In the case of the allegedly bribe-pocketing assemblywoman from East New York, Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes went straight to the videotape last week as he announced her indictment.
The D.A.’s office released a TV-ready DVD containing several conversations recorded between October 2004 and November 2005 with Diane Gordon, 56, who represents one of the city’s poorest sections. On the videos, Gordon is heard telling an unidentified developer exactly how big the house that she wants him to build for her should be, allegedly in return for Gordon’s support of his acquisition of city-owned land worth $2 million in her district.
“Subtle this was not,” commented city investigations commissioner Rose Gill Hearn, whose office launched the probe after a city housing aide reported suspicions of wrongdoing.
On the tapes, Gordon is seen seated in her office beneath a poster of Martin Luther King Jr., apparently spelling out how her support for his project was dependent on the developer building her a new home, to her precise specifications, down to the square footage of the bathrooms.
The three-term assemblywoman appears relaxed and cheerful, as though she were picking out wallpaper patterns at Janovic Plaza. “Um, can it just be a little, I was thinking, maybe a little dark like, y’know, that burgundy wood like this?” she says at one point on the tapes, tapping the desk at which she is seated.
Assemblywoman Diane Gordon
“I want a lot of things,” she tells the developer after he has politely coaxed her into spelling out her needs. “I want these things to be delivered to you where I can get the home almost for little to nothing, and I just pay the taxes. . . . And I don’t want a mortgage. You know what I mean?”
Elsewhere on the videos, Gordon voices a stream of clichés that, despite her plea of not-guilty at her arraignment last week, suggest that she was well aware of how to conduct a mutually beneficial and discreet exchange of favors.
“I see this as, y’know, kind of one hand . . . washing the other,” she says on another tape.
“If you want a dream to come true, you gotta keep your mouth shut,” Gordon says as well. “You show people the dream after it’s finished,” she says, a knowing smile on her face.
She then turns serious and leans toward the developer, her eyebrows arched: “I haven’t even discussed this, to be honest with you, I haven’t said one word to Mr. Headley.”
The developer, who is always out of camera range, agrees with her. “That’s how I would like you to keep it,” he says in a soft South Asian accent.
The reason not to tell “Mr. Headley,” Gordon goes on to say, is because “he’s a person that’s manipulative . . . try to pick things out of you.”
Although he is not mentioned in any of the legal filings made by the D.A. last week, it’s not hard to figure out who Gordon is talking about: DeCosta Headley is a powerhouse in the politics of east Brooklyn. He is a former Democratic Party vice chairman and party district leader who has been a longtime political backer of Gordon.
After becoming a power among Kings County Democrats, Headley went into the development business, where his firm has benefited from his political ties. Diversified Inch by Inch, Headley’s company, has frequently been hired by major developers as a minority subcontractor or joint-venture partner in government-subsidized projects, ranging from the new Baruch College campus in Manhattan to health clinics in Brooklyn.
Last year, while the secret Gordon investigation was underway, Headley was on the verge of winning approval for what would have been one of his biggest projects yet: a 69-apartment, $15 million home for senior citizens on Riverdale Avenue in Brownsville. At the last minute, however, after low-income tax credit financing had been approved by state officials, city housing investigators abruptly pulled the plug on the project, without spelling out their reasons.
“I don’t know what happened, but I know I wasn’t the problem,” Headley said last week in his Court Street office crowded with plaques and photographs of himself with political figures, including Governor Pataki, whom Headley backed for re-election four years ago.
Assemblywoman Diane Gordon
Headley’s partner in the failed senior-citizens deal was a residential housing developer named Ranjan Batheja, whose company, Stoneridge Homes, has built one- and two-family houses in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. Known as “Raj” to friends and associates, Batheja teamed up with Headley several years ago, and the two have built small-homes projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville.
Batheja told the Voice last week that Headley had introduced him to many people on the Brooklyn political scene, including Gordon. Batheja quickly became one of the assemblywoman’s biggest boosters, giving a total of $2,750 to her election campaign committees over a one-year period, making him her largest single contributor.
Last week, the district attorney’s office and the city’s department of investigation refused to identify or discuss the developer in the videotaped discussions with Gordon, other than to acknowledge that his cooperation in carrying a secret mini-camera into the meetings had resulted in the crystal-clear audio and video recordings.
The informant’s identity was one of several questions that remained after the indictment was unveiled. Another was Gordon’s behavior. Hynes said that back in April, after she was confronted with the evidence against her, Gordon had agreed to plead guilty, not run for re-election, and cooperate with the investigation. Her cooperation, however, law enforcement sources said, amounted to little. “No one would talk to her,” said one source. Then last month, Gordon abruptly reneged on the deal and announced she was gathering petition signatures to get on the ballot. The indictment was unsealed a few days later. She faces from five to 15 years if convicted.
“She has pleaded not guilty, she is running for office, she is going to trial,” said Bernard Udell, Gordon’s criminal attorney.
Several sources confirmed to the Voice that Batheja is the unidentified developer, and that his cooperation began only after he was pressured to do so by law enforcement authorities.
In a telephone interview early last week, Batheja denied that he had any part in the Gordon investigation. “I have no knowledge about it, no part in this case,” he said. “Somebody is spreading a rumor. I wasn’t there. It’s not me.” The developer praised Gordon and said he was sorry for her problems. “Diane is a good lady,” he said. After promising to continue talking to the Voice about the matter, Batheja failed to return repeated calls.
He wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to talk about the case. Aside from Gordon, the most politically prominent name included in last week’s indictment was that of Bernard Mitchell Alter, an influential Brooklyn attorney who was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment.
Alter is law partners with State Senator John Sampson, another East New York pol, who ran against Hynes for district attorney last year. Alter was Sampson’s chief campaign adviser in the race, which Sampson lost by just five percentage points. Alter has also served as Gordon’s lawyer. But for a man who almost elected the borough’s next district attorney, Alter had an interesting response to Gordon’s proposal to acquire a new home from the developer, according to statements released by authorities.
“You can’t just give a house away, not to an assemblywoman,” the attorney was heard to say at a June 2005 meeting with Gordon and the developer. “However you guys want to do this afterwards, that’s your business. I don’t want to know nothing about that.”
At a later meeting between Gordon and the developer, the assemblywoman spelled out what she claimed was her attorney’s advice for the deal:
“I talked to the lawyer . . . about that. His suggestion was . . . that I don’t use my name, I use my mom’s name. And I do something like for maybe a $150,000 . . . something that makes sense.”
Tapes released by the D.A. show that, a few months later, Gordon indeed brought her mother to a meeting where the developer handed the older woman $1,000 as a down payment.
The Voice went to Alter’s Court Street law office, located a few floors above that of his friend and client Headley, to ask about his advice to the assemblywoman. Alter, an avid bicyclist, sat on a couch in his office wearing a pink T-shirt and green shorts. “I got nothing to say, no comment,” he said through the half-open door. “I can’t. I got attorney-client privilege to think about.”