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Yonkers trial update: case moves past Ridge Hill to Longfellow; trail of money may appear more clear, but key witnesses have pleaded guilty to other charges, show signs of unreliability

After several days of trial, an observer can understand why lawyers for Yonkers political operator Zehy Jereis, charged with funneling money to ex-Council Member Sandy Annabi, and Annabi, charged with taking that money and favoring two projects, decided to test the corruption case before a federal jury.

Jereis claims he paid some $170,000 to Annabi over several years because he was infatuated with her. Annabi, who denies a relationship, says she changed her vote because of concessions by the developers regarding two developments

In both instances, the prosecutors have their challenges regarding both direct evidence and reliability of witnesses.

The Ridge Hill mystery

With one project, Forest City Ratner's Ridge Hill retail and residential development, there was no evidence of a quid pro quo. Forest City did give Jereis a $60,000 consulting contract for an essentially no-show job (and paid him $15,000), but that was only after Annabi switched her vote.

Forest City didn't know Jereis was paying Annabi all along.

And one of the prime prosecution witnesses from Forest City, former Executive VP Bruce Bender, was used by the defense to testify that it had been his belief that Annabi flipped because of the developer's concessions, a $10.8 million additional pledge that even a pro-project Council Member termed "peanuts."

Of course Bender and colleague Scott Cantone were not the most reliable witnesses, given that they not only hired Jereis, they didn't question his sketchy invoices nor demand the reports he was supposed to give, but rather insisted to a fellow staffer that Jereis get paid.

The Longfellow project

The prosecution's case in federal court has moved on to the other project at issue, Longfellow, by Milio Management. With Longfellow, the evidence may seem more damning, but the witnesses are likely easier to challenge, as I observed yesterday afternoon. As summarized by the Journal News:
Tax cheat Antonio Milio testified in federal court Wednesday that he gave $30,000 in three bundles of $100 bills to lawyer Anthony Mangone as a payoff to Yonkers Councilwoman Sandy Annabi so she would support a plan for Milio’s company to develop two school properties.

Milio said he brought the money — along with an additional $10,000 for Mangone’s legal services — to the lawyer’s Hawthorne office in late June or early July 2006 after Mangone told Milio’s son, Franco, that it would take $30,000 to get Annabi’s vote.

He said Mangone took the money and told him, “This will help us. She’s going on vacation, and she will be very happy.”
However, Milio was fuzzy on the actual dates of the payment, which defense lawyers seized on as suggesting it came after the vote.

"You told the grand jury it was your choice and you felt it was your only alternative," asked Anthony Siano, defense attorney for Jereis.

Milio concurred, and Siano read the previous explanation:"Because this project was taking a very long time."

However, Milio agreed, under questioning from William Aronwald, Annabi's attorney, that he never spoke with Annabi regarding giving her money to have his firm be designated as developer for Longfellow.

"You have no idea what Mr. Mangone did with the money," Arondwald asked.

"I have no idea," Milio confirmed."

Unreliable witness doing business in Yonkers

Defense lawyers pressed Milio on the fact that, while admitting to tax evasion--personal, corporate, payroll--over three years, their scheme had gone on much longer.

Milio admitted hiring 20-25 illegal aliens and paying them with cash, just as he admitted buying properties with cash to evade taxes.

He also admitted the curious ways of doing business in Yonkers, in which public employees were apparently seen as appropriate recipients of gratuities.

"You paid cash to the plumbing inspector," asked Siano.

"It was a tip," replied Milio, who testified through an interpreter in his native Italian.

"It was more than once a year," Siano pressed.

"I don't remember."

"You told the government you gave him an amount at Christmas," Siano stated.

"Yes."

"And when he came to visit you," Siano continued.

"That's possible."

"You paid the building inspector cash?" Siano asked.

"Just tips."

Siano tried to sort out the fact that, unlike with the plumbing department, there were multiple building inspectors: "You gave another building inspector the tips?"

"I don't recall, but when it's Christmastime, we give tips," Milio replied.

The handgun and a friend's gift

Though Milio was supposed to disclose all previous criminal acts when he started cooperating with the government in 2007, defense lawyers seized on another act that was not disclosed until October 2009.

Milio admitted he'd been given an unlicensed handgun, with 131 rounds of ammunition, by a close friend, identified as "Adolfo."

"You told the government you couldn't remember a good friend's last name?" asked Aronwald.

"I only know him by his first name," Milio replied.

"You told the government you doint want to get anyone in trouble," Aronwald asked.

"That's possible but I don't recall."

"You just forgot there was a handgun with 131 bullets and two magazines in your safe?" asked Aronwald.

"I forgot about it because I never used it, never touched it," Milio responded.

Why then did he have it?

"In case I needed to protect myself and my family."

A former assistant

Annabi's former assistant, Debbie Kayal, testified for the prosecution, but has her own entanglements: she's the sister-in-law of Mangone, who's already pleaded guilty.

Kayal that Annabi had asked for changes in the project and, as far as she knew, Mangone didn't represent the Milios until after the Longfellow legislation had passed.

Prosecutors wound up trying to impeach Kayal--to show her testimony yesterday was contradicted by past statements--by reading her grand jury testimony about the relationship between Annabi and Jereis: "I thought they were very close friends, not necessarily working partners. He had helped as a guru, with her career."

Asked yesterday, Kayal said she "wouldn't know" if they were close friends and "don't know" if they had a close relationship.

"Would you describe Sandy Annabi as a private person?" asked Aronwald, Annabi's lawyer.

"Yes," replied Kayal, who also assented to the statement that Annabi did not discuss her personal life.

"Would you ever describe her as a 'mama's girl,'?" asked Aronwald. (Annabi is now in her early 40s.)

"Absolutely," replied Kayal, smiling. "She's a mama's and a daddy's girl. She's very close to her family."

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