Friday, March 16, 2012

Yonkers trial update: defendant Jereis testifies, denies bribes, asserts unrequited love; witness says he helped Jereis with reports to Forest City because consultant "not so good" with computers

The mystery of Ridge Hill took a new twist yesterday in federal court as the lawyer for defendant Sandy Annabi, former Yonkers Council Member, rested the defense without having Annabi take the stand and explain why she accepted money from co-defendant Zehy Jereis, her campaign manager and political mentor, and whether it affected her vote switch on two projects, including Forest City Ratner's retail/residential project.

But Jereis did take the stand, and delivered soap-opera style revelations that the $174,000 he transferred to Annabi was all because of love, not any intention to control her politically and steer her votes, as prosecutors allege, based on circumstantial evidence in the case of Ridge Hill and the testimony of a flawed witness, disbarred attorney and admitted felon Anthony Mangone, in the case of the other project, Longfellow.

And Jereis emphatically denied getting any money from Mangone, as well as passing on any such money to Annabi, whose attorney says she changed her votes based on concessions by the developers.

Jereis's lawyer, Anthony Siano, had not telegraphed the likelihood Jereis would testify. But in retrospect, it was inevitable, given that Jereis's appearance would be the only way to get into evidence email messages to Annabi he allegedly sent.

Jereis testified on direct examination in the morning, and I only caught a piece of it, since I was at the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet Meeting. He will undergo what surely will be a vigorous cross-examination when the trial resumes Monday morning.

But his testimony might have left the impression of Annabi as a mix of a friend and part-reluctant gold-digger, willing to accept gifts and reciprocate only in part. In court, while their lawyers confer frequently and work together cooperatively, Annabi and Jereis keep their distance.

Still, Annabi's stylish appearance--rather than the neutered apparel typically worn by female attorneys--likely leaves the impression that Jereis had reason to pursue her.

Behind the reports to Forest City

Also testifying yesterday was the former executive director of the Yonkers Republican Party, which Jereis chaired. The man, Richard Hoffman, said that, as a personal favor to a colleague he considered a friend, he helped create reports Jereis sent to Forest City Ratner to justify the essentially no-show consulting job Jereis had gotten.

"I helped him because Mr. Jereis is not so good in using computers," Hoffman said. "He wasn't able to put a Word document together." Hoffman said it took an hour or less to finish the report.

"Did you suggest he type up the reports?" Hoffman was asked on direct examination.

"I knew this wasn't something in his skill sets," Hoffman responded.

Jereis, who had requested a job after putting Forest City executives together with Annabi, was strung along until at least two months after the July 2006 vote, then given a contract backdated to August 1.

He sent in cursory invoices, which were paid that December after pressure from Forest City executives Bruce Bender and Scott Cantone, according to testimony from another former Forest City official.

On direct examination, Hoffman testified that Jereis came to him "sometime during 2006."

On cross-examination, prosecutors pointed out that Jereis's reports were dated 3/12/07 and Hoffman had told the FBI that he prepared the reports a few days before than.

Hoffman concurred that his memory had been refreshed. That March date was shortly after news of the federal corruption investigation had surfaced.

Jereis testimony

Both the Journal News and the New York Times covered Jereis's testimony, with the former also adding a sidebar on the defendant's email messages to Annabi. The Journal News reported:
"She was gorgeous. She was beautiful. She was wearing a summer blue dress," Jereis recalled of a spring 2001 day when he was driving by and stopped to talk to her for the first time. "I was very attracted to her. It was like love at first sight."
Jereis, who was married, once weight over 400 pounds, and lost some 120 pounds over four years as he pursued the flashy Annabi, taking other measures, including improving his wardrobe, to meet what he thought were her expectations. He said he did not want anything from her but her devotion.

The Journal News reported:
Annabi, whose lawyers rested their case Thursday morning without calling her as a witness, displayed no obvious emotion as Jereis described his feelings for her.
He never did get his wish for a romantic relationship, although he said there was sexual contact between them but never intercourse.
Dealings with Forest City

I caught Siano asking Jereis if he had asked Forest City Ratner for any assistance. Jereis said that, because Annabi had a plane trip scheduled for July 11, the date of the vote on Ridge Hill, he asked if the developer would pay the cost to change it.

Did you demand anything, Siano asked.

No, responded Jereis.

Was there a quid pro quo?

No, responded Jereis.

"They said they would look into it," Jereis said, adding, "They said they couldn't do it." He thus indicated not an immediate rejection of the plan.

Jereis said that he did not pay the upgrade fully himself, but contributed about $1500 to it, adding funds from her family and picking up the ticket himself.

Gifts back and forth

Siano asked if Jereis had bought Annabi a Rolex watch and necklace discussed at the trial.

Did Annabi buy him gifts?

"She bought me a watch, cologne, suits, clothing," Jereis replied, attaching no dollar value.

House help

As reported in the Journal News:
Jereis described helping Annabi and her family move out of Nodine Hill, which he described as a "war zone.” He loaned her $60,000 for a down payment on one of two houses in North Yonkers that she bought in 2004.
That money, he stated in testimony I saw, was lent in June and repaid in October, with no interest requested.

As reported in the Journal News;
She needed a residence in her district so he found her a co-op apartment at 245 Rumsey Road, paying the $7,200 down payment and helping her furnish and carpet the apartment.
Jereis said he made two sets of keys figuring that would one day be their apartment. But she demanded both sets and he was crestfallen. Their relationship became "hot and cold" after that, he said, but he never stayed upset for long.
Why, even after he learned that Annabi had a man visiting the house, did he keep contributing?

"I had a vested interest in the apartment," Jereis said. "I didn't want to see the apartment belly up." She could repay him when she was able, he said, "or she would revert it back to me."

He said that he did not expect to be repaid for contributions he made toward Annabi's Mercedes, student loan, and utility bills.

The "hush-hush" email

Siano also asked Jereis to elaborate on an email he sent to Annabi labeled "hush-hush."

Jereis indicated it had to do with keeping his political suggestion--getting generators for senior citizen buildings--away from Annabi's political rivals, so they could not claim credit.

"I wanted her to get the free earned media on it," declared Jereis, sounding like the political veteran he is.

The criminal record

At the end of his direct examination, Jereis was asked about his participation, in the mid-1990s, in getting nominating petitions signed for a Conservative Party candidate. Getting signatures for such a minor party candidate, he said, is like a "needle in a haystack."

Jereis was canvassing with his niece, who found a Conservative voter. He signed a document indicating that he witnessed the signature, but he was actually on the other floor of the building.

He admitted it was not correctly done, and that he had pleaded guilty to a criminal charge, which he stated was "misconduct in petitions."

He was not asked about how, according to the New York Post, "in 1994 was arrested by undercover Westchester cops and charged with helping facilitate the sale of more than 20 pounds of marijuana [and] was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

Witness credibility

Jereis's defense also tried to attack the credibility of prosecution witnesses.

J. Robert Lunney, a former law partner of former Yonkers City Council Member John Murtagh, testified that he found Murtagh "untrustworthy and lacking in credibility."

Under cross-examination, Lunney agreed that he had gone through three years of litigation with Murtagh and publicly spoke out against Murtagh when he campaigned.

Outside of the jury, prosecutors and defense attorneys ran Lunney through a longer examination that touched on the years of bad blood between him and Murtagh. Judge Colleen McMahon instructed Lunney to answer the prosecution's questions with yes-no answers.

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