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On January 12, the day before Michael Bloomberg got the news that he faced a challenge for the Republican Party's nomination from former Queens councilmember Tom Ognibene, a pair of the mayor's aides sat down with Ognibene for a cup of coffee in a Lower Manhattan Starbucks.
Kevin Sheekey, a longtime Bloomberg adviser who is now running the mayor's re-election campaign, sat across from Ognibene; alongside him was Richard Wager, a Republican who had worked with Ognibene in the past and who now serves as a $120,000-a-year researcher at City Hall.
After a few sips and small talk, the two men proceeded to offer the potential rival a job in the mayor's campaign.
The initial pitch, according to both Ognibene and a Bloomberg spokesperson, was that the jovial and goateed Ognibene should use his campaign expertise to handle Bloomberg's petitions, helping the mayor qualify for the ballot. Later that day, however, the Bloomberg aides, concerned that Ognibene considered the petitions task beneath him, thought better of it. They decided to up the ante, offering to make Ognibene a kind of "downstate czar" for the Republican Party, coordinating the GOP's efforts on behalf of the mayor and other candidates. According to Ognibene, the job was to pay $12,000 a month.
That's about all, however, that Ognibene and Bloomberg's people agree about concerning the meeting and subsequent discussions between the two camps.
To Team Bloomberg, the offers were simply a standard pitch to a former supporter who had helped elect the mayor in 2001, asking him to be part of the new campaign. The timing of the meeting, officials said, was keyed to upcoming filing deadlines.
"Yes, they met with him to ask if he would be available this year, as he was four years ago, to help out. It is the kind of thing campaigns do all the time," said Bloomberg communications director Bill Cunningham. The meeting had been set up a couple of days earlier, before the news broke that the Queens conservative was going to be a candidate himself.
To Ognibene, however, the job offers were a direct attempt to derail his candidacy. He has threatened to run hard to the mayor's right, denouncing Bloomberg as a Democrat in all but name, one who has stuck homeowners with high taxes and failed to carry through on his pledge to continue Rudy Giuliani's policies.
"City Hall is not pleased with me," Ognibene told the Voice. "They would like to see me do something else. They made me some silly offer about handling petitions. Later they said I could be the downstate czar for Republican politics, handling everything in the five boroughs."
But supporters of Ognibene who participated in the discussions said that after the would-be candidate declined the offers, the mayor's representatives went even further, suggesting that Ognibene could obtain a $150,000-a-year post in City Hall once the mayor won re-election. When that too was rebuffed, according to Ognibene's associates, Bloomberg aides allegedly raised the possibility that an old buildings department scandal in which Ognibene figured could be resurrected.
"There was an implied threat that what happened with Tom before will once again become very public," said an Ognibene ally who would only speak anonymously.
Ognibene declined to discuss other aspects of the talks, saying only, "If they want to start a problem, that is something I will deal with."
Cunningham said that the idea of a post-election position for Ognibene was raised by friends of the ex-councilman, not by Bloomberg's team, and that "no one was empowered to offer anyone a job in this administration." He also denied that anyone had threatened to use the buildings department episode against Ognibene.
"I don't think anybody would even think about it," said Cunningham.
The scandal, which broke in June 2001, was a painful chapter for Ognibene: A former friend and supporter who practiced as a construction consultant pled guilty to bribing the once influential councilmember to win favors at the city's department of buildings.
Ognibene was never charged in the case, and he insisted he had done nothing wrong other than trusting the wrong person. The gifts he'd receivedincluding a fishing pole and a hotel upgradewere de minimis, he insisted, and the calls he'd made on his friend's behalf to city officials were the same he would make for any constituent.
But stories in the Voice (see "Inside Edge," June 19, 2001) detailed how consultant Ron Lattanzio won repeated favors from the councilmember, while at the same time serving as Ognibene's chief fundraiser and plying him and his staff with gifts. As a result of the scandal, Ognibene lost out on a hoped-for gubernatorial appointment to the state Court of Claims.
As late as last year, according to several sources, efforts to revive the possibility of a judgeship for Ognibene fell flat after Governor Pataki backed off because of the lingering taint from the scandal.
Ognibene dismissed the job offers as politics as usual. But there is a rarely used law on the books in New York State that makes it illegal for an elected official to offer a job to someone to prevent him from becoming a candidate. The only known instance in which it was used was a 1976 case in which a Bronx assemblyman named Alan Hochberg was convicted after being secretly recorded offering a potential rival a no-show post.
A law enforcement official said it would be difficult to show the offer to Ognibene violated the law. "You'd have a hell of a time proving intent," he said.
Ognibene, who campaigned with the mayor in 2001 in his Middle Village district, has long been vague about his own political intentions. Although Ognibene told reporters in 2003 and again last year that he intended to seek the mayoralty, he had also been quoted as saying that he didn't intend to run.
But on the night before the Starbucks meeting, Ognibene made up his mind. The decision came after he attended a raucous Republican gathering in the Rockaways. There, disgruntled elected officials and rank-and-file GOP members voiced their anger at the mayor. When Ognibene rose to speak, he was hailed as a hero. At one point, someone in the crowd yelled out that Ognibene ought to be running things for the party. Ognibene shouted back: "I can't. I'm going to be running for mayor."
Among those in the crowd that night was Wager, one of the two Bloomberg aides at the Starbucks sit-down. Wager, whose office is in City Hall's basement, did not respond to several messages.
The first news of Ognibene's candidacy came on Thursday, January 13, in the New York Post, where Frankie Edozien and David Seifman reported on the Rockaways rally, casually reporting that Ognibene "plans to run against Bloomberg." As Ognibene later told the Sun's John Avlon, he didn't make up his own mind until after the Rockaways meeting, when he went home and told his wife how enthusiastic the crowd had been. A day later, Ognibene made it official by calling the Times' Jonathan Hicks and telling him he was a candidate. Hicks called Cunningham for comment, and word quickly spread through City Hall.
When Wager learned about the story, according to sources, he called Ognibene to ask if it was true. "Yeah, that's right," Ognibene told him. "Well, that's no way to treat a friend," Wager responded.