Looming trial doesn’t faze inimitable former Bronx senator
On the 10th floor of the Brooklyn federal courthouse, former Bronx Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. waited, in a dark suit with broad white pinstripes and a purple tie, surrounded by his son and five-person legal team.
The February weather was unseasonably warm outside and Espada, facing an 18-count fraud indictment, was immoderately relaxed.
“I feel hopeful about life,” he said with an impish grin, “because I am blessed.”
Aware of his media audience, he launched into a short biographical sketch, detailing how he had grown up on public assistance in the Bronx, fought for everything in his life and would continue to fight.
The 59-year-old former senator hinted at the defense he and his counsel are preparing to present for a trial scheduled to start March 13, after months of delaying tactics that have exasperated prosecutors.
Espada accuses Gov. Andrew Cuomo of a government conspiracy to take him down, and blames his alleged fraud on the Soundview HealthCare Center he helped found, whose board of directors, his defense claims, should have known what he was doing all along.
As he told the Daily News in August, he believes Cuomo has a “personal obsession to take on and dominate my world and my manhood.”
All of this promises what is sure to be an interesting trial. Espada, formerly a master tactician of the Senate whom The New York Times once described as “skilled at exploiting disorder,” seems to thrive in the rules-based world of the courtroom, where common sense occasionally takes a backseat to due process.
Federal prosecutors claim Espada is guilty of embezzling and laundering money through Soundview and two related janitorial-services companies. He and his son, Pedro G. Espada, are accused of stealing millions of dollars from the clinic, which receives more than $1 million annually in Medicare and Medicaid grant funding for its patients. The clinic serves about 20,000 people a year, said the clinic’s director of public affairs, Rachel Fasciani.
Among the allegations Espada faces: pocketing rent from religious organizations trying to use Soundview conference rooms for services, using Soundview funds to pay for pony rides at a relative’s petting-zoo birthday gathering, hiring a ghostwriter with Soundview money for a book Espada thought of writing, making a down payment on a $125,000 Bentley, spending $1,300 on fruit baskets cut to look like floral arrangements and dropping upwards of $100,000 on restaurant meals over four years, including $20,000 at one sushi restaurant in Mamaroneck, the town outside his former Bronx district where he owns a home.
He could face a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment on each of the embezzlement counts and five years for conspiracy, as well as a fine of $250,000 on each count of conviction, a spokesman for the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office said.
When the indictment was first announced in December 2010, then Attorney General Cuomo accused Espada and his son of “secretly siphoning money from a healthcare clinic in order to fund [his] lavish lifestyle.”
For months, Espada’s attorney Susan Necheles (pronounced like “necklace”) and co-counsel have fought back in a war of attrition, filing motions and countermotions to each government filing, withholding discovery documents and pushing for dismissal of the case.
In early February, for instance, prosecutors sought assurances from Judge Frederic Block that Espada couldn’t refer to his theories about personal vendettas or try to sway the jury by arguing that his conviction would hurt Soundview’s patients. Prosecutors also sought to block the defense from arguing that Espada isn’t guilty of fraud because the government should have known he was lying.
The Espada team’s tactics appear to have exasperated prosecutors, who have repeatedly requested that Necheles turn over items required in the discovery phase of the case.
More recently, Espada’s lawyers argued the government committed prosecutorial misconduct when it searched computer records at Soundview because prosecutors may have seen communications between Espada and his attorneys protected by attorney-client confidentiality.
“The government’s egregious actions have violated defendants’ due process rights and irreparably prejudiced them,” Necheles wrote.
She asked the judge to dismiss the entire case, “based on severe government misconduct.” The motion was denied.
As the March 13 trial date approaches, former Soundview employees expected to testify against Espada said that he and his attorney had tried to intimidate them out of testifying against him.
A former employee named Maria Cruz said Espada had withheld $10,000 in vacation and sick-leave pay until the day after the government was required to notify his counsel who was going to be testifying against him. During a recent hearing, as the counsel for both sides argued the fine points of jury selection, Block took a pause from the proceedings to remind the assembled of some basic principles of right and wrong apparently lost in the muddle.
“Fraud is fraud, whether the government is a victim or someone else is,” he said with a note of exasperation. “There is no defense for fraud.”