Kerik Cops a Sweet Plea
The findings of the Bronx grand jury that probed expolice commissioner Bernie Kerik's dealings with an allegedly mobbed-up contractor are secret, but at a press conference following Kerik's June 30 guilty plea prosecutors offered some tantalizing snippets:
Back in 1999 and 2000, at a time when New Jerseybased Interstate Industrial Corporation was desperately seeking clearance to hold lucrative city contracts, it paid for $165,000 worth of free renovation work on Kerik's apartment in Riverdale, prosecutors found. The job included demolition work, architectural services, plumbing, electrical wiring, painting, carpeting, woodwork, built-in cabinets, custom mouldings, marble and granite work, along with hardwood floors in the dining room, kitchen, and living room. The company paid for three bathrooms, the kitchen, a master bedroom suite, a Jacuzzi, and a rotunda with a marble entryway. The rotunda, noted city investigations commissioner Rose Gill Hearn, required "a special bending of the sheetrock that is particularly time-consuming and expensive."
On his mandatory financial disclosure forms filed with the city's Department of Investigation, Kerik swore that his rehab costs were just $30,000. "I bet most people would like to get all of that for $30,000," said Hearn.
A terse, no-nonsense former federal prosecutor, Hearn stood next to Robert Johnson, the soft-spoken Bronx district attorney who negotiated the plea for Kerik, which called for fines of $221,000 with no jail time. The deal's lenient terms allowed Kerik's voluble defense attorney, Joseph Tacopina, to spin the story that his client wasn't even admitting to having committed a crime. That was nonsense, of coursethe prosecution's formal complaint clearly cites criminal acts. But the boast was in line with what Tacopina has been claiming all along.
Ever since Kerik's nomination by President Bush to serve as Homeland Security secretary first derailed, and then careened into a criminal investigation, Tacopina has insisted the allegations against his client were bogus. That was the steady line of defense adopted by all of Kerik's allies, even as the investigation opened a window into an ugly and sloppy underside of the administration of former mayor and now presidential wannabe Rudolph Giuliani.
"Much ado about nothing," said Tacopina when reports of the firm's ties to Kerik first surfaced in late 2004. "He is unaware of any free gifts," the lawyer insisted when his client took the Fifth Amendment last year rather than discuss his relationship with Interstate with New Jersey's attorney general, who wanted to keep Interstate out of Atlantic City's casinos.
"Once the evidence comes out, and people testify under oath, Bernie will be vindicated," Tacopina told the Times when it informed him that the chief subcontractor on the apartment rehab was prepared to testify that he was hired by Interstate, which told him to bill it for the costs.
Even as the clock on the criminal probe ticked down in late May, Kerik's lawyer maintained that he was looking forward to a courtroom joust for justice on behalf of his client. "We're locked and loaded and ready to go," the intrepid Tacopina told WNBC-TV reporter Jonathan Dienst.
And then on a hot and humid Friday morning in the Bronx, there was Kerik, his able attorney at his side, finally in that courtroom, and finally allowed an opportunity to speak the truth of the matter. Which he then did.
"Guilty," said the former police commissioner. "Guilty," he repeated a moment later when the judge asked about a second criminal charge.
Bald, burly, and wearing a tailored dark suit, Kerik paused briefly on the sidewalk outside, offering a wounded look as the press clustered about him.
He had spent 30 years fighting crime and injustice, and now all anyone wanted to do was pick him apart, he lamented. They've "tried to destroy everything I've ever done." As for the criminal violations he had just admitted in a court of law, the ex-lawman allowed that he should have "focused more," been "more sophisticated" about financial matters.
Someone asked, Was he sorry? Kerik turned to Tacopina. "Let's go," he said as they clambered into a chauffeured limo and drove away.
Even if we never get a look at the record of the grand juryit heard some 150 witnesses, including Giuliani, who was said to have grown prickly and annoyed during the sessionthe question will always linger as to why tougher criminal counts were not brought. Johnson cited the statute of limitations as a significant barrier, since the law is vague as to whether the clock on the criminal acts began ticking when Kerik left his job as corrections commissioner in August 2000 or when he finished up as police commissioner on December 31, 2001.
There was a potential roadblock to bribery charges as well, since Kerik never had authority to affect Interstate's efforts to win the city contracts that, in any event, were never awarded. Those facts, prosecutors feared, took away much of the ammunition to assert a quid pro quo between Kerik and the firm.
Yet it's hard not to suspect that part of the problem was a failure of will. In Brooklyn, former Democratic boss Clarence Norman was convicted last year of multiple felonies for offenses that pale alongside those attributed to Kerik.
Despite the legal obstacles, there is an awful lot of information already in the public record suggesting that Bernie Kerik pushed as hard as he could to help his pals at Interstate at the same time they were paying for the extravagant renovation job in Riverdale. Much of that record comes from the relentless digging of Daily News reporter Russ Buettner, who found himself two years ago, after reporting on other scams at the corrections department under Kerik, in frequent and lengthy discussions with a man named Larry Ray, who was the best man at Kerik's wedding, but later soured on his pal after Kerik dropped him following his indictment in a federal mob case.
The record has also been compiled in a separate probe by the New Jersey attorney general's office as part of its efforts to bar Interstate from state casinos because of its alleged dealings with Gambino and Genovese mobsters. Interstate's principals, brothers Frank and Peter DiTomasso, have always strenuously denied any intentional mob contacts, and the state's Casino Control Commission granted them a license, over the attorney general's objections. Last November, however, the state's Division of Gaming Enforcement issued a civil complaint, publicly laying out its case against Interstate, much of it based on the revelations about the firm's dealings with Kerik.
Right from the start, according to the complaint, Interstate's relationship with the Giuliani aide was premised on the notion that he could assist the firm in surmounting the city's objections to it. "Maybe he can help us," were the words Larry Ray, an old acquaintance of Frank DiTommaso, used when he introduced the contractor to the then recently appointed corrections commissioner in 1998.
Kerik returned the compliment, telling DiTommaso that Ray was a "top-shelf guy." DiTommaso himself described to investigators how Ray had brought him to Kerik's office, where the commissioner and Ray embraced. With his arm around his pal, Kerik told DiTommaso: "I want to tell you, I trust this guy more than my own brother."
That was a telling statement, since in short order DiTommaso had hired Ray as a $100,000-a-year adviser to help him with his "law enforcement" matters, along with Kerik's brother Don, who was put on the Interstate payroll as an $85,000-a-year yard manager at the Staten Island facility that Interstate had purchased from Gambino mobsters.
In November 1998, the New Jersey complaint states, Interstate sent a 46-page fax to Kerik's office, containing the firm's application for a city permit to operate the waste transfer station that city officials had flagged as mob-controlled. A few weeks later, Frank DiTommaso attended Kerik's office Christmas party, and the contractor took to dropping in on the commish when he was in the city.
In July 1999, Kerik met with Raymond Casey, a cousin of Giuliani who was then serving as enforcement chief for the city's Trade Waste Commission, telling him that "Ray could be helpful to the TWC in alleviating its concerns about Interstate." A few weeks later Kerik let Ray use his office to meet with commission investigators.
Throughout that period, the complaint states, Kerik regularly complained to Ray and others that he was broke and needed money to complete the purchase and renovation of the Riverdale apartment. In September 1999, the same month that Kerik closed on the apartment, the New Jersey authorities said that a subcontractor named Woods Restoration was hired by Interstate to handle the apartment renovations. Woods went on to complete the sumptuous project, allocating its billings for the work, allegedly at Interstate's direction, into other, separate projects.
It wasn't the only secret aspect of the job. Records show, and sources familiar with the criminal case confirm, that no permits were ever filed for the vast bulk of the work at the apartment. Even though the job included merging two separate apartment units, no architecture plans were filed, the sources said. Under rules established by the Giuliani administration for self-certification of most building projects, all the contractors had to do was file the plans. Without the filings, however, there was no paper trail of the work.
Kerik attorney Tacopina, exhausted after his extensive defense work, took a well-earned vacation with his family, his office said. He did not return Voice calls.
At the press conference after Kerik's guilty plea, investigations commissioner Hearn took one more stab at deflating the defense attorney's insistence that the proceeding was de minimis. "A plea bargain is a settlement," she said. "It balances the risks of litigation, but it also in this case has brought to light the now undeniable truth of Mr. Kerik's conduct in a criminal record that he will have to live with for the rest of his life."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.