Thursday, March 15, 2012

Yonkers trial update: Council President says Annabi said she'd never gotten benefit from Jereis, and that people erroneously thought he controlled her vote

Though neither defendant in the ongoing Yonkers corruption trial apparently will testify, the character of former Council Member Sandy Annabi, and the nature of her political reliance on her mentor--and alleged briber--Zehy Jereis, was raised during federal court testimony yesterday.

The main afternoon witness was Yonkers City Council President Chuck Lesnick, a lawyer who testified in a calm, agreeable manner. Under questioning from Annabi's lawyer, William Aronwald, Lesnick agreed that Annabi's district was the poorest district, with the highest unemployment rate.

That, presumably, is fodder for Aronwald's argument that Annabi's about-face on Forest City Ratner's Ridge Hill project was not because she was influenced by a pattern of some $174,000 in gifts and cash from Jereis over the years, but rather concessions aimed toward the city and the needs of her district.

(Then again, another Council Member testified that the additional $10 million pledge she gained from Forest City was "peanuts.")

Jereis contends he was motivated by the desire for a romantic relationship with Annabi, not to steer her vote.

Making Ridge Hill work

Lesnick said that, when running for Council President, he distinguished himself from the incumbent, a Ridge Hill supporter, by saying he opposed the process--an effort to override the supermajority requirement, which had riven the Council--and believed more needed to be done to address traffic concerns.

One of the first meetings he held after taking office in 2006, Lesnick said, was with Bruce Ratner himself and some associates. Together they helped organize a charrette, a design planning exercise, explained Lesnick, who also has a degree in urban planning.

And after that exercise, Lesnick said, "By April or May, I was a supporter. I felt the traffic concerns had been addressed."

Forest City, he said, was willing to pay for the charrette, but decided against it for legal reasons. Then, in a sign how business gets done in Yonkers, funds were secured via state Senator Nick Spano, who Lesnick said "made a member's item grant through on the the state agencies." Spano, a local Republican powerbroker, was the brother of Forest City lobbyist Mike Spano, now the mayor of Yonkers.

In previous testimony, it was clear that Forest City Ratner made a calculation that concessions to Lesnick were affordable--and might be avoided. A 6/10/06 email from Forest City executive Bruce Bender to his boss Bruce Ratner stated, in part, "Let's see if we can bring this home this month. We may have to put some funds away for Lesnick and traffic. There's a good chance that this money will never be drawn down."

(A Forest City spokesman told the Journal News that referred to money for the traffic mitigation study and a settlement  reached with the neighboring town of Greenburgh.)

Lesnick, in his testimony, also explained how, in a memo, he cited the "$10 million that Sandy negotiated."

Conflicts of interest, and Annabi's reliance on Jereis

Lesnick, who explained early in his direct testimony almost as an aside that he ran on an ethics platform, found himself questions about ethics issues under cross-examination. Under questioning from prosecutor Jason Halperin, Lesnick agreed that Council Members should err on the side of disclosing potential conflicts of interest.

He agreed he didn't know that Jereis was conferring financial benefits to Annabi and that Jereis had asked Forest City Ratner for a consulting contract. (Forest City strung Jereis along in June and July 2006, but in October gave him a one-year, $5,000/month essentially no-show contract backdated to August 1, for which he was paid for three months: $15,000.)

"You would agree that these are facts that you, as Council President, would have wanted to know?" Halperin asked.

"Correct," Lesnick replied.

Halperin asked Lesnick about a conversation he once had with Annabi about whether she'd gotten financial benefits from Jereis.

"I don't recall," Lesnick replied. "I may have."

Halperin showed Lesnick his grand jury testimony, in which he was asked if Annabi had ever gotten anything from Jereis or others doing business with the city. "Quite the contrary," Lesnick told the grand jury. "She told me she hasn't gotten anything from anybody.

On redirect, Aronwald pointed out that Lesnick also told the grand jury that Annabi had said people thought Jereis controlled her vote, but in reality he just boasted that her decisions came from listening to him.

The theory of the case

Judge Colleen McMahon has questioned but not dismissed of the bribery charges regarding Ridge Hill, given that there was no explicit quid pro quo regarding Annabi's changed vote.

One commenter on Yonkers Tribune pointed out that Annabi's lawyer has an argument, and that Forest City Ratner is the winner:
if annabi was bought and paid for l.why oppose the project in the first place and hold out until the very end when the developer sweetened the pot for the city.if jeries owned the vote she should have been onboard from the get go... and one other thing mr arronwald needs to ask the jury to consider who got the benefit of the change in vote...jeries? certainly not if he paid 174,000 and got 15,000 in consulting fees..no it was the developer who got the benefit...but the developer got a pass
Annabi's residence

On direct examination, Lesnick that he knew Annabi lived in an apartment Rumsey Road, in her district, because it was on her nominating petitions, at least one Democratic caucus meeting was held there, and once he stopped by with little notice to pick something up and Annabi was wearing a bathrobe, with her hair in curlers.

However, Annabi filled out mortgage applications for houses outside her district saying they would be her primary residences. She did not reveal that Jereis had provided money for the down payments.

On cross-examination, Lesnick allowed that he didn't know where Annabi lived before 2006, after she took office, beyond the petitions.

"A bribe was expected"

Also testifying was FBI Special Agent Rosemary Karaka, who discussed the other case in the trial, Longfellow, about which witness Anthony Mangone--an admitted liar and felon testifying under a cooperation agreement--has already testified he delivered a bribe from the developer to Jereis.

Karaka confirmed that, according to her notes, Longfellow developer Franco Milio had asked  Mangone, "What the fuck does it take to get this woman on board? Does she need something?"

On cross examination, she added that, according to her notes, "Mr. Milio said he felt like the bribe was expected."

What next?

Aronwald said that, after one more witness, another FBI agent, he will rest his case. That means Annabi won't testify.

Thus the defense for Jereis should begin today, setting up the potential for closing arguments on Monday or Tuesday.

The Longfellow case

I only caught the afternoon testimony. In the morning, according to the Journal News, Alfred DelBello, former attorney on the Longfellow project, testified that he had no knowledge of any bribes and did not know that Mangone was involved in the project until it was approved.

But, under cross-examination, DelBello acknowledged that he was unfamiliar with two concessions announced when the project eventually passed. Regarding Longfellow, Annabi also contends that her changed vote was contingent on the concessions.

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