Pedro Espada's Primary Challenge

Dressed for excess, the rascal pol even stiffed his tailor

A state senator should always look his best, so shortly after heading to Albany last year, Pedro Espada Jr. took himself to one of the city's best tailors. He made an appointment at Custom Men on West 57th Street, a small shop down

the block from Carnegie Hall. He took the elevator to the fourth-floor showroom, where he pored over their fabric samples, ordering a half-dozen fine suits. He was measured and photographed so that the clothing, hand-stitched in Hong Kong, would make the ex-boxer from the Bronx look like the millions of dollars controlled by powerful legislators.

"Gorgeous," he said upon delivery. He shook hands all around. The check would be in the mail. A few days later, a call came from the senator's office. He wanted the cuffs altered. "No problem," the tailors responded.

Morgan Schweitzer

This was in February 2009. The senator never showed for the alteration. Neither did his check for the $7,200 balance. The tailors waited patiently. They tried calling. The messages went unreturned. In a down economy, even an upscale shop feels the bite of $7,200 pinched from its pocket. This May, they filed suit to collect in Civil Court, New York County. Espada's response came on June 29: He had been sold "defective goods." Said goods had been returned to the plaintiff. The senator signed his name to this statement, swearing to its truth.

Last week, Vijay Tharwani, chief tailor at Custom Men, sat at his desk saying he would rather not speak ill of a customer, even this one. But he did allow that when he had seen Espada's pictures in the papers alongside stories of his increasingly outrageous Albany antics, he noticed that the senator was wearing the suits made by his firm. "So if he is wearing the suits, then they were not returned, correct?" the tailor asked.

An attorney for Custom Men, Jeffrey Maidenbaum, declined comment, except to say that he will soon be making this same point in a verified response to Espada's verified answer.

Representing Espada on the matter is Alexander M. Fear, who wears two hats in service to his client: He is general counsel at the Soundview Health Center, Espada's lucrative network of clinics that is the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation. He doubles as the $105,000-a-year counsel to the Senate housing committee chaired by Espada. On Thursday, Fear was found at Espada's Bronx district office on Fordham Road.

"This is not an appropriate place for me to discuss this," said the attorney. "Right now, I'm with a client. Can I get back to you?"

Of course he could. But he didn't. Espada also ducked questions, as did his public relations expert, Steve Mangione, who is paid $56,000 a year by taxpayers as the senator's part-time spokesman.

Since his election in 2008 to represent the 33rd District in the north Bronx, Pedro Espada Jr. has stirred a steady cyclone of outrage. He was the double-crossing renegade who switched to the Republican side just as his fellow Democrats were exercising their new majority powers. He was the shakedown artist who extorted the Democrats for more power and money in exchange for returning to the fold. Throughout, he has been the coin-operated servant of the real estate and landlord lobby, quashing pro-tenant legislation in his committee.

But deadbeat? This is a new one, at least when it comes to his personal needs. Even when investigators under Attorney General Andrew Cuomo went over the books at his health care clinics, they found that he happily met his bills, as long as someone else was paying.

When Espada bought $20,000 worth of sushi at a local restaurant near his home in Mamaroneck—the suburban hideaway far from his district that is the subject of its own probe—he always paid the tab. Why wouldn't he? His government-funded clinics were paying for it, along with some $450,000 in other dining and travel expenses he put on his corporate charge card.

Aside from certain disputed tax matters, the only others to previously complain about being stiffed for nonpayment are the city and state election boards. Espada took four years to pay $61,750 in fines owed the city's Campaign Finance Board from his prior City Council races. He anted up only after officials moved last year to bring a court judgment against him. He is still blowing off the state board's demand for $10,309 in fines for refusing to make required campaign filings.

None of this is lost on voters in his district. Last week, Gustavo Rivera, a big man with a clean-shaven head, a goatee, and a wide grin, was on the corner of Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx trying to tell people why he is running against the senator in next month's primary election. He did not have to break a sweat.

"Are you the one running against Espada?" asked a young man wearing a gold chain and pushing a baby carriage. "Yes, I am," said Rivera. The passer-by broke into a litany of complaints about his current representative. It was hard to hear what he had to say because another voter, a woman named Carol gripping a shopping cart, was busy listing her own nonstop gripes about Espada's performance. The denunciations in stereo went on for a good 10 minutes as Rivera nodded his head, making sure a campaign aide got names and phone numbers.

"It is easy to get people to talk about how horrible a guy he has been as a senator," said Rivera a few minutes later as he sipped a Coke in a diner across the street. "But this is a distraction. This district has been ill-served for a long time. The harder part is convincing people that they can be represented by someone they can have access to, and who will genuinely serve their interests."

Before he got into the race, Rivera was a part-time college professor who doubled as a Democratic political aide. He put his efforts to get a doctorate in political science aside to work for Barack Obama's campaign. For the past 10 years, he has lived in a studio apartment just up the street from where he was campaigning. "I know I wouldn't be able to live in New York without rent regulations," he said. "It is another thing that separates me from my opponent, who lives in the suburbs."

Indeed it does. In the Senate, Espada has grown so close to his landlord donors that it is hard to see where one begins and the other leaves off. In April, the Voice reported how Espada's Senate spokesman, Mangione, moonlights for the largest landlord group, the Rent Stabilization Association, creating their radio ads. The latest lobbying filings show that Mangione's fees for this work have now grown to more than $270,000. This would normally be considered an outrageous conflict of interest. In Espada Land, it is par for the course.

Earlier this month, on the last day of the Senate session, tenant groups rallied in a legislative hallway in a last-minute plea to win protections the new Democratic majority had promised to deliver before Espada and his allies thwarted that mission. Espada was late arriving at the Capitol, and when he appeared, the protesters greeted him with jeers. The senator stomped away. Then he suddenly wheeled around, thrusting dollar bills at his hecklers, screaming at them to go home. A photo captured his face in a frenzied snarl. A closer look revealed something else as well: He was wearing a very nice suit.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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