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One of the sadder sights in this desolate political season was Hiram Monserrate's entrance into federal court last week for his arraignment on fraud charges.
The ex–City Councilman and ex–State Senator knew he had a date with handcuffs that morning, and he had donned a jacket, tie, and a white dress shirt with French cuffs for the occasion. The rules, however, require that ties and belts be removed from those arrested for fear of someone's possible strangulation. The jacket and cuff links go as well. As a result, Monserrate made his appearance before a press-packed gallery with his shirt tails flapping and his uncuffed sleeves hanging down past his wrists.
He had put on a few pounds since his last court visit in February, back when he was battling to keep from being ousted from the State Senate after his conviction for assaulting his girlfriend. The next day's Post tagged him as looking "disheveled." That was putting it kindly. Hiram Monserrate was a mess.
Not so long ago, a lot of people were rooting for the ex-cop from Queens. He proudly entered the Council as the first Hispanic elected from his borough, part of the big new post-term-limits class of 2001. He was a husky former Marine who fought with police brass over racism inside his Queens precinct. He was a founder of the Latino Officers Association and a board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union. On the Council he enlisted in all the toughest causes. He was such an outspoken voice for immigrants that he went head-to-head with the mayor over how city officials interact with illegal aliens. The mayor backed down. Monserrate won a second round when his bill to eliminate metered parking on Sundays passed 43 to 1. Bloomberg vowed a veto, but that was just bluff. Monserrate had him on that one, too. In 2005, he cruised to re-election.
Somewhere along the line, success went to his head. His next stop, he decided, should be the State Senate. At the time, the seat he wanted was held by another popular ex-Councilman named John Sabini. From Monserrate's perspective, the Italian-American Sabini was an interloper. The district—Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst—was overwhelmingly Hispanic. Why should a white guy have it? Sabini had the support of the Queens Democratic machine. Monserrate ran as the independent outsider.
The result was a nasty campaign with race as the steady undercurrent. Both sides spent more than $300,000. Riding a tide of new Latino voters, Monserrate came just 242 votes shy of victory. That was close enough for the Queens Democratic organization. It suddenly noticed the borough's growing Hispanic population. It abandoned Sabini and agreed to back Monserrate. Two years later, he won the seat unopposed.
The first clear sign that he'd gone badly off track came when he enlisted with a mercenary from the Bronx named Pedro Espada Jr. Along with a pair of pols with equally pliable morals—Carl Kruger and Ruben Diaz Sr.—the "Four Amigos" pulled a brazen shakedown of the Senate's new Democratic leadership, demanding as many perks as they could grab.
Another sign came just days before he was to be sworn into his new job: On a late December night, Monserrate showed up at a Long Island hospital with his shaken girlfriend, Karla Giraldo. She needed 40 stitches for wounds suffered when a broken glass Monserrate was holding somehow gashed her face. Elmhurst Hospital was a few blocks away from the senator-elect's apartment. He drove her 12 miles to another hospital. It had better service, he explained.
At trial, his able attorney, Joseph Tacopina, beat the toughest charge, felony assault, which would have meant automatic expulsion from the Senate. But the judge found him guilty of a misdemeanor for shoving his girlfriend around. Senate leaders, desperate to show they wouldn't tolerate misbehavior, did something they hadn't done in modern history: They threw him out.
Last week's indictment cast new light on Monserrate's earlier claims to fame. In the Council, he won cheers as an early crusader for transparency in the way money is doled out to pet projects. In 2006, he introduced a bill to mandate that the Council disclose which members were responsible for the otherwise anonymous "earmarks" planted in the budget. "Good conscience," he said, demanded no less. Council Speaker Christine Quinn soon embraced this idea as her own, announcing that the reform would begin in the next budget.
At the time, the indictment shows, Monserrate was shoveling hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars to his own pet cause, a Queens organization he controlled called LIBRE, for Latino Initiative for Better Resources and Empowerment. The empowerment, apparently, was all his own. One of LIBRE's projects was registering voters. According to the charges, the group focused exclusively on the district where Monserrate was then challenging Sabini for the Senate. In May 2006, prosecutors say, the councilman e-mailed one of his staffers demanding a list of all of LIBRE's newly registered voters. On Monserrate's instructions, the registration forms weren't filed until the last minute, so that his rival wouldn't spot them.
That July, he took this hypocrisy up another notch: The same month that he was introducing his reform legislation demanding greater Council transparency, he is alleged to have personally made out checks on LIBRE's account to those who worked on his Senate candidacy. To do so, he used a rubber signature stamp for LIBRE's chairperson, the charges claim.
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."