The Taking of the State Senate 1 2 3
One of them once introduced a City Council resolution honoring Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The other, while facing indictment, wore his own secret wire on everyone he went to for help. Together, Scientology admirer Hiram Monserrate and amateur private eye Pedro Espada Jr. last week stopped New York State government in its tracks.
They probably put the last nail in the coffin already under construction for Governor David Paterson's political career. Not least of their achievements, just as the Senate—under Democratic leadership for the first time in a generation—was poised to deliver a few progressive changes that would have mightily benefited the rebels' own constituents, they grabbed the wheel, steering the bus right over the cliff.
Such was the do-and-die dynamic behind the hijacking of the State Senate last week. With their vote to put the Republicans back in power, Monserrate, 41, and Espada, 54, showed about the same level of civic concern for their city as the embittered subway snatcher portrayed by John Travolta (a full-fledged Scientologist) in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Like the movie hijackers, the party defectors seemed more interested in wreaking havoc than making sure they survived to enjoy a comfortable future.
That could be because neither really has one. Politically, both are dead men walking.
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Monserrate, an ex-cop, faces trial on charges of stabbing his girlfriend in the face with a broken glass. "We are talking about an accident," he said Friday evening as he paused at NY1 between a round of TV interviews. Maybe so. But there's an unreleased video of him yanking his girlfriend around, which, says the judge who's seen it, "causes the blood to boil."
On Monday, Monserrate reversed himself, saying he was flipping back to the Democrats. The price of his return, he said, was the ouster of Malcolm Smith as Senate majority leader. Actually, Smith was already toast, even without Monserrate's demand. Getting blindsided by members of your own caucus in your own chamber isn't much of a résumé builder.
Monserrate would only mutter darkly when asked about his gripes with Smith. His sole concrete complaint is that Smith backed Mayor Bloomberg in 2005 over Freddy Ferrer, the first Latino mayoral nominee. "That really burned him up," says a friend. But Monserrate later made his own peace with the mayor, getting friendly enough that Bloomberg's financial alter ego, accountant Martin Geller, wrote a $5,400 check last year to his Senate campaign.
The rumor around Albany last week was that Monserrate's deal with Tom Golisano, the Rochester billionaire who goaded the duo to break from the Democrats, was a pledge of help with his sizable legal expenses. "That was made up out of thin air," said Monserrate. Such aid "would not be wrong or illegal," he said. But there was no such agreement, he insisted. "Never even a conversation."
Even if he beats the criminal case against him, Monserrate's fate seems sealed. His crackpot antics have resulted in a 31-31 deadlock in the Senate. This keeps Republicans from determining legislation, but bars Democrats from moving their own agenda as well. Regardless, he's sure to draw a strong opponent in the 2010 Democratic primary for his Queens seat. "There is no play siding with the Republicans," said a Queens political consultant last week. "You are simply not politically viable."
As for Pedro Espada, it's a crap shoot as to who will be first to indict him. Prosecutors were eyeing the ex-boxer for his use of a phony Bronx address even before Marcia Kramer of WCBS-TV confronted him in April at his real home, a split-level on a leafy Mamaroneck street. Espada heroically hoisted a grandchild to block Kramer's cameras. Proving that a politician lied about his actual residence is a heavy legal lift. But Bronx D.A. Robert Johnson, who's probing the allegations, is highly motivated. Johnson is the prosecutor whose investigation Espada tried to derail back in 1998 when he wore his hidden tape recorder on Democratic and Republican county leaders, among others.
One of Espada's captured conversations was a classic of minor-league political skulduggery: In one fell swoop, he caught Al Sharpton, Larry Seabrook, Congressman José Serrano, and Dick Gidron, the late great Cadillac salesman who was then Bronx County Democratic Party chairman, all discussing how to get Johnson off Espada's case. At one point, Gidron, who died in 2007 after his conviction on tax fraud charges, dials Johnson's number, boasting, "I can resolve this shit easily. Bob is my friend." Fortunately for Johnson, he wasn't around when the call came.
Back then, Johnson was alleging fraud at Espada's Soundview Healthcare empire, the one that currently pays him some $380,000 a year as CEO. Espada, with the help of high-powered defense lawyers Fred Hafetz and Murray Richman, beat the charges at trial. A couple of years later, however, then–Attorney General Eliot Spitzer nailed four of Espada's top aides for funneling funds intended for AIDS victims into his campaigns. Espada later put them right back on the payroll.
Current attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, is now picking up where his predecessor left off. Espada has given him plenty to work with. Senate documents show that Espada tried to steer $2.2 million in state member-item funds into two brand-new nonprofit organizations created in mid-March by cronies. One group was registered at the Long Island home of one of Espada's administrators, the other at one of his health care centers.
The lawyer who incorporated Green ECO Energy—slated to get $875,000 at Espada's request—was Daniel L. Pagano, Espada's election lawyer last year. "Some people Mr. Espada sent to me asked me to incorporate, and I did," Pagano said on Friday. He didn't recall the names. Pagano, a former Conservative Party member from Westchester County who held patronage jobs during the Pataki administration, was also Espada's choice for counsel to the Senate Housing Committee. "I work directly for the chairman; I handle the legislation," he said.
Espada's other election attorney has also prospered. After Espada was appointed as Housing Committee chairman, the two largest landlord organizations—the Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York—hired Stanley Schlein, the Bronx Democratic warhorse, as their lobbyist. Schlein currently receives $8,000 a month from the two groups to lobby his own client on housing matters.
The landlords' biggest concern was a bill to end a Pataki-era law allowing apartment rents to soar when they hit $2,000 a month. The bill would have major impact on Espada's own northern Bronx district, where some 77,000 rent-regulated tenants—most of them Latino—struggle with housing costs and conditions. It was to have been considered at a Tuesday meeting of Espada's committee. Monserrate had promised tenant leaders he had his friend's support for the legislation. Then, on Monday, they pulled their coup, likely squelching tenants' hopes for this session.
Espada's hold on his seat was already shaky. He received less than 5,000 votes—a bare half of 1 percent of registered Democrats—to win his primary last year against an opponent then facing his own fraud charges.
On Friday, dozens of protesters—each of them a likely eager recruit to help defeat Espada next year—marched outside the Sears building on Fordham Road to protest the senator's deceit. The site was chosen because Espada promised months ago to open a district office there. He never bothered. "Espada wouldn't even meet with us," sighed tenant organizer Anderson Fils-Aimé. "He got awards from the landlord groups, but he wouldn't even sit down to talk."
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