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Anthony Seminerio, former Queens assemblyman, limped through the federal courthouse on Pearl Street last week, a sagging wreck of a man. It was morning, but his collar was already wilted against an extra-wide neck.
Up on the 21st floor, he sat at the defense table, slumped forward and eyes closed.
He has already pleaded guilty to a fraud charge: neglecting to let his constituents know that one way to obtain his help was to pay him something extra on the side.
This is known as defrauding the public of honest services. It is the same offense pending against former Republican State Senate majority leader Joe Bruno, whose own federal trial is now under way in Albany. With a little digging, prosecutors could probably win indictments on this count against a third of the legislature's members. Those who do regular business in the state capital say that this means the law is too broad and unfair. Actually, it means that the laws have simply gone unenforced for years.
In Seminerio's case, the only question left for Judge Naomi Buchwald to decide is his punishment. For two and a half days, the defendant sat in courtroom 21A as lawyers argued about the severity of his crime. The assemblyman's able attorney, Pery Krinsky, insisted that, except for a single instance of poor judgment, his client had properly steered clear of state officials when representing his paying clients. The proper penalty, he said, is no more than six months of detention, preferably served at home. Assistant U.S. attorney William Harrington countered that Seminerio engaged in a decade-long crime spree and thus owes the government between 11 and 14 years in prison.
Seminerio's only contribution was to give his brow an occasional deep-tissue muscle rub. The more they talked, the farther he slumped. According to letters submitted by his doctor, his ailments include coronary artery disease, hypertension, and morbid obesity. Such disorders grow more extreme in direct proportion to the amount of prison time a defendant faces. But to look at Tony Seminerio is to finally understand what Jimmy Breslin, also from Queens, means when he calls someone a busted valise. Seminerio, 74 years old, must be as busted as any valise ever made.
It is a dramatic switch from the boisterous politician heard on FBI wiretaps played in court as he sat rubbing his brow. "I talk to Bruno like I talk to you," he bragged to one of his clients, the head of a local hospital, about his ties to the Senate boss: "Like I say, 'Come on, Joe. What, are you breaking my balls? You know I need this.' And he laughs . . . So that, that kind of relationship you can't buy for a million dollars."
Another audiotape had him complaining to a top state official about another hospital executive who had rebuffed Seminerio's demands for a monthly retainer: "On my mother's grave," he barked. "You know me, you know, I'm a street guy. This guy never went for three cents out of his own pocket."
He was heard ranting at Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver about pending health cuts and the milder budget trims aimed at schools: "I mean, Shelly, for Christ's sake. You, you know something? Honest to God, if I'm wrong, say, 'Tony, you're wrong.' You know it. I don't give a fuck how educated you are, if you're not in good health, what good is it gonna do you? . . . People's education, my ass. You, you, you walking the street a cripple and you're not being treated, go tell me about your education."
A day later, his concerns had narrowed to his own domain and he was heard boasting to a lobbyist how he had told off the Speaker: "And I told him, 'Shelly, I don't give a fuck ya close every hospital in the city. You leave my hospitals alone.'"
After they're used in his criminal case, the FBI tapes of Seminerio's phone calls and the ramblings picked up on a bug placed in his district office should be presented as an exhibit in the Queens Museum. They capture, just as effectively as any archivist wandering rural America in search of authentic folk music, exactly how politics is still played and sounds in certain corners of New York.
This is how Tony Seminerio talked for 30 years, full of bluster and blarney as he strutted the halls of Albany. If many people knew he was often full of hot air, it never dimmed his political fortunes. "I always ask for the whole loaf," he explained in the late '80s. "That way, whatever piece of bread I get is a score."
His first lessons came as a corrections officer at Rikers Island for 15 years, where he was active in his union and where he saw how politicians were courted. Elected to the assembly in 1978, he was nominally a Democrat but regularly won the Republican, Conservative, and Independence party nominations as well. He habitually crossed party lines to endorse Republicans like Al D'Amato for the U.S. Senate, and Rudy Giuliani for City Hall. He was so secure in his job that one day, in 1992, he stood and heckled the governor, right in the middle of a State of the State speech—the legislature's single most formal occasion. The moment came just as Mario Cuomo had warned that a stalled state budget could stall legislative paychecks as well. "Don't tell me I won't get paid for my work!" boomed Seminerio from the floor. "We're here everyday, 14 or 15 hours a day."
"Tony, you vote against it," responded Cuomo, another Queens neighbor and wise to the assemblyman's frequent naps at his Assembly desk. "At least this way we'll get a vote out of you."
But all of that bluster started seeping out of Tony Seminerio like air from a punctured tire on the day last year that the FBI knocked on his door to ask about the side business he ran as a consultant. How was it, they wanted to know, that an elected official received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from local institutions—a college, a couple hospitals, and a medical benefits firm among them—that depended on his support in Albany? What exactly was the difference, they asked, between his legislative duties and the tasks he performed for his paying clients? Agents Brian Fitzpatrick and Christopher Kelly duly recorded his answer: "I don't charge my constituents," the assemblyman said as if he were cutting them a price break.
He thought of himself as "The Godfather," he told the agents. People come to him, he said, and he tries to help. As for the routine passing of legislation, he confessed it was over his head. "Eighty percent of the bills I vote for, I don't know what the hell it is," the agents quoted him as saying.
This exchange proves that Seminerio deserves the maximum sentence for dumb comments to federal officials. But there was also truth to his lawyer's claim that he often extended himself to those in need. One such was Brian McLaughlin, the ex–labor leader, a good friend who served with Seminerio in the Assembly. McLaughlin's own indictment for massive thefts was almost a year old when he met Seminerio at the Atlantic Diner in Richmond Hill in September 2007. Seminerio thought he was there to help an old pal and he casually explained how he ran his consulting business. McLaughlin, wearing a wire for the feds, was there to help himself. Outside court last week, Seminerio was asked what he'd been thinking. "What can I tell you?" he said. "I'm a sucker for a loser."