GOP Games

Endorsement for Sale

Remember when Guy Velella was evil incarnate and Mike Bloomberg was doing everything he could to get the ex–state senator back into a Rikers Island cell? A year later, Bloomberg has almost everyone who worked for the former Bronx Republican chairman on his campaign payroll—payback for a pivotal endorsement engineered in February when Bloomberg was frantically trying to block the candidacy of ex–GOP councilman Tom Ognibene.

Jay Savino, Velella's former chief of staff who now heads the Bronx party, acknowledges that Bloomberg has paid $2,000 a month "for space and phones" at its Bronx office, as well as hiring, at a combined cost so far of $39,608, Laura Tosi, Dawn Rahaniotis, Adrienne Sicilia, and Shanette Brown; all of them were closely associated with Velella. Sicilia was Velella's personal secretary, and Tosi's husband, Vic, the Velella- installed deputy director of the Bronx Board of Elections, was actually the party chair who engineered the endorsement. Savino's father, a former councilman, went to federal prison in the '80s for tax evasion and illegally acquiring a machine gun and three pistols with silencers.

When Ognibene won the endorsement of the Queens party, it was such a wake-up call for Bloomberg that he launched an intense campaign for the Bronx, where Velella's antipathy was widely seen as an Ognibene opportunity. Bloomberg, aided by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, secured the endorsement three weeks before Velella, who would surely have opposed it, was released from jail. Had Ognibene won it, he might well have gotten the 7,500 signatures he needed to make it onto the ballot and force Bloomberg into a Republican primary, especially since he narrowly missed qualifying and the Bronx party gathered 2,700 signatures for Bloomy.

Bloomberg wound up paying $95,169 to Jeff Buley, the counsel to the state GOP, and $418,979 to Bob Muir, counsel to Republican congressman Vito Fossella, to knock the feared Ognibene off the GOP ballot. Buley, a lobbyist reportedly representing clients like a new Staten Island NASCAR venture before the city, is a partner of Al Pirro, the convict husband of Westchester D.A. Jeanine Pirro, who's running against Hillary Clinton. Bloomberg also paid former state party chair Bill Powers $80,010.

Ognibene says his old friend Powers met with him early this year at the Sheraton and tried to convince him to "step aside in the mayoral race" and run in a special election for a vacant Queens assembly seat. Ognibene says Powers did not mention he was working for Bloomberg, instead insisting that "this comes from me, not from Bloomberg," and promised to help Ognibene finance the race. Top Bloomberg aides had previously approached Ognibene with job offers in an apparent effort to get him to withdraw.

A longtime member of the Conservative Party before running for council as a Republican, Ognibene got the party's leaders, including boss Mike Long, to give him its November line. But Long, who maintains a "cordial relationship" with Bloomberg and whose wife recently marched at the mayor's side in a Bay Ridge parade, has done nothing to raise money for Ognibene.

Indeed, the party has raised nearly a half-million dollars this year, without encouraging any of its well-heeled donors to help its ostensible candidate, who spotlighted the party's red-meat issues of gay marriage, abortion, and property tax hikes at the recent debate. Long explained that the hard-right contributors who bankrolled prior mayoral candidates are "no longer around." Bloomberg's aide Bill Cunningham, who's known Long for years and accompanied Bloomberg on several visits to Conservative Party cocktail parties, says he had "no conversations with him about the level of support" the party might give its struggling nominee.

Long's daughter Eileen, a former aide to Governor Pataki, was appointed by President Bush as regional director for the General Services Administration last year, making Long's support of a Bloomberg opponent strange. Long attributed the hiring to his daughter's strong résumé and Pataki's recommendation.

 
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