Last Updated: 2:29 AM, March 20, 2012
Posted: 1:06 AM, March 20, 2012
They asked too many questions.
Pedro Espada Jr.’s defense lawyer desperately tried to damage a key witness against the Bronx politician yesterday — but the former exec for the Bronx health clinic that Espada is accused of ripping off held her ground and the strategy backfired.
Espada’s attorney made matters worse by infuriating the judge presiding over the ex-state senator’s embezzlement trial in Brooklyn federal court by repeatedly talking about documents that neither the jurist nor prosecutors had been provided copies of.
“Do you have any idea why I’m having such a difficult time with this trial?” Judge Frederic Block fumed to the lawyer, Susan Necheles.
“Are you intentionally trying to cloud my mind?” Block blasted, accusing Necheles of introducing a “distracting” amount of paperwork. “Don’t do that!”
Necheles had no better luck cross-examining the witness, Maria Cruz, who for years was head of personnel at Soundview Healthcare Network — the Bronx nonprofit group that Espada is accused of looting to the tune of $500,000 to fund his lavish lifestyle.
“You’re making this all up, aren’t you?” Necheles asked Cruz regarding her testimony from last week.
An unflappable Cruz calmly replied, “No, I’m not,” leaving Necheles to move on to another point.
Cruz, a key witness against her former boss, had testified last week about a scheme in which Soundview rented out conference rooms and other spaces to medical professionals, religious groups and others in buildings that Soundview controlled.
Instead of Soundview getting paid rent, those payments — for a decade — were made to Espada and his son Pedro Gautier Espada, and to a for-profit cleaning company called CEDC that the younger Espada controlled, prosecutors claim.
An indictment said the former Senate majority leader and his son stole more than $200,000 in rent payments from Soundview, which is a taxpayer-supported charity, from 2005 through 2009.
That money was allegedly used, along with other funds looted from Soundview, to pay for lobster and sushi dinners, birthday parties, spa treatments, cars and other perks that benefited the Espadas and their clan — not the poor people of The Bronx whom the charity was supposed to serve, prosecutors charge.
Under cross-examination by Necheles about this alleged scheme, Cruz freely admitted her own guilt in handling the cash from it and depositing it in banks for Espada’s use.
“I knew what I was doing was criminal,” said Cruz. “I collected rent [for the scheme] from before 2000.”
“I knew what I was doing was a crime, but I didn’t want to lose my job,” she said.
“Mr. Espada always said that it [the inquiry into his practices] was a witch hunt and that it was his company and that I wouldn’t get into trouble,” Cruz said.
Cruz testified that after she became aware of the federal criminal probe into Espada, she voluntarily presented herself to investigators.
“I thought to myself, ‘Let me go in and meet with them and see how I can help,’ ” Cruz answered Necheles.
Additional reporting by Mitchel Maddux