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Tammany Hall lives only in the history books these days. But for straight-out, old-fashioned political patronagethe kind that Tammany's old-school sachems once nurtured and cherishedyou still can't beat the city's Board of Elections.
Take the case of Victor B. Tosi. A former auto salesman turned political operative, Tosi, 70, is the former Bronx Republican boss who arranged a crucial bit of support for Mayor Bloomberg's re- election last year by making sure his party did not support mainstream Republican challenger Tom Ognibene, who was trying to force the mayor into a potentially troublesome GOP primary.
Bloomberg rewarded the leader by providing lucrative campaign slots for Tosi's wife and other borough party functionaries. The mayor even gave Tosi, an ordained Catholic deacon, a rosary he picked up while attending the Vatican funeral of Pope John Paul II.
In coming days Tosi is due to move up one more notch by becoming the next commissioner representing the Bronx Republican Party on the city's 10-member elections board. There he will help to decide any and all voting disputes, what kind of new voting machines the city acquires, who gets the contract to provide them, and who gets the scores of other patronage jobs the board provides.
Tosi and his family have done well in that department. Since 2000, Tosi has worked as the $76,000-a-year deputy chief clerk of the board's Bronx office. He works alongside his grandson Frank, who makes $34,000 as an administrative associate. At the central office in Lower Manhattan, Tosi's nephew Phil Donahue serves as the board's $77,000-a-year director of personnel. A niece of Tosi's also works at the Bronx board, and until last year her son drew a paycheck there as well.
Vic Tosi's path to this family business was paved by his association with influential politicians. He worked first as an aide to John Calandra, the late Republican state senator from the north Bronx. After Calandra's death in 1986, Tosi stayed on to serve Calandra's successor in the senate seat, the Hon. Guy J. Velella, the former Bronx county GOP leader whose forced retirement from public office two years ago came after he pled guilty to bribery charges.
Velella was a powerful and generous patron. He arranged a series of jobs for Tosi, first as the personnel director at the central elections board (before Tosi yielded the post to his nephew), then as a state job-training director in Governor Pataki's labor department. After Tosi underwent heart surgery in 2000, Velella placed his ally back at the elections board, this time at its Bronx office in a position that required little strenuous effort and offered an easy commute.
To make sure Tosi was able to continue collecting his $46,000-a-year state pension while working full-time in his city elections job, Velella also helped him obtain a special waiver of rules that forbid such double-dipping. The waiver was easy. All city election officials had to do was declare that Tosi was "uniquely qualified" for his job. Apparently he was.
The Bronx Republican's talent and loyalty were on display in 1993 when a pair of GOP-backed school board candidates failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. The matter was put before the Board of Elections, where Bronx Republicans were then represented by one Vincent Velella, father of said senator Velella. The senior Velella promptly had the board repair into secret, executive session. When the panel re-emerged, the signature-deficient candidates had been magically installed on the ballot.
The incident was examined by the city's special schools investigator, and then by a state grand jury empaneled by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. No indictments were sought, but the citizens of the grand jury were disturbed enough to prepare a special report.
Here is how they summed up Tosi's role in the incident: "Victor Tosi is the Personnel Director of the Board of Elections, a district leader of the Republican Party, and a high-ranking staff member of a New York State legislator. In March of 1993, Tosi improperly interceded with Commissioner Vincent Velella to assist two of the four unqualified candidates to get onto the 1993 Community School Board ballot. The Grand Jury finds that Tosi's actions constituted misconduct, nonfeasance, and neglect in public office." The penalty, the jury recommended, should be ouster from his government jobs plus "disciplinary action."
But that was only a recommendation. While the grand jury's findings later surfaced in newspapers, the report itself was placed under seal by GOP-friendly appellate judges. No sanctions were ever imposed. Tosi stayed on at the board for a couple of more years before moving on to a better-paying post with the state.
To this day, Tosi insists he knows nothing of such findings. "Did they say that? As far as I know, I wasn't the target of any grand jury investigation," Tosi said last week in a querulous voice when asked about his pending appointment as commissioner. "I believe frankly that it was commissioner Velella and the senator who were the people of interest, not me. I went down and testified, and my understanding is everything was taken and sealed."
What about the published accounts of the jury's findings at the time? "Come on, you know about stories in the media," said Tosi. "To my knowledge, nothing ever officially came out. I went on and continued at the Board of Elections the same as before."
Tosi's current boss, elections board executive director John Ravitz, a former Republican assemblyman, said the old grand jury probe is a phantom to him as well.
"To be honest with you, all I know about the report is that it was sealed," said Ravitz. "When I asked about it, I was told that Vic was a witness and he wasn't a target of the investigation. So, as far as the report goes, I can't comment."
As an elections commissioner, Tosi will have to take a big pay cut: Commissioners receive a per diem payment of $125, capped at $12,500 per annum. But he's happy to do it, he told the Voice, since it means spending more time with his family and engaged in his church work. He said he feeds the homeless and tries to convince young women not to get abortions by helping them with clothes and shelter. "That has become more and more a part of my life," he said. "Politics? I am totally retired from that."
In fact, as an ordained deacon, he must be. In a ruling issued shortly after Tosi and others were ordained last year, Cardinal Edward Egan ordered that deacons should not seek public office or accept appointments to political positions. Tosi said at the time that he agreed wholeheartedly with the cardinal's ruling. That was why he had stepped down as head of the Bronx GOP, the post he briefly held after Guy Velella's conviction. "My choice was the church," Tosi said.
But it's hard to get more political than a commissionership on the Board of Elections. Under state law, they are the only appointive posts that are directly selected by political parties. Tosi, however, insisted there's no conflict. "I'm nonpartisan there," he said. "You know, like a judge?"
Did that mean he wasn't there to represent his party, which had selected him to do so?
"No, see the commissioners, they function independently," he said. "They cast votes on whatever policies are being established, based on their own objectivity. As far as I know it is OK with the archdiocese."
Egan's spokesman didn't return calls, but it's not the first time that Tosi has managed a delicate stutter step between his faith and his political ambitions. Last year, Tosi and Jay Savino, another exVelella aide, who is stepping down as the Bronx GOP rep on the elections commission in order to seat Velella's old senate seat, combined to steer the Republican endorsement to Mike Bloomberg, a strong backer of abortion rights. To do so, they bypassed the conservative Ognibene, a stern abortion foe. How had that vote squared with Tosi's religious beliefs?
"Like I said," he replied, "you've got to weigh a lot of factors."