The Company He Keeps
In his campaign to fill a vacant West Side City Council seat, Christopher Lynn points proudly to endorsements from political heavyweights like the Village Reform Democratic Club and the Stonewall Democratic Club, and to his résumé, which lists two commissionerships in the Giuliani administration. But other associations, including one with a former campaign worker arrested this month on drug and weapons charges, are nothing to brag about.
Just before midnight on January 6, police arrested seven people, including 25-year-old Simon Valenzuela, at a Chelsea storefront, confiscating cocaine, heroin, guns, and 100 rounds of ammunition. Valenzuela had been only one of two people paid wages by Lynn's campaign, hired "to do outreach to people in the projects," according to campaign spokesman Howard Hemsley. Sources say Valenzuela was introduced at a December meeting by his former boss, Bronx state assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., as a Lynn campaign manager and a link to Latino voters. Valenzuela left his job with Diaz Jr. to work for Lynn, and appeared at forums with the candidate.
Valenzuela was busted at an import-export cigar store his deceased father ran at 280 West 19th Street, near Eighth Avenue, and had the store keys when arrested. A criminal complaint charges him with possession of controlled substances, four counts of weapons possession, and three counts of criminally using drug paraphernalia. Among the items found variously on shelves and in open safes were a semiautomatic handgun loaded with six rounds, a loaded .32 caliber revolver, a pistol-grip shotgun, narcotics, and drug-processing paraphernalia.
Valenzuela pleaded not guilty and is out on bail. He was arrested along with his 19-year-old brother, who admitted to police that he sold cocaine and guns. Hemsley says that admission means the arrest is "not a problem" for Lynn's campaign. In 1992, Valenzuela pleaded guilty to harassment charges in a sealed case; in 1998, he was convicted for drunk driving.
Valenzuela's attorney, Edward Wilford, said his client "would be completely exonerated" but would not say why, nor would he discuss Valenzuela's relationship with Lynn. "Chris Lynn has been a lightning rod for a lot of different things and I just don't want that negative impact on my client's case."
Valenzuela lives just down the street from the storefront, at 264 West 19th. That's the address where Lynn's campaign sent Valenzuela a check for $1200 in wages on November 30, according to campaign finance records. Hemsley said by the time of the bust Valenzuela's monthlong stint with Lynn was over.
It's not the first time Lynn has been in the company of drug dealers. In 1996, when he was commissioner of the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, newspapers reported that he had represented some of Brooklyn's most murderous crack dealers while working as a criminal defense attorney in the late 1980s. In trying some of those dealers, federal prosecutors called Lynn "house counsel" to a drug gang, though a judge ultimately rejected that argument. Lynn told the Daily News, "I represented people accused of all sorts of crime. That's your job when you're an attorney."
In June 1996, Giuliani appointed Lynn commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT); in June 1997, Lynn named his former driver, Ernst Bonny, to head DOT security. Bonny was then facing charges of impersonating a police officer and displaying a gun to a deli worker. Lynn said he thought the charges had been cleared. In July 1997, Bonny pleaded guilty to the impersonation charge.
By the end of Giuliani's first term, the mayor bounced Lynn from his cabinet and set him up in a job as one of several commissioners on the Tax Appeals Tribunal. Lynn, 48, is now on leave from that post as he seeks to fill the council seat vacated by Tom Duane, who was elected in November to the state senate.
In a field of five candidates, Lynn is considered a front-runner along with Christine Quinn, a former Duane aide who headed the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. Carlos Manzano is expected to pull heavily in Clinton and Hell's Kitchen, since he is backed by the powerful McManus Democratic club, but his base does not reach into the district's heart in the West Village and Chelsea.
Housing issues will be central to the race, and some of Lynn's friendships are troubling tenants. The candidate describes former Lower East Side councilmember Antonio Pagan as a "dear friend," but tenants see him as a shill for landlords. Pagan has backed another Lynn pal, Donald Capoccia, whose firm has been selected by the city to develop former community gardens on the Lower East Side into middle-income townhouses.
Some West Side voters have viewed suspiciously Lynn's suggestion that middle-income housing be built in the district, wondering if he intends to reward his friend. But Lynn told the Voice that Capoccia, whom he describes as "family," is "too small" to implement Lynn's vision of 30,000 to 70,000 units of new middle-income housing. He says he sees no need for more low-income housing in the district.
Also controversial is Lynn's 1995 letter to an SRO tenant in which he referred to his acquaintance with one of the city's most notorious landlord teams, Robert Sigmund and Thomas Iveli. Lynn wrote the letter after seeing the visibly sick HIV-positive Sigmund-Iveli tenant on television describing the bad conditions in his apartment. Duane, a councilmember at the time, also appeared with the tenant. Lynn wrote to the tenant, "Since I know Tommy Ivelli [sic], I called him. You're gay, Tommy's gay, and I have been an activist for over 20 years." He then offered to come over with Capoccia to make the necessary repairs, and warned, "Don't call sister Duane, all she's interested in is publicity."
Lynn calls the missive "a private letter sent by one gay man to another. This is really not a campaign issue. It's a smear," said Lynn, who blames Quinn for circulating the letter. (The Voice did not get the letter from Quinn or her campaign.) Lynn told the Voice that he had met Iveli 20 years ago, but has no relationship with him and does not know Sigmund. The tenant, who has moved to Florida, did not take up the offer, which Lynn describes as a "mitzvah." But in a district where posters denouncing Sigmund and Iveli still adorn windows, the mitzvah could translate into a mistake at the polls.
Sigmund and Iveli's egregious reign on West 22nd Street has won them headlines like "Landlords from Hell" and repeated standing on lists of the city's worst slumlords. In 1996, Sigmund was sentenced to two months in jail for attacking a photographer with a chair. The pair still face charges from a state housing agency that they allowed drugs and prostitution to overrun their buildings, failed to make even the most minimal repairs, and retaliated against tenants who complained. Iveli did not return calls.
Lynn agrees the landlords are problematic. "They have operated on the cheap for years," says Lynn. "If they can't make repairs, they should get out of the business."
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