter-century, Sheldon Leffler sat in the ornate chambers of the City Council as the representative of northeast Queens, raising his often droning, sonorous voice in favor of good-government issues ranging from recycling to sound police administration. The redhead with the tousled hair was occasionally irritating to council leaders and rebels alike for his insistence on always going his own maverick way. Still, no one ever accused him of being less than upright in his official conduct.
But this month, Leffler, 59, who was forced out of office by term limits and lost a race for borough president last year, is wrestling with an integrity issue of his own: whether to plead guilty to charges that he allowed a political supporter to deceive the campaign finance system by donating money in others' names.
The charges stem from $10,000 in campaign contributionsroughly three times the $3500-per-person limit allowed by lawthat a controversial Queens real estate owner tried to steer into Leffler's borough presidency race. All of the money came from Rita Stark, an old family friend of Leffler's and the owner of Fred Stark Realty in Hollis, one of Queens' largest real estate holders. But campaign records show the contributions were divided into 40 individual checks and money orders, each for $250, each made out in the name of a Stark tenant or employee and bearing the date July 6, 1999.
The gifts spelled a potential small bonanza for Leffler's campaign, since beginning with the 2001 election, the public campaign finance system provided a four-to-one match for contributions of $250 and below, meaning each of Stark's allegedly concocted checks and money orders was worth an added $1000 to the campaign.
Several people whose names appeared on the contributions said they never gave to Leffler's race.
"I don't contribute; I don't have any money to contribute. I'm on welfare," said Douglas Hazelwood, who lives in a Stark-owned apartment building at 201-05 Jamaica Avenue and whose name and address were listed on one of the money orders. "I think the landlady did that," added Hazelwood. "She put all our names on the checks."
"Leffler? I don't know who that is," said Maria Kazlovas, a tenant of another Stark property, at 193-30 Jamaica Avenue, and also listed as a contributor.
Yet another Stark tenant, Zora Jenkins of 195th Street in Hollis, also expressed surprise that a campaign gift was made in her name. "No, I didn't do that," said Jenkins.
Several names were misspelled on the contributions, and some addresses listed for donors appear not to exist at all. At any rate, they didn't fool the city's Campaign Finance Board, which was on the lookout for fraud, given the increased matching amount for smaller contributions. The agency flagged them in an audit last year and referred the matter to the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.
Investigators there approached Stark, who, according to sources familiar with the probe, admitted her role and agreed to tape-record a meeting with Leffler last August in which she discussed her bungled effort and suggested that she have new checks made out to the campaign, also in the names of nominees. A half-dozen such checks were later deposited as contributions, records show.
What happened in that August 13, 2001, meeting between Leffler and Stark is the nub of the matter for prosecutors, who have said that Leffler knowingly agreed to the scheme. "Leffler took the money with full recognition of violating the campaign finance laws," one investigator told the Voice.
There is no threat of jail time for Leffler, the sources said, but prosecutors are seeking a fine of as much as $50,000 and an agreement that Leffler forfeit any matching funds still owed him by the Campaign Finance Board, an amount estimated at between $60,000 and $85,000.
Leffler acknowledged the accusations against him, but refused to talk about specifics. "This is not the time for me to discuss this," he said. Yet in a sometimes rambling phone interview, Leffler, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, indicated he felt he had done no wrong. He was only thinking of settling, he said, because his wife and law partners "want me to get this wrapped up, to get some closure." But he also said he would be inclined to fight the charges at trial if not for the high cost of mounting a criminal defense. He said the $100,000 estimated cost of a trial was "more than anyone should have to pay to get at the truth."
"I have agonized over this and lost tremendous sleep over it," said Leffler. "It is not a simple thing. I have an internal gyroscope and try to do what is right. I was in the council 24 years and people believe in me."
All that had been jeopardized, he said, in a brief, fateful meeting with an old family friend in the midst of the tense primary election last summer. "You get hung up on something that took a few secondsliterally secondsin the course of a difficult race."
That conversation, one he refused to discuss specifically, had provided the fuel for the charges against him, he said.
"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 opponentsformer councilwoman Helen Marshall, who had the backing of the Queens Democratic organization, and ex-school board president Carol Gresserentered 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?"