By Zachary D. Roberts
By Anna Merlan
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By Amanda Dingyuan
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The name Guy Velella was often all it took to open stubbornly closed bureaucratic doors. Wiretaps and bugs placed by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in connection with a bribery probe of the former Republican state senator, his father, and several associates show just how quickly and favorably some of the state's most powerful figures responded when the Velellas came calling.
Case records reveal that as they pushed agendas for private clients, Velella and his law partner and father, city Board of Elections commissioner Vincent Velella, received deferential treatment from top officials in the state's departments of transportation and housing, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as well as other places.
Officials showed little concern for the dividing line between politics and legislative advocacy. On January 26, 2000, for instance, Guy Velella spoke with then state housing commissioner Joseph Lynch about a matter involving a client of the Velellas' law firm. The client, housing developer Ron Moelis of L&M Equity Participants, was seeking state funding for a Bronx project Velella was pushing. Lynch said he'd spoken to Moelis, and suggested that the developer ought to show some appreciation for the senator's backing.
"I thought uh, with Moelis and stuff, obviously they should be giving you some support . . . campaign stuff," said Lynch.
"Yeah, yeah, well, they usually do, but we'll, we'll follow through," responded Velella.
"Good," said Lynch.
In August 1998, the Velellas won royal treatment for another law client, a painting contractor having trouble with the MTA. That month, an alleged bagman for the Velellas told the contractor that the senator and his dad had personally reached out to the chairman of the MTA, Virgil Conway, to help land a multimillion-dollar award for the contractor.
"Listen, it took a lot of work," the alleged bagman, Manny Gonzalez, told Nick Margaritis of Keystone Construction Corporation. "Uh, you had to speak to the chairman of the board himself, it was at that level. . . . They had to go to Conway himself. The chairman."
Helping Margaritis's company had been no easy lift: His firm was the low bidder on a five-year $33.7 million award to paint the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but some MTA officials were opposed to the award, citing the deaths due to negligence of two workers on two prior Keystone bridge jobs, massive safety fines, and disturbingly high lead levels in the blood of many company workers.
Gonzalez told Margaritis that Vincent Velella had called him the day before with the good news that the deal was in the bag. Sure enough, a week later the MTA announced Keystone was receiving the contract. But the inside help didn't come cheap. There was also, as Gonzalez put it, "a matter of some money."
"Uh, I got a number," said Gonzalez. "Let me, let me write it down. You got a pen there?"
Margaritis, who was cooperating with prosecutors and recording his conversations, obligingly provided a pen and a piece of paper. Gonzalez wrote the figure "150,000" and then slid the paper to Margaritis. That, Gonzalez told the contractor, was "for everybody."
Conway, who stepped down from the MTA in 2001, did not return calls for comment. Gonzalez, Guy Velella, and two others last month pled guilty to bribe-related charges stemming from the case. The plea deal included a pass for Vincent Velella, who is 90 years old and ill. His indictment was dismissed.
The guilty pleas take the case out of the headlines, but records of Morgenthau's four-year-long probe offer an unprecedented glimpse into high-level wheeling and dealing within the Pataki administration, where Senator Velella was a prestigious and honored figure. They also show that the investigation came at a tricky time for the governor, whose administration was facing other law enforcement probes.
In Brooklyn, a federal grand jury was looking into possible improprieties by state economic development czar Charles Gargano in awarding contracts. A separate panel there was examining the alleged sale of paroles to major Pataki contributors. Ultimately, no charges against top Pataki aides resulted, but the perilous situation was summed up by another Pataki insider, late state probation division director George Sanchez, who was also caught on Margaritis's wire offering to help with contracts.
"Let me tell you something," Sanchez told Margaritis and Gonzalez in an October 1998 lunch at a restaurant next door to Senator Velella's district office. "There's a couple of problems going on in Albany right now. Charlie Gargano is being called in to testify. This guy [inaudible], who's on the board of parole, is being called in to testify. A couple of things that happened [have] opened up a Pandora's box up in Albany."
That was the situation when the Velella eavesdropping applications were presented by Morgenthau's prosecutors to an appellate judge for approval. Judge John T. Buckley was a Republican imported by Pataki from upstate Utica to sit on the appeals panel for Manhattan and the Bronx. In a startling meeting with prosecutors in September 1999, Buckley tried to shut the wires down, saying he didn't see anything so wrong with Guy Velella's performance ("Hear no Evil," Voice, May 19-25).
As Buckley knew from the wiretap affidavits, the investigation was providing a ringside seat at high-level state meetings. One eye-opening encounter took place on November 20, 1998, when Margaritis accompanied Vincent Velella and Gonzalez on a 140-mile drive to Albany to meet with top officials of the state department of transportation, where another Keystone bridge contract was in jeopardy. Gonzalez had told Margaritis earlier that the "old man"as he called the elder Velellawas going to talk directly to state transportation commissioner Joseph Boardman about the matter, and that while in Albany they would sit down with the agency's chief counsel, James Cantwell. Both promises came true, and, as the ever talkative Gonzalez explained to Margaritis, the magic was all in the Velella name.
"What do you think, he's doing it because he's a lawyer? . . . You've got to be kidding, Nick. Why did this guy say, the commissioner say, 'We'll meet with you next week.' Why? Because he's a lawyer? . . . The name. The name. The name."
No sooner had the three men sat down at transportation department headquarters than commissioner Boardman walked into the room. "I'm in the middle of another meeting, but I told Jim [Cantwell] I'd like to meet you and say hello and welcome you here," said Boardman. In regard to their problem, he said, "I think there are some long-term ways we can work on this."
After Boardman left, Cantwell explained that, like officials at the MTA, his agency's people had safety concerns about awarding Keystone a contract to paint the Dunn Memorial Bridge in Albany. Rejecting Keystone's bid would normally be a "slam dunk" for the department, Cantwell said. The agency would have ruled Keystone "non-responsible" and gone to the next lowest bidder. Such a finding of non-responsibility would be the most damaging thing that could happen to the company, since it would have a negative ripple effect with other government agencies.
And Cantwell wasn't going to do it. Because of Vincent Velella's "persuasiveness," he said, "we are going much, much farther than we would ever go with any other contractor." What he would do instead, the lawyer said, was simply void all of the proposals, and rebid the contract later.
"Quite frankly, I'm costing the taxpayers money by not going to the second bidder," the agency's top lawyer said. He was doing it, he said, because of the Velellas. "I have a great deal of respect for Vincent, and for his son," he said.
Margaritis and Gonzalez left the room, leaving Vincent Velella and the counsel alone together for about 20 minutes. Outside, Gonzalez whispered that things had gone well. "I think I read it right. They know the senator. He's a very powerful person up here. They want to ass-kiss."
Three weeks later, D.O.T. indeed rejected all the bids for the bridge contract. When it was rebid in the spring of 2000, Keystone was the winner, and this time the agency moved to make the award. It wasn't quick enough for the Velellas, however. Prosecutors were tipped by an agency insider that Senator Velella was calling Cantwell and Boardman to tell them to "hurry up" the award to Keystone.
Cantwell later retired from the state and couldn't be reached for comment. Boardman, still Pataki's transportation commissioner, did not return calls.