“It’s like one of those moments, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ ” Barbato recalled Wednesday on the witness stand at the federal corruption trial of Annabi and Zehy Jereis. “My response was: ‘Oh Sandy. Oh no. Don’t do that.’ ”
The two and John Murtagh were the opponents of Ridge Hill on the seven-member council and the developer, Forest City Ratner, needed one of them to switch their vote because a supermajority, or five votes, was needed for approval.
Annabi changed her vote after the developer promised a $10 million payment to the city and $500,000 for a traffic mitigation study.
Barbato and Murtagh both testified Wednesday that they had no idea that Annabi had a financial relationship with Jereis, a former chairman of the Yonkers Republican Party, and that Jereis was getting a consulting job with the developer.
But Murtagh said that he wished he had had that information at the time.
“If someone is influencing (a council member) in some way, it’s something I’d want to know as a councilman and something the public has a right to know,” Murtagh said.
Annabi and Jereis, distant cousins, are charged with conspiracy, bribery and extortion and she is also accused of lying on mortgage applications and filing false tax returns.
Prosecutors contend that Jereis controlled Annabi by giving her $174,000 over several years for car payments, utility bills, downpayments on homes and monthly maintenance fees.
In return, Annabi voted in favor of two projects — Ridge Hill and the Longfellow housing project that was later scrapped — that she had initially opposed.The defense maintains there was no quid pro quo between the payments and Annabi’s votes — that Jereis gave her the money because he hoped she would have a romantic relationship with him.
Annabi changed her mind about Ridge Hill because she thought the $10 million offer was “the best the city could get,” her lawyer, William Aronwald, said in opening statements last week.
Barbato represented the 6th District, where Ridge Hill is, and was never expected to support the project.
She said that the money that swayed Annabi wasn’t “chump change” but that considering what Ridge Hill might have contributed to the city if it got no tax breaks — she estimated as much as $270 to $300 million — the $10 million was a “pittance,” a “one-shot” typical of the modest infusions the city seeks just to tide it over until the next fiscal crisis.
She said she thought Annabi would remain opposed after telling her in the fall of 2005 that she shared Barbato’s concerns with the project’s finances and environmental issues. “She stated she would not support the project until I was satisfied and my constituents were satisfied,” said Barbato, who served on the council until 2010.
And after a May 2006 meeting with the developer’s representatives at the Westchester Country Club, Barbato recalled, Annabi was still in the fold.
“I recall Sandy saying ‘if we stick together we can do this thing. We can get what we wanted,’ ” Barbato said.
She told Aronwald that her relationship with Annabi had cooled after the crucial vote.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Halperin, concerned jurors might think her testimony was some kind of payback for the flip-flop on Ridge Hill, asked Barbato if she had any animosity toward Annabi.
“Absolutely none,” Barbato responded. “I’ve always been fond of Sandy and I’m still fond of Sandy.”
Murtagh, who lost the race for Yonkers mayor in the fall, served on the council through last year and is now a lawyer in White Plains.
He said Forest City Ratner’s lobbyist Albert Pirro presented him the same $10 million offer as Annabi in 2006, but he was unswayed because the city would have needed more money.
“It was essentially meaningless,” Murtagh said of the offer. “You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. $10 million is $10 million. But it in no way addressed” all the concerns of opponents.
He conceded there were circumstances when legislators change their votes, often after negotiations and concessions are made.
Aronwald asked Murtagh if he knew whether Annabi “ever got a penny” for her votes on Ridge Hill and Longfellow.
“No. I have no knowledge of that at all,” Murtagh answered.
Jereis’ lawyer, Anthony Siano, got Murtagh and Barbato to acknowledge that they had supported Jereis as GOP chair manand that he had helped their respective campaigns.
Siano showed Barbato four checks totaling $795 in campaign contributions Jereis had given her and thank-you letters she sent him for his support.
Halperin, on redirect, asked her how many times Jereis had paid her student loans, or utility bills, or other items.“Never,” Barbato said.