The Art of the Shakedown

Velella ducks a trial—and a courtroom lesson in business as usual in the Pataki era

The first time Guy Velella, the now disgraced ex-state senator, realized he might be in trouble was in early 2000. On February 11 that year he placed an urgent call to Vincent Velella, his father and law partner. Guy, the powerful chief of the Bronx Republican Party and senior assistant majority leader of the senate, had good news and bad news. He started with the bad.

"Uh, I don't know exactly what's going on, but apparently I'm being followed. It looks like probably FBI."

"Mmmm," responded Vincent Velella.

The music stops, for now: Guy and Vincent Velella outside criminal court Monday.
photo: Shiho Fukada
The music stops, for now: Guy and Vincent Velella outside criminal court Monday.

The son continued: "They were taking pictures of me two days ago. The florist told me he saw them. And yesterday, uh, a car was following me every place I went. Now today it's not around. But I reported it to the local precinct and the car with the license plate . . . comes up non, nonexistent in New York. . . . So I have no idea what's going on."

The senator then shifted quickly to the good.

"Number two, um, a guy by the name of Bernie Diamond, D-I-A-M-O-N-D, called me from Donald Trump's office. They want to retain us." Trump needed a liquor license renewed for his new, as Velella called it, "Trump National Golf, uh, course" in Westchester County.

"You go in and get a new, a, you know, a transfer of a license or to a new entity," he told his dad. He read off Diamond's number and then returned to his problem. "When I picked you up at the house, those guys were following me and then when I parked in front of my house, they were across the street."

"What the hell is going on?" wondered Vincent Velella.

What was going on, as the Velellas and the rest of New York later learned, was that state police investigators, working with prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, were investigating the two men for corruption. And they weren't just tailing the senator; they were also tapping the eight phone lines into his district senate office, which was how they came to record the worried conversation above. They also had a bug in the car and on the phones of a man named Manuel Gonzalez, an aide to Ramon Velez, who, before infirmities and Alzheimer's interfered, was the much feared and much investigated political boss of the South Bronx. Gonzalez, according to indictments filed in May 2002 by Morgenthau, was the Velellas' "bag man," collecting bribes paid by contractors seeking state business.

Had it gone to trial, the Velella case would have taken four to six months, according to court papers. Instead, on Monday, as a swarm of cameras waited for him outside criminal court on Centre Street, Guy Velella, wearing a dark pinstriped suit, stood before Supreme Court justice Joan Sudolnik and pled guilty to one count of conspiracy for taking bribes. Gonzalez also pled guilty, as did a former state official named Hector Del Toro, whose family was once the strongest political force in East Harlem, the neighborhood where the Velella family first found wealth and power before moving to the Bronx along with most of the area's Italian families. In exchange for Guy's plea, prosecutors dropped charges against Vincent Velella, who is 90 and ailing.

The senior Velella wasn't the only one spared by the deal. The case against him and his son would have opened a wide window, not just on the greed of a well-connected political family and its associates, but also on a tight network of favor-dealing officials within both the Pataki administration and the City Hall of Rudy Giuliani.

The trial would have detailed how the senator got away with blatantly threatening the job of Judith Calogero, a top state housing official who had failed to approve a subsidized housing project sought by Ramon Velez's power base, the Hunts Point Multi-Service Center. The way he would get even, Velella told her according to the May 2002 indictment, was that he would become chairman of the senate housing committee, and then get her fired.

It would have revealed how, after Velez's Hunts Point center signed a $60,000 retainer agreement with one of the Velella law firms, the senator pressed city officials to approve a $3.5 million contract for social services with the agency. On August 19, 1999, investigators heard a Velella aide tell Gonzalez that Velella had "made the call to City Hall." The contracts were approved three months later.

There would also have been testimony about how, in an effort to help get contracts for a bridge painter who had agreed to pay $150,000 in bribes in exchange for the Velellas' support, Guy Velella leaned on James Cantwell, a top executive at the state's Department of Transportation. There would have been witnesses as well to the call made by one of the senator's aides to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority setting up a meeting with the TBTA president and Vincent Velella on behalf of the same contractor who was seeking a massive contract to paint the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge.

There would have been testimony about how some of the most active developers of subsidized housing in the Bronx, including Ron Moelis, Avery Seavey, and Mario Procida, all made campaign contributions to Velella, after being pressured to do so by Del Toro, who owed his job at the state's Affordable Housing Corporation to Velella's backing.

The trial would also have included other examples which fell below the indictment threshold, but which clearly demonstrated the father-son tag team approach to politics and business. Assistant District Attorney Eric Seidel had already told the court that his team intended to present what are called "un-alleged overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy."

One such act was a series of calls that Senator Velella made to Timothy Carey, the president of the Battery Park City Authority, on behalf of Manny Gonzalez's son Greg, who wanted to operate parking garages there. Even that wasn't free. Manny Gonzalez was heard on tape griping to the bribe-giving contractor that "my son has to pay [the Velellas] like you pay them."

Another act was the discussion regarding the liquor license for Trump's golf club. Records show Donald Trump himself tried to call Guy Velella on February 10, 2000. He had his secretary leave Diamond's name and number, and when the senator and the Trump aide spoke the next day, Diamond informed him that Roy Goodman, the former Manhattan GOP state senator, had suggested to Trump that he contact Velella. "You were highly recommended up the chain for purposes of securing a liquor license," said Diamond.

Senator Velella dutifully explained that he was barred by law from appearing personally before the State Liquor Authority, but his dad would handle that part. But Velella assured Diamond that Goodman was correct about his influence. "Roy is right," said the senator. "We probably have the best hook down there, in terms of getting things done."

In his 30-year career, Senator Velella had "hooks" throughout government, and his aggressive use of them was notorious. But nothing seemed to faze top city and state officials. Even after his indictment, Pataki sought Velella's aid in his re-election campaign, and Mayor Bloomberg went out of his way to appear last September at a Velella fundraiser.

The guilty plea ends one phase in Guy Velella's political life, but it may also be the beginning of a new one. He has told friends he wants to begin serving his time as soon as possible and he hopes to be out within eight months. Although he will no longer be allowed to practice law, there is nothing to stop him from serving as a high-priced consultant and lobbyist, a former lawbreaker pushing many of the same buttons from the outside that he so deftly pushed from the inside as lawmaker. In a conversation, captured on the bug in Manny Gonzalez's car, Vincent Velella presciently noted that his son could make a lot more money that way.

"Damn being a senator," said the elder Velella on a November 1999 tape. "You know what kind of money he could be making with [an inaudible name] and everybody else?"

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