It is October 14, 2000, and Guy Velella — the ex-state senator and convicted felon who died yesterday at 66 — is in his home base in the north Bronx practicing the fine art of retail politics. Nobody does this better, and the tell-tale silver-streak in his careful pompadour is seen bobbing up and down as he pumps every hand he spots. He is escorting his friend George Pataki on a Saturday afternoon campaign swing. It is up Crosby Avenue and under the el on Westchester. “Say hello to the governor!” Velella hoots to the ladies coming out of George’s Restaurant on the corner.
The politicians are followed by a retinue of aides, kids on bikes, and a single reporter who, never-mind the governor, is there to ask Velella a few questions. It is necessary to track him down here to his Bronx homeland since the veteran senator doesn’t like to get on the phone with the Voice which has dedicated more ink to chronicling his many escapades than any other newspaper.
The opportunity arrives when Pataki is gone and the senator and his followers are trooping back to his district office. The questions have to do with a transcript of a remarkable conversation that appears to be an unblemished description of how raw politics is practiced in the Bronx. The transcript is the alleged product of another rogue politician named Pedro Espada Jr. Espada claims to have been secretly taping his talks with Bronx political powers in a bid to get out from under his own pending corruption indictment.
The transcript has Velella, the Republican county leader, advising Espada that his best bet is to make peace with Democratic party leader Roberto Ramirez in order to get Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson off his back. The Republican boss also graciously offers to do what he can for Espada with his own GOP allies, including former U.S. senator Al D’Amato, the political brains behind the governor.
But there is also the possibility that this is the wily Espada running his own scam on a reporter, which is the reason for the weekend trip to see the senator in person. All Velella has to do is say he doesn’t remember ever having such a conversation with Espada or anyone else, and he doubts he would ever say things like, “With Johnson you’ve got to go through Ramirez.” If he says this, then the document becomes worthless as it is just one man’s word against another.
But Guy Velella makes no bones about it. “Somebody told me he had a tape of me,” he says as he strolls along. “What did I say?” He reads the transcript as he walks. Then he shrugs. “He said he had a problem. I said go see Ramirez. The U.S. attorney? Go see the United States senator. What do you think, I’m stupid? ‘Oh let me go talk to the judge for you?’ I’m a lawyer and that’s illegal. I honestly don’t remember this,” the senator continues, “but I know I talked to him a few times because he wanted me to give him the Republican line to run on.”
The tale of the tape runs a few days later and not one word of carping is heard from Velella about it. Say what you will — and we said plenty over the years — about his finagling on behalf of law clients doing state business, his many underworld allies, and the patronage hacks he foisted upon the taxpayers, Velella, when confronted, was a stand-up guy.
When Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau finally caught him in 2004, the strongest evidence of alleged bribery was against his father and law partner, Vincent Velella, who was 90 years old, wheel-chair bound, and ailing. On the D.A.’s own tapes, Vincent Velella, who started out working for Vito Marcantonio in East Harlem in the 1940s, is heard opening a drawer in his desk and instructing a briber to drop his cash right there.
This was strong evidence and, in exchange for prosecutors dropping the charges against his dad, the son agreed to plead guilty, accept a jail term, and give up his own license to practice law.
On the day of his plea, he wheeled his father into court where he stood in front of a judge and made his admissions. Afterward, he ran a gauntlet of swarming photographers who rushed to capture close-ups of him pushing his old man down Lafayette Street to a waiting car and then awkwardly try to boost him inside. The pictures made every front page the next day.
Jail was hard on Velella — harder than you would’ve thought for someone who liked to hang around with wise guys. But those of us yet to serve our own term in Rikers really have no way of knowing about it. This didn’t stop the tabloids from making great fun. After he got out the first time, he had to go back to jail when a perfectly legal mechanism used to grant him early release became a political embarrassment to the mayor. Since Mike Bloomberg probably wouldn’t have been elected without Guy Velella’s support, that second stint in Rikers was exceptionally painful.
After his release, he gradually worked his way back to the politics he knew. He was hoping this year to mount a modest comeback as a man of some influence among the senate’s new Republican majority. It wasn’t to be. The lung cancer that seized him cheated him out of that chance, just as it cheated a family of a husband, a father, and grandfather several times over, as well as the crowd of friends who will see him off at his wake this weekend at Giordano’s funeral parlor, right there at Crosby and Westchester avenues — the heart of Velella country.