By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
New York is hosting its own March Madness this month. Our local sport of nonstop political scandal features veteran politicians once thought to know better.
The games began on March 7, when former Queens assemblyman Brian McLaughlin stood up in federal court to plead guilty to stealing more than $2 million. Five days later, Governor Eliot Spitzer abruptly quit after giving new meaning to political prostitution. His successor, David Paterson, said he may have used campaign funds to bed down women who were not his wife.
The political perp walk continues this week with the ongoing bribery trial in Brooklyn of Assemblywoman Diane Gordon. Unlike her wayward peers who acknowledged their misdeeds, Gordon, a feisty pol from Brownsville, admits no wrongdoing and has refused to go quietly.
Gordon, 57, stands charged with bribe-receiving and official misconduct, enough to land her 15 years in prison if convicted. So far, things don't look good. For the past two weeks, jurors in the courtroom of Supreme Court Justice Robert McGann have spent their days watching videos of Gordon at work.
Actually, there wasn't much to look at on the herky-jerky videos secretly recorded by a developer pretending to hanker after a large piece of city-owned land in Gordon's district. The developer carried the tiny camera and audio device on his person, and the lens often tilted skyward, away from his subjects. As a result, jurors stared for long stretches only at the sad water stains on the ceiling tiles in Gordon's district office on Vermont Street.
But there was plenty to hear. Developer Raj Batheja agreed to be part of the sting operation after the city's Department of Investigation snared him in his own bribery attempt. Batheja had mistakenly assumed that a city tax-abatement official was just another bureaucrat happy to sell his office for a few dollars. The bureaucrat turned out to be an investigator, and Batheja was soon pledging to find other likely culprits in exchange for lesser charges. He quickly found his target in Gordon, a fast-talking four-term legislator who represents one of the city's poorest districts and who was easily re-elected after her 2006 indictment.
For more than a year, Batheja tantalized Gordon with descriptions and sketches of the dream house he promised to build her in exchange for her help in obtaining the city parcel.
There would be five bedrooms, two walk-in closets, a kitchen of maple cabinets and granite counters, a fireplace in the living room, and a patio out back. Oak banisters would climb to the second floor, where a Jacuzzi would grace the bathroom off the master bedroom.
Gordon devoured every detail. "Now, the other thing is," she tells the builder, "do you have another linen closet that's for the sheets and whatever?"
"Sure," he responds, like a parent playing house with a small child. "There are two of them."
Fantasy quickly trumps reason. "Raj," Gordon cries as he shows her the blueprints, "you're making me so excited. Oh my Lord."
On her end of the bargain, Gordon met with city housing officials and introduced Batheja to the local councilman, Charles Barron. A dubious-sounding Barron questioned the builder and an undercover city investigator posing as Batheja's African-American partner. "Is there someone behind both of you?" he asks.
Gordon is also heard trying to leverage Mayor Bloomberg's re-election drive to her advantage: "I'm figuring if Mike Bloomberg was to say, well, look, the assemblywoman, she ain't supporting me, ain't no reason for us to give her that property," she says in December 2004.
Later, she claims to have explained things to the mayor's people: "It's on the table that my developer have to be the one that gets the piece," she whispers.
But she was haunted by the prospect of being found out and prosecuted like Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic boss convicted in 2005 of his own abuses.
To avoid that fate, Gordon's plan was to have the house placed in her mother's name. To help structure such a deal she turned to Mitchell Alter, an attorney with expertise in Brooklyn's two growth industries, politics and real estate. She brought the lawyer, the developer, and her mother to a basement office in her church in June 2005 to hash things out. The resulting video should be mandatory viewing for politicians veering toward the dark side.
"Is your mother buying a house from Raj, is that what it is?" asks Alter. "Yes," says Gordon. "What's the price of the house?" the lawyer inquires. Batheja mumbles, but Gordon speaks right up: "Well, okay, this is the other part of it. He wants the house to be something like a gift to me," she says.
"Whoa!" says Alter, coming out of his chair.
Gordon hastened to reassure him that she's told Batheja it can't be an outright gift, but alarm bells are now going off.
"Look, you got to watch your back," says the lawyer. "You can't just give a house away . . . If it ever gets investigated, we're all going to have a problem."
"Right, right," says Gordon.
"It's got to be done in a way that, you know, so it passes some sort of muster," says Alter. He invoked the name of an ex–city councilman who sought a similar gift from a developer. "[He's] now doing time in jail behind this shit," says Alter. The price, he adds, "has to bear some resemblance to reality."
Asked how much the house would be worth, Batheja says: "About half a million dollars." Gordon quickly interjects that the price can't "go over two hundred thousand."
"Hey, Diane," a frustrated-sounding Alter says, "I'm not telling you what to do. I'm just telling you how to do it so you don't get your butt whacked."
A price of $300,000, however, might give enough "wiggle room," in Alter's phrase. The lawyer also suggested that Batheja provide a personal money mortgage to finance the sale.
This may have sounded perilously close to legal, for the developer quickly reminded everyone of the basic agreement. "Okay," Batheja says, "but that doesn't mean she has to pay for it, right?"
"Look, excuse me," shoots back Alter. "However you guys want to, it's got to show money."
For the lawyer, the warning bells kept ringing. "What do you need a D.A., a grand jury subpoena for?" says Alter, who then starts talking to the walls: "I want you, anybody who hears this [to know] we love you. If that thing is wired," he says, gesturing across the table, "I want everybody to know, I love this man . . . I'm not asking for any favors or any money. We love him."
That should have been the end of things, but the dream house lured Gordon on. Even after listening to her lawyer's sermon in her church, she still let Batheja put $7,000 for a down payment in an account in her mother's name. She later sent the money sent back, but it was too late. Confronted by law enforcement in February 2006, Gordon tried for a while to work her way out of trouble by wearing her own wire for the district attorney. Sources say she wore the device to her own campaign fundraiser, where she gabbed with judges and political leaders. But her heart apparently wasn't in it, and she was indicted in July 2006.
Gordon's attorney, Bernard Udell, said last week that his defense is simple: "She was the victim of entrapment," he said. "She was just trying to get the land for the community and she needed someone with expertise to develop it."