Thursday, March 22, 2012

Yonkers corruption case goes to jury after vastly different accounts from Jereis's lawyer, prosecutor

Rashomon at Ridge Hill moved toward a close yesterday in the Yonkers corruption trial: the lawyer for defendant Zehy Jereis conducted a powerful attack on the government's witnesses, while a prosecutor, in rebuttal, scoffed at the defense.

And after U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon delivered lengthy jury instructions in the afternoon, the jury this morning will begin deliberating on the fate of Jereis, former chairman of the Yonkers Republican Party, and his "political creation" (in the words of one witness), former Council Member Sandy Annabi.

"Are we ready?" McMahon asked Anthony Siano, the attorney for Jereis, charged with giving some $174,000 over seven years to Annabi. Prosecutors say it was to control Annabi politically, leading to her changed votes in favor of Forest City Ratner's massive Ridge Hill project and Milio Management's smaller Longfellow development. Jereis says it was desire.

"Oh yes, Your Honor," replied Siano.

He proceeded to deliver a theatrical performance, modulating his voice from righteous anger to sarcasm to faux wonder. There was no piece of evidence--conversation, email, document--that confirmed the alleged corrupt agreement, Siano insisted.

In rebuttal, a prosecutor responded to nearly everything raised by Siano and by Annabi's defense attorney, William Aronwald, but left one choice detail un-addressed: was there any other explanation for Jereis's dramatic makeover--losing 150 pounds, getting his teeth fixed--than his pursuit of Annabi?

And just as a prosecutor implicitly criticized Forest City Ratner for giving Jereis a no-show job after Annabi's vote, so Siano criticized the developer for pushing through payments to Jereis without questioning why he hadn't delivered the reports required by his consulting contract.

(Here's coverage in the New York Times and Journal News. Here's my coverage in New York magazine's Daily Intel.)

Targeting Mangone

Siano focused on Anthony Mangone, an admitted liar and felon who was originally charged with Jereis and Annabi and cut his losses by pleading guilty and agreeing to testify in the case. Siano called Mangone "the most interesting witness," because he was "so comprehensively and obviously unworthy of belief."

Siano harshly criticized the government for relying on a witness like Mangone. The cooperating agreement Mangone signed, Siano said, was no guarantee of truth, but rather a "ticket out of his indictment."

Siano cited "massive conflicts" between Mangone's account of the case to investigators in 2008, before he agreed to cooperate, and then in 2010. Mangone was a "degenerate gambler," admitted abuser of alcohol and drugs, and an admitted briber of public officials.

"Without Anthony Mangone's testimony, you do not have to spend any time paying attention to the Longfellow project," he said. Crucially, when Mangone said he got a bribe from the Milios, the developers of the Longfellow project, they were out of the country.

The government could have checked Mangone's gambling records in Atlantic City and Homeland Security, Siano said. They didn't. He suggested the government is "taking small packets of fact and building sand castles of fiction."

And if the government would go after Jereis's lie about not admitting an election law violation when he applied to be a notary public, "wouldn't you expect they would go find where the Milios were and what Mangone did with the money?"

"These men represent the United States of America," Siano declared, indicating the prosecutors and the FBI agent next to them. "Look at not just my client's misguided passion but look at the lust they demonstrated to point the finger at Zehy Jereis and Sandy Annabi."

At the word "lust," Assistant U.S. Attorney Perry Carbone raised an objection, which was quickly shut down by McMahon.

Fleecing the Milios?

As to the alleged $20,000 Mangone passed on to Jereis for Annabi, Siano said, "Mr. Mangone had better uses for whatever money he got out of the Milios than passing it on to anyone else."

"There is no payoff at Longfellow," he argued. "Mangone took the money. He fleeced the Milios." The evidence? A trip to Atlantic City where Mangone "pushed cash through the window."

He then went after Antonio and Franco Milio, the father and son who have admitted to tax evasion and a rather casual attitude toward "tipping" municipal officials.

"Any time using cash allowed the Milios to get an edge, they did," Siano said. As for their interaction with Mangone, he said, "they're not victims."

As one example of the Milios' attempt to gain an edge, Siano pointed to how patriarch Antonio testified via an Italian interpreter. But there was no evidence Milio had done business in Italian, Siano said, and "he revealed he could actually speak English."

In a booming voice, Siano sardonically quoted Carbone: "All roads to Sandy Annabi went through Zehy Jereis." But Al DelBello, the original attorney for the Milios, got to meet with Annabi.

The Ridge Hill case

So did Forest City Ratner lobbyist (and now Yonkers mayor) Mike Spano get to meet with Annabi, though--Siano didn't point out--he was unable to get Annabi to meet with Forest City governmental relations executive Bruce Bender.

"There's also evidence Mr. Annabi's boss... told her, I'm your employer, I like Ridge Hill,'" Siano said. (Actually Forest City's Bruce Bender said only he'd gotten Annabi's contact info from her employer at St. Joseph's Hospital.) "Does anyone in the jury box appreciate how much pressure that puts on a public official? No, that's not what the government chooses to focus on."

Siano scoffed at Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Halperin's opening statement in February, in which he predicted that the trial would illuminate what the public never knew. "Did you hear that going to Jake's or Madison's [two restaurants where Annabi and Jereis met with Forest City officials] was what their case was about?" Siano asked.

Prosecutor Carbone, pointed out Siano, had called Ridge Hill a "doomed and desperate project." But Forest City Ratner had put a "massive amount of time" and money into the project, Siano said. (The project may not have been doomed, but Forest City officials were close to desperate.)

Siano argued two trial witnesses took two completely independent actions to set in motion the sequence leading to Annabi's vote. He repeated sardonically Carbone's description of "government by Zehy Jereis, government for Zehy Jereis."

Setting Ridge Hill in motion

While there were four of seven votes on the City Council for Ridge Hill, the project needed a five-member supermajority because it was opposed by a county planning board.

That would change, Siano said. The new City Council President, Chuck Lesnick, announced his support for the project and his intention to seek a fifth vote to satisfy the supermajority but, if not, would have the supermajority requirement overturned by August 2006.

Then, Siano said, Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lentol called his friend Bender, "pimping" him--teasing him--about the company's struggles faced by Ridge Hill. Then Lentol brought his friend, Joe Galimi, to lunch with Bender and colleague Scott Cantone at Marco Polo Ristorante in Brooklyn, and Galimi brought his friend, Jereis.

"The author of the meeting at Marco Polo is Joe Lentol," Siano declared. (Unexplained is how and why Lentol was aware and interested in the first place.)

Changing Annabi's vote

Jereis at that Marco Polo meeting agreed to bring Annabi to a meeting with the Forest City executives, held a week later. Siano scoffed at the notion that the fact that Annabi's attendance at that 6/9/06 meeting constituted the government's case. "There still has to be a corrupt understanding," he said.

Forest City offered Annabi $10.8 million in additional payments over three years. That was "peanuts," according to one witness, former Council Member Dennis Robertson, a project supporter. He pointed to an exchange of emails between Bender and boss Bruce Ratner. "The money was real," Siano said.

(It was real, but the question is how burdensome it was for a project that would cost more than $600 million.)

"There's no proof from any witness that there was anything else that drove Ms. Annabi's decision," Siano said.

As for Jereis's request at the end of that meeting to Forest City, Siano ssaid, "Mr. Jereis wanted a job. Mr. Jereis wanted to work for an $11 billion company. Are we startled he did not want to continue to work for Mr. [Kevin] Cacace?"

Kevin Cacace headed the Yonkers Chamber of Commerce, and hired Jereis after the latter left the employ of Senator Nick Spano. (The prosecution had argued that it was because Jereis's name surfaced in a criminal trial; the defense said it was for Jereis to work on Spano's re-election campaign.)

Cacace testified Jereis did not deliver the government support needed. But Cacace had made political enemies, Siano said. And while Cacace testified that he pressed Jereis for reports, he admitted that he neither stopped paying Jereis nor firing him.

As to hiring Jereis, Siano suggested, "Forest City Ratner knew how to say no. They said no to Joe Galimi." To Jereis, they said, in Siano's recounting, "We don't know, send us a resume."

And, as to Jereis's no-show job, Siano fingered the developer for paying Jereis $5,000 a month for three months: "Long before anyone demanded reports, the people at Forest City Ratner were asking and demanding and insisting that my client get paid."

Siano clarified a detail made prominent in the press, and raised by prosecutors: a suggestion that payments stopped only after news of the investigation surfaced in March 2007.

"The money began and stopped with one check, December 15 [2006]," Siano said.

The relationship

Showing a photo of the once obese Jereis, who lost 150 pounds in an effort to be more attractive to Annabi, Siano said, "Mr. Jereis, in the year 2001, was an immense human being...  He meets Ms. Annabi and he starts losing weight."

In a nod to the contrast between the photo and the soberly dressed Jereis, Siano said, in semi-quip, "Improving his choice in suits took a little time."

Would Jereis lose weight, have his teeth fixed, and even loose skin removed, Siano asked, "in order to control a first-term city Councilwoman in Yonkers?"

"This is someone deliriously in love," Siano maintained. "I would not say appropriately in love. I would not say wisely in love."

"When you look at the relationship," Siano said, "the government wants you to look at the checks and not look at him."

So Jereis tried to impress her with gifts.

"Ms. Annabi owes us no explanation for what she chose to do with my client," Siano said. "He undertook the romancing of this woman with a full understanding of his situation and hers."

"Everyone in this case describes them as close," said Siano, facing the challenge that several people testified that there was nothing romantic between the two. "What they're complaining about is there is at least a modicum of discretion in their relationship."

As for the email messages from Jereis to Annabi about which the government raised questions, Siano pointed out that the expert witness could not judge them fake: "What was Mr. Jereis doing? Behaving like a lovesick fool."

Siano called Jereis a "slow learner" in recognizing his attentions would not be returned. "It was one-sided, it was unrequited, it was stupid," he said, "but it was a personal relationship."

At that point, the judge let the jury take a break. The defendants looked relieved.

Reframing the evidence

Returning from the break, Siano proceeded to attack the government's presentation of evidence. For example, a chart prepared for the case counted $60,000 from Jereis to Annabi as a gift, though the no-interest loan was paid back within months.

He also said the government misrepresented Jereis's ability to give money to Annabi, pointing to his relatively low taxable income, about $70,000, but not the $3.5 millon in assets listed in his loan applications.

Siano criticized government witnesses such as former Council Members for being unreliable, testament to the Forest City Ratner observation that politics in Yonkers was "crazy."

"Mr. Jereis is not on trial for being a married man carrying on with a single woman," Siano said in conclusion. "He is not on trial for having extraordinarily poor judgment in his personal life."

The government, he reiterated in conclusion, had not established there was a corrupt agreement.

Prosecution responds

With the opportunity and responsibility of rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Halperin tried to respond to nearly all of the points raised by Siano and also Aronwald.

One point missing: an alternative explanation for Jereis's makeover. Nor did Halperin acknowledge that the $60,000 loan was repaid.

Annabi, said Halperin, sold her office for expensive jewelry, luxury cards, and real estate. She received nearly $200,000 from Jereis--actually $194,000, counting the disputed $20,000 bribe-- and she hid all the payments from public scrutiny.

Halperin scoffed at the "love defense." Annabi accepted the benefits because she enjoyed them, he contended. "The only thing she ever gave to Mr. Jereis was the influence he sought."

"This case wasn't about love," he said. "It was about the money."

The mortgage/taxt charges

While Siano first took aim at the Longfellow part of the charges, Halperin first focused on what the prosecution deemed the clearest offenses: charges of tax and mortgage fraud.

Annabi had lied about the source of down payments (from Jereis) for houses she bought and whether the houses would be her primary residence, Halperin said.

He called "absurd" Aronwald's suggestion that the loan officer had doctored the documents. He reminded the jury of the testimony of an FBI agent who interviewed Annabi, who had surmised that a political enemy altered the documents to set her up.

It was "far-fetched," Halperin suggested, that "somehow her political enemies got together with a bank custodian."

As for false claims of a tax loss on a loan Annabi claimed to have made to her father, Halperin pointed to Aronwald's effort to blame the accountant, Walid Farhat. But an FBI agent testified that there was no evidence Annabi had ever made such a loan.

Whether or not Farhat wrongly attributed the loss on the tax return, Halperin said, "Annabi gave him false information."

Questioning Jereis

Halperin said that the Annabi-Jereis relationship was based not on love, but on politics: "The only evidence you heard [about the relationship] was from Mr. Jereis's testimony himself."

Halperin said Jereis's testimony didn't ring true, citing Jereis's denials of statements attributed to him by several witnesses, including Mike Spano (a Forest City lobbyist, now Yonkers mayor, and brother of Nick Spano), Cantone, and Bender. None of those witnesses, Halperin pointed out, had cooperation agreements like Mangone had.

Spano, for example, testified that Jereis told him Annabi was his "political creation," but Jereis denied it.

Meanwhile, other witnesses, including a former close friend of Annabi's, Maria Chousa, testified that Annabi and Jereis were merely friends.

Halperin sarcastically summed up their arrangement: "Honey, you're the love of my life! This month, let me pay the Con Ed bill."

Jereis needed Annabi to be the apartment he helped her with, given that she needed to maintain residency in her relatively impoverished district in south Yonkers, rather than live in the homes she owned in ritzier north Yonkers.

"This is not flowers and chocolate," Halperin said. "He does not buy her a Rolex. He just gives her cold hard cash."

Drilling down

Halperin criticized the notion that changes in the development projects justified Annabi's votes. "To some extent, we agree, the two projects did change," he allowed. "The Ridge Hill project now contained the promise of a $60,000 consulting contract."

Actually, there was no direct evidence that Annabi knew of the contract, or of its terms, but Halperin suggested that the numerous phone contacts between the two on the day Jereis asked Forest City for a job suggested that the issue had to come up.

"We don't have to prove" that Annabi knew Jereis asked for a job, said Halpern. "But you have every right to infer."

On 6/9/06, the day Jereis asked for a job, he and Annabi had 81 phone contacts. "Where's the spike on Valentine's Day?" Halperin asked. "How many calls on Valentine's Day? Four. Job Fair Day? 81."

Halperin pointed out that Annabi had pledged not to support Ridge Hill until staunch opponent Dee Barbato supported it. As for the $10.8 million Forest City offered, it wasn't anywhere near the tax revenues Forest City was saving, Halperin said.

Barbato wanted $10 million a year for 30 years. Former Council Member John Murtagh called it a "drop in the bucket." Robertson called it "peanuts." And nothing was done regarding traffic and environmental concerns.

Forest City's Cantone, Halperin pointed out, had called the changes a "political parachute" for Annabi.

He reminded the jury of a conversation Bender had with Jereis in which Jereis was asked why he--not Annabi--was holding up Ridge Hill: "Jereis responds, Maybe you just hired the wrong people."

As for the Longfellow concessions, Halperin said, developer Franco Milio testified that he viewed the changes, including 20% below-market housing, as minor.

The issue of Mangone

When defense counsel attacked Mangone's credibility, Halperin suggested, "focus on the relationship between Mangone and Jereis." The worked closely under Nick Spano. Mangone testified that they paid $5000 to a Jereis cousin to knock a Spano challenger off the Independence Party line.

And Annabi had told Franco Milio that hiring Mangone would "be a very good idea."

As Halperin spoke, prosecutors broadcast a photo of Mangone and Annabi, cheek to cheek, from December 2005, looking like best pals at a party.

"Ladies and gentlemen, let's be clear," Halperin said, raising his voice. "Anthony Mangone--he carries more baggage than an airplane. Who chose to fly on Air Mangone? The defendants."

As for the discrepancies between Mangone and the Milios regarding the alleged bribe, Halperin suggested--in a bit of a stretch--they were no worse than Jereis's misreporting, in one of the love emails, the date he made a down payment for Annabi.

"Everyone is consistent about the big picture," Halperin said of the Longfellow bribe, contending, "The exact dates and dollar amounts do not matter."

"The $20,000 cash," he asserted, "is only a relatively small part of the case."

Well, it's a relatively small amount of the money transferred to Annabi, but it's the only direct bribe alleged.

More differences

Halperin criticized Aronwald's characterization of Annabi's acceptance of Jereis's generosity as a "moment of weakness"--after all, that "moment" lasted some seven years.

And Halperin challenged Aronwald's description of the Jereis checks as being written on a business account; rather, it was a joint account with his wife. (That should be easy to the jury to determine, but I couldn't see the checks, from the audience.)

Halperin also challenged Aronwald's contention that, as of December 2005, Annabi already knew the FBI wanted to speak with her about Ridge Hill and thus never would have done anything suspect. The phone log cited, he said, had been modified in March 2009, and Annabi's assistant gave a vague explanation in testimony. Rather, the government investigation started in January 2007.

There was no proof, Halperin said, that the Lesnick-planned removal of the supermajority would go through, thus obviating the need for Annabi's vote. (Forest City reps never said so.)

And Annabi made no cash withdrawal when she bought a $3800 Rolex. When Annabi was interviewed by the FBI, she didn't remember how she paid, and then said maybe Jereis paid. Prosecutors say it was bribe money.

In closing

The government need not prove that Annabi received specific benefits in exchange for her vote, Halperin reminded the jury. "All we have to show is payments linked to official acts."

"Counsel has argued there was no corrupt intent," Halperin said. "The best proof is the concealment." And "getting benefits from a distant cousin" would not get her off the hook from reporting the gifts to the city of Yonkers, he said. Beyond that, Annabi told Lesnick she'd never received any benefits from anyone.

Murtagh, Halperin reminded the jury, testified that Jereis had said he gets his car swept regularly for bugs. "Why all this hiding if you feel you've done nothing wrong?"

"This trial was not about boy meets girl and gives money with no strings attached," Halperin said in closing. "This trial was about a political operative who got her elected" and started paying benefits. "What did the public official do when she got all these benefits? She concealed and he concealed. When he saw the opportunity to cash in, Zehy Jereis called in his markers."

According to testimony, however, Jereis gained far less from Forest City and the Milios than he gave to Annabi. That leaves open the possibility that he got other benefits that have never been exposed. Or that he was expecting to cash in later. Or that his motivation really was desire. Or that it was a mixture of the political and the personal--not enough to get him off the hook, prosecutors say.

It's all part of the mystery of Ridge hill.

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