October 21, 2010
The other shoe dropped Tuesday for Hiram Monserrate. The first State Senator to be expelled from that body since 1781, Monserrate was indicted by a Federal grand jury for using employees of a non-profit group he sponsored while a City Councilmember to labor on behalf of his unsuccessful campaign for the State Senate in 2006.
The sixteen-page indictment, which you can read here, is summarized on p21 of Wednesday's New York Times by William K. Rashbaum and Fernanda Santos. The two federal charges against Monserrate stem from his relationship with the Latino Initiative for Better Resources and Empowerment Inc., known by its acronym LIBRE, a now defunct social services agency to which Monserrate was closely linked. He secured City funding for LIBRE to operate.
The indictment alleges that Monserrate used employees of the tax-exempt organization to register voters and collect signatures to get him on the ballot in his failed bid for Senate against John Sabini in 2006.
In 2008, the Queens County Democratic organization switched its support from Sabini to Monserrate in the predominantly Latino district, Sabini was accommodated with a six-year term as chairman of the State Racing and Wagering Board, and Monserrate was elected Senator.
However, he was unable to complete his term, having been expelled in February 2010, ostensibly for slashing his girlfriend with a broken glass, although the court found that allegation unproven. His greater sin was joining renegade Senator and hospitalier Pedro Espada in an attempted coup that tied up the State Senate for over a month. Although the standoff led to the appointment of Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch, it left the Senate, and the two plotters, lower in public esteem. Espada returned to the fold when rewarded by the Democrats with the position, lulu and staff of the majority leader, but all his power and influence went to Senator John Sampson of Brooklyn, the new Democratic conference leader.
LIBRE is the latest nonprofit to come under scrutiny for its subordination to the elected official who secured its funding. It joins the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, founded by Vito Lopez, and Espada's Soundview Health Center in the Bronx. Monserrate's relationship with LIBRE was intimate. Over his seven years in the Council (2002-2008), Monserrate steered more than $2.7 million in City discretionary and capital funds to LIBRE, including more than $2 million for a community center, which was never built.
Monserrate's connection with LIBRE ran deeper than money. According to the indictment, Monserrate "played an important role in selecting LIBRE's staff and the members of its board of directors", including the chair of LIBRE's board of directors from 2005 through 2007, its interim executive director in 2005, and its executive director from late 2005 through early 2007. According to a 2008 article in the Times by Russ Buettner and Serge Kovaleski "Dysfunction at a Charity That Relies on Council Largesse", Monserrate also negotiated the lease for LIBRE's former office.
The chair of LIBRE's board of directors alluded to in the indictment is current Councilmember Julissa Ferreras, Monserrate's former chief of staff and his hand-picked successor for his former Council seat which he resigned when he was elected to the Senate. For those who have not followed Queens politics, it would be understandable to overlook the connection between Ferreras and Monserrate. Ferreras carefully distanced herself from Monserrate during her February 2009 campaign to replace him on the Council, presumably because at the time he was under investigation for slashing his girlfriend's face.
Currently, Ferreras lists no mention of her association with Monserrate or LIBRE in her bio on the City Council's website, despite the fact that they were her principal qualifications for election. Leaving Monserrate off her resume, for whom she began working in 2001 as his campaign manager and then, following his election, as his chief of staff, makes for a gaping lacuna in Councilmember Ferrerass resume.
Chronologically, the most recent accomplishment she claims on her Council bio prior to her term in office is her appointment by former Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette and Congressman Joseph Crowley to serve as a New York State delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention, a decade ago.
Monserrate's relationship with Ferreras has soured along with his political and personal fortunes since he appeared at her 2009 victory party. Last month, Ferreras claimed that Monserrate was responsible for the slashing of her tires, several vulgar notes left on her car, and an assortment of other allegations of harassment.
It does not appear from published reports that Ferreras ever filed formal charges against Monserrate. Councilmember Ferreras failed to return several phone calls seeking comment and clarifications for this column, but she did issue a statement to the media saying that she has "been cooperating with authorities from the very beginning."
The newly unsealed indictment implicates not only Monserrate, who surrendered to authorities Tuesday morning, it alleges a conspiracy where others colluded with Monserrate to skirt the campaign finance laws by illegally using LIBRE resources and employees to fund and support his State Senate runs in 2005 and 2006. The co-conspirators are unnamed in the indictment, but presumably one of the people involved is former LIBRE executive director Javier Cardenas, who Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced yesterday had pleaded guilty to conspiracy and mail-fraud charges and is cooperating against Monserrate.
Celeste Katz reported in the Daily News that "federal prosecutors subpoenaed and questioned several former members of [Monserrate's] Senate staff, including Wayne Mahlke and Luis Castro, about Monserrate's dealings with LIBRE."
Mahlke, who is Monserrate's former chief of staff, was arrested in May of this year in an incident unrelated to the indictment for "possessing a forged police placard and for failing to obey a police officer after hurling an insult at the officer." Castro has been identified in news reports as a former campaign consultant to Monserrate.
According to the indictment, around May 2006, Monserrate sent an email from a personal email account to an unnamed member of his Council staff requesting a database of voters LIBRE had newly registered, apparently at Monserrate's request. A month or two later, "Monserrate stamped numerous LIBRE checks that were thereafter issued to individuals who had participated in LIBRE's voter-registration and petition-gathering activities with a signature stamp of the person who was then the chair of LIBRE's board of directors." In an article on The Queens Courier's website, reporter Steve Mosco identifies the chair of LIBRE's board of directors at the time as Councilmember Ferreras.
The check stamping allegation, which is detailed in the indictment, raises the question of who really was in charge of LIBRE's finances. In an October 18, 2008 Times article by Ray Rivera about Libre's suspiciously slipshod accounting practices, entitled "Group Spent City's Money, but Has Not Shown How", Monserrate referred all questions about LIBRE's accounting practices to Ferreras, saying, "She's the person to have the conversation with," he said. "I wasn't the director. I don't know what paperwork was there, what books were there."
Contacted at the time by Rivera for comment, Ferreras said LIBRE's records were in the organization's offices. "I personally don't keep the records," Ferreras told the Times.
As Monserrate's case advances it is likely that we will learn more about LIBRE and what, if anything, Councilmember Ferreras knew about his former boss's alleged manipulation of the nonprofit. What is for certain is that no matter how hard Speaker Christine Quinn tries to leave the slush fund scandal in the Council's past, the investigation is still very much ongoing and just how many of her members were involved is still yet to be determined. Another Councilman who was elevated to chair the Civil Rights Committee, Larry Seabrook of the Bronx, is currently under a 13-count indictment for a litany of corruption charges, and former Councilmember Miguel Martinez of Manhattan is already serving time in Federal prison.
It gives us no satisfaction to watch one elected official after another done in by their greed and contempt for the law. This parade of corrupt politicians denigrates New Yorkers' faith in local government, and further degrades the reputation of the City Council and its leader, who is supposed to look out for this sort of thievery.
We continue to encourage our prosecutors, Federal, State and Local, to pursue every elected official who has abused the public trust until all of them are rooted out. Regrettably, the only way to keep some of our legislators' hands out of our pockets is with handcuffs.