Federal prosecutors allege in a 15-count indictment that City Councilman Angel Rodriguez and a longtime friend, Jonathan Morales, attempted to extort $1.5 million in land, and $50,000 in cash, from a Red Hook developer, Greg O’Connell, a former police detective, in exchange for Rodriguez’s support for a Fairway supermarket that O’Connell wants to bring to the neighborhood.
Rodriguez’s arrest came on the heels of an attempt in January to become City Council Speaker, a post which, had he won it, would have made him the second most powerful man in town.
Felix Palacios, a former Rodriguez aide who campaigned for him in 1997 and 2001, scoffs at the extortion charges against the councilman: “You don’t run for the highest office in the City Council, for Speaker, and then turn around and do this. It just doesn’t make sense, it’s crazy.”
Palacios portrays Rodriguez as a man who often worked 70 hours a week for his community, beating back Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s plans to put a 6000-ton-a-day waste-transfer station in Red Hook in 1999 and lobbying vigorously for more affordable housing in Red Hook.
And Rodriguez says, “You’ve heard one side of the story. I expect to be fully vindicated.”
Palacios says that Rodriguez and O’Connell locked horns almost from the beginning over Red Hook and how best to develop the neighborhood. The meetings with O’Connell quickly fell into a pattern.”Greg was going to come in and rail and rant that they [the undeveloped properties] belong to him.” O’Connell would unroll blueprints “and start banging on the table,” says Palacios, who believes that it angered the developer “to think that someone else had a right to approach the [Fairway] project.”
Palacios recalls one meeting when officials from the mayor’s office and the Economic Development Corporation met with Rodriguez to push O’Connell’s plans for a commercial renovation of the warehouse at 480 Van Brunt Street, where the controversial Fairway is to be located. The city officials “walked out a little bit in disarray,” recalls Palacios, because Rodriguez spoke convincingly of putting housing at the site.
Residents of Red Hook, who oppose the Van Brunt Fairway fearing traffic congestion, say they were worried when Rodriguez began to waver in his opposition to the supermarket in the fall. By January, Edie Stone, a resident who fought the waste-transfer station with Rodriguez, says that he began to speak of making a compromise on the deal. In a now famous incident, Rodriguez and O’Connell confronted each other outside a Community Board 6 meeting being held in Brooklyn Borough Hall. Federal prosecutors say Rodriguez handed O’Connell two quarters at that time, a reminder, they say, of the $50,000 bribe O’Connell promised to pay for Rodriguez’s support.
Stone, who has no knowledge of what the two men talked about outside the meeting, recalls O’Connell leaving the room, followed by Rodriguez. The developer later returned, again followed by the councilman. Stone recalls the developer looked angry, while Rodriguez affected a lighthearted tone.
“I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was giving Greg shit,” Stone recalled. “Who knows, maybe he did get greedy,” speculates Stone. “But I could see Greg saying to him, ‘Hey, Angel, you have a future beyond the council. If I sell you these buildings below market value, who’s ever going to know why?’ ”
Maybe Rodriguez did have his eye on a higher office—maybe challenging Nydia Velasquez for her seat in Congress. But his failure to get the support to become Council Speaker should have been a wake-up call—it was a strong indicator that he’d made enemies with people and groups he claimed to support.
It’s been nearly a decade since a City Council member was indicted on criminal charges. In 1994, Bronx Councilmember Rafael Castaneira-Colon was convicted of stealing $383,000 in public funds after padding his payroll with non-existent employees. He finished out his council term, pled guilty to grand larceny charges, and served two years in prison.
For some residents of the 38th District in Brooklyn, the real way in which Rodriguez wielded power became clear on a December night in 1999. That evening, Rodriguez walked the 30 feet between his Sunset Park district office and the Community Board 7 meeting room to confront the board chairperson, Bea DeSapio. With him was Sara Gonzalez, a Lutheran Medical Hospital administrator and the councilman’s chosen successor for the board chairmanship. It was time for payback for CB7.
Six months earlier the board had defied the councilman and voted against a proposal to tear down the Gowanus Expressway and replace it with an underground tunnel. The board members, led by DeSapio, were concerned about losing local businesses and homes to such a massive transportation project. But Rodriguez supported the tunnel and he would brook no disagreement. Two months after Gonzalez was elected, Rodriguez began removing the board members who had voted against the tunnel plan. For good measure, he replaced the district manager.
While City Council members exercise tremendous control over their local community boards—they get to fill half of the 50 slots—Rodriguez was known for his persistence in settling old scores.
“If there was any dissension or disagreement, you were removed. Rodriguez was very autocratic,” recalls Gene Moore, the former CB7 district manager.
Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, which deals with social justice issues, says the group has always had an adversarial relationship with Rodriguez. While her group fought the imposition of a new power plant in Sunset Park in 2000, Rodriguez was the only politician who did not publicly testify against it. Yet when he ran for reelection in 2001, Rodriguez told Gotham Gazette, an election Web site: “I vigorously opposed the power plant, but they [the New York State Power Authority] basically got around the regulations.”
Back in 1996, when Rodriguez first ran for district leader in Sunset Park, his hardscrabble life seemed tailor-made for politics. He grew up in Williamsburg, went to public schools, and was raised by a mother who relied on welfare to get by when she wasn’t working in the garment industry. After high school he went to the College of Staten Island, got a degree in accounting, and opened a CPA business in Williamsburg.
After being elected district leader, Rodriguez ran for the 38th District council seat the following year, backed by Assemblyman Felix Ortiz. In the campaign’s last week, flyers appeared which made crude references to the candidates’ ethnicities. The flyers took specific aim at Rodriguez, and there was speculation that they were put out by Rodriguez supporters to win sympathy votes from Sunset Park Puerto Ricans.
“Basically, what they served to do was point out who in the campaign was of Puerto Rican descent” and who wasn’t, recalls Lew Fidler, the district leader and city councilman from Marine Park. “It was the political equivalent of gay baiting.”
Palacios says the councilman had nothing to do with the racist literature.
In light of the indictment against Rodriguez, City Council colleagues are rethinking past conversations with Rodriguez, and what import they may have. After Rodriguez failed in his bid for City Council Speaker in January, he tried for leadership of the Brooklyn delegation. At the time, says Fidler, the Fairway project had not yet been voted on by the City Council. “Angel told me, I still have things to do,” says Fidler. “Now you look back and think, gee, I wonder what he meant.”