U.S. Investigates Yonkers Development After Official’s Surprising ‘Yes’ Vote
YONKERS — For years, City Councilwoman Sandy Annabi of Yonkers was among the most vigorous critics of an enormous $600 million development proposal that called for 1,000 housing units, shops and a movie multiplex in the cliffs here over Sprain Lake.
She complained in late 2005 that the developer, Forest City Ratner, was “probably richer than God,” did not need tax breaks and was “robbing the city blind.” And she was the lead plaintiff in a 2005 lawsuit against the city, objecting to its approval process.
So the next summer, it stunned the Yonkers political and business establishment when Ms. Annabi provided the crucial fifth vote on the seven-member Council that the courts made clear Ratner needed to proceed.
Now, as bulldozers zip around the 81-acre parcel known as Ridge Hill, intended as an upscale oasis within a city looking to shed its past as a faded factory town, federal prosecutors are investigating the development deal and leaning toward indicting Ms. Annabi, a 37-year-old Democrat, on corruption charges or other misconduct, according to a person involved in the investigation.
Subpoenas, which began as a trickle last year, are arriving more frequently, demanding city records including Ms. Annabi’s e-mail messages dating back to 2004 and financial disclosure forms. Several people who have been interviewed by prosecutors say their questions have concerned not just Ridge Hill but also recent increases in water rates, building and inspection fees and other development deals.
Ms. Annabi’s lawyer said she had done nothing wrong, and the councilwoman has previously said that a change in the tax structure of the deal led to her change of heart. A spokesman for Forest City Ratner said the company — which partnered with The New York Times to build its new headquarters — was cooperating with the investigation.
To the political and legal cognoscenti in Yonkers, the length and breadth of the inquiry suggests that it must extend beyond Ms. Annabi’s about-face, and perhaps far beyond Yonkers’ 18 square miles to some of Westchester County’s leading power brokers.
Investigators have inquired about Zehy Jereis, the former chairman of the Republican Party here and a distant relative of Ms. Annabi’s — and subpoenaed his financial disclosure forms, though city officials said they had none to turn over. Prosecutors have asked about Albert J. Pirro Jr., a former lobbyist for Forest City Ratner and the estranged husband of Westchester’s former district attorney, Jeanine F. Pirro.
And they have also questioned whether former State Senator Nicholas A. Spano, whose ability to find money in Albany for Yonkers has long made him a Republican legend, or his brother Mike Spano, a Democratic assemblyman who worked as a lobbyist for Ratner between terms in Albany, exerted any undue influence.
“Most of my conversations with my fellow council members revolve around the common themes that we’d like this investigation to be resolved, so that the cloud of suspicion is lifted and we can continue on with the business of governing,” said Chuck Lesnick, the City Council president, one of at least half a dozen current or former council members who have been interviewed in the investigation.
Mr. Pirro did not return calls left at his office, and his lawyer declined to comment. Mr. Jereis did not return calls. Both Spano brothers said they had had no contact with the authorities. Nicholas, who is weighing another run for his old Senate seat, said he was not troubled by the specter of a far-flung investigation; Mike said he had done nothing more than speak to some of the holdouts on the City Council about their qualms on Ridge Hill and relay them to the developers.
Yonkers, a gritty city of nearly 200,000 bordering the Bronx, is well versed in political scandals, having endured an embezzlement case more than a decade ago at its industrial development agency and the more recent conviction of a school superintendent who put his daughter’s boyfriend on the payroll.
Many prominent current and former politicians in New York State trace their roots to Yonkers, where party ties and personal loyalty often matter less than the ability to cut a deal. Mayor Philip A. Amicone, a Republican, had the backing of some leading Democrats for his re-election last fall, but not of the previous Republican mayor, whom he had served as deputy.
With more than a fifth of the population of Westchester County, Yonkers occupies a central place in the economic health of the region, and Ridge Hill, on the city’s northern fringe, was viewed by some as a long-awaited answer to many prayers. Promoters say it will create 4,000 permanent jobs and generate some $20 million a year in property, sales and income tax revenues for Yonkers. But from the start, some questioned the way the project was fast-tracked.
“I was not surprised that the F.B.I. started to look into it, because not only this development project but many development projects in Yonkers have some questionable activities surrounding them,” said Deirdre Hoare, a resident who lives within a mile of the bulldozers.
Ms. Hoare said she was glad to learn that the investigation had widened to include another deal she opposed, in which the city agreed to trade two vacant schools for land owned by a local developer, Franco Milio, that it wanted in order to widen a road. Mr. Milio did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Ms. Annabi, a midlevel executive at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Yonkers who was first elected to the Council in 2001, was once among those critics. At one public meeting, residents recalled, she asked, incredulously, How could the city sell Mr. Milio two schools for less than the price of the soft drink in her hand?
So when she cast the deciding vote to approve Ridge Hill, “people were asking questions,” said Ken Jenkins, chairman of the Yonkers Democratic Party: “Wait a minute, you were so vocally against this group of individuals and now you changed your mind. Why?”
Ms. Annabi declined to be interviewed for this article, but her lawyer, Murray Richman, said: “My client is totally innocent of any wrongdoing. She’s a young woman working very hard for her community. That’s it.”
In a news release at the time of her vote switch, Ms. Annabi cited 11th-hour negotiations with Ratner over property taxes, in which she said she was able to wring out millions of additional dollars. Later, it became clear that some of the promised riches had little chance of being paid because of fine print in contracts that Ms. Annabi said she never saw.
Ms. Annabi, who is of Jordanian descent, has defied skeptics since she beat a Hispanic incumbent in a district divided roughly equally among whites, blacks and Hispanics a few weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
She had survived rivals’ circulating fliers highlighting the fact that her father, Sami Annabi, was convicted of heroin trafficking when she was a child. (Her mother, Maysoun, also went to prison after federal wiretaps caught her using code words like “cheese” and “olives” to conduct international drug deals.)
Today, her parents live in a tidy three-bedroom house on Bacon Street, on which Ms. Annabi took out mortgages totaling $522,000 several years ago and represented that it would be her primary residence. For a time, she had a mortgage of a similar size on another house she owned in Yonkers, and in 2005 she bought a co-op on Rumsey Road with the help of a loan.
People involved in the inquiry said that the authorities had expressed curiosity about how she could afford multiple mortgages and drive a white Mercedes convertible on her hospital salary and the $41,000 she earns as a council member. One person interviewed, who insisted on anonymity to avoid angering prosecutors, said that the first question the assistant United States attorney, Perry Carbone, asked him last month was, “Where does Sandy Annabi live?”
The person said he told prosecutors that as far as he knew, she lived on Rumsey Road. He left thinking that the authorities might be trying to gain Ms. Annabi’s cooperation in the wider investigation by threatening to prosecute her for misconduct related to the mortgages, a theory echoed by others involved in the investigation.
People questioned by investigators said they were peppered with queries about Ms. Annabi’s relationship with Mr. Jereis, the former Yonkers Republican chairman, who has landed a series of jobs working for powerful Republicans. Those include a position as a $69,000-a-year executive assistant to Nicholas Spano when he was state senator, and a $57,000-a-year job at the Westchester County Board of Elections, despite a previous misdemeanor for falsely witnessing nominating petitions in 1988. Mr. Jereis was a frequent donor to local political campaigns — but not Ms. Annabi’s 2005 re-election.
City and party officials say Mr. Jereis, who owns a car wash in Brooklyn, often took credit for Ms. Annabi’s votes, though often all he did was call her up, ask what she thought about some issue and then brag that he had steered the result. “What Zehy would do is act like he could influence her and control Sandy, and Sandy was very independent,” said Mr. Jenkins.
In response to a subpoena last year, city officials told prosecutors that the Yonkers Board of Ethics did not have any financial disclosure documents on file from Mr. Jereis when he was head of the local Republican Party, from 2003 to 2007.
Investigators have also taken a keen interest in Mr. Pirro’s contacts with council members over Ridge Hill, according to people who have been interviewed by the authorities.
One meeting Mr. Pirro arranged at the Westchester Country Club included two representatives from Forest City and three of the Council’s holdouts on Ridge Hill: Ms. Annabi and two Republicans, John Murtagh and Dee Barbato. Ms. Annabi has said that anyone who attended that meeting would know that she and Mr. Pirro are not chummy; she has said that he cursed her under his breath that day.
Mr. Pirro gave Ms. Annabi’s campaign $250 in early 2005, one of several similar contributions he or his firm made that year to Yonkers officials.
A person involved in the investigation said that prosecutors had also questioned Dennis Robertson, a former Democratic mayoral candidate in Yonkers, about a February 2005 conversation in which Mr. Pirro expressed confidence that he could win Ms. Annabi’s support as long as he made Mr. Jereis happy.
Mr. Robertson, a longtime Ridge Hill supporter who was on the City Council from 2004 until January, said he told authorities he had never interceded on Mr. Pirro’s behalf with Ms. Annabi.
While officials sort through the various versions of events, and construction workers prepare for Ridge Hill’s opening next year, the residents here can only wonder whether this latest effort to bolster the city’s economy will proceed smoothly to completion.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Martin McGloin, a community activist. “I could write this as a cheap Hollywood novel.”