Hiram Monserrate's Cheating Ways

An ex-rebel's publicly funded self-empowerment program

Maybe he was trying to make a subtle point: In another era, former City Councilman Henry Stern famously said that the Council was less effective than a rubber stamp because at least "a rubber stamp leaves an impression." Hiram Monserrate, crusading ex-cop turned politician, proves that a councilman can indeed use a rubber stamp, even if the lasting impression is only more deceit.

There's nothing subtle about the message sent by this indictment. In terms of alleged theft—about $100,000—it's chump change compared with recent cases. Larry Seabrook, the Bronx Councilman now awaiting trial, is alleged to have steered $1 million in public funds to himself and pals. Former state senator Efrain Gonzalez admitted stealing some $500,000.

But Monserrate is the first official charged with using the money to try to steal something even more important: elections. He insists he did no wrong. If he can figure out a way to pay a good lawyer, he'll take the case to trial, where we may hear strong arguments in his favor. But the indictment is still a loud warning shot across the bow to the many other elected officials whose campaign organizations heavily overlap with nonprofit groups they fund with public money.

Up until now, this has been wink-and-a-nod territory: Employees of publicly funded do-gooder outfits are told in no uncertain terms that they're expected to carry petitions and pull voters to the polls on election day for the greater benefit of their political patrons. With this latest indictment, all such bets are off.

In the past three years, the Southern District of New York, where Monserrate was indicted, has seen almost as many public corruption cases as it did back in the 1980s when Rudy Giuliani was waging a scorched-earth campaign against crooked politicians. At the press conference announcing Monserrate's charges, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stood next to city investigations commissioner Rose Gill Hearn, whose office helped make the case. Public corruption is a top priority for his office, Bharara said. He added: "Our work is far from finished."

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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