Thursday, November 08, 2012

Convictions in Ridge Hill case upheld; judge's summation a reminder of Forest City's not-so-honorable behavior; in memo, Annabi's lawyer calls for probation, citing smothering family and ongoing responsibilities

From the New York Times, Judge Upholds Convictions in Yonkers Corruption Case, published online yesterday (and not in print):
A federal judge in Manhattan on Wednesday upheld the convictions of a former Yonkers councilwoman, Sandy Annabi, and a political operative who had testified that he had given her gifts out of love and not for corrupt reasons, as the government had charged.
Prosecutors had accused Ms. Annabi of taking about $195,000 in secret payments over the years from the operative, Zehy Jereis, in return for dropping her strong opposition to a proposed 81-acre luxury mall and housing complex in Yonkers called Ridge Hill, and a second project. The government had also contended that Ms. Annabi gave Ridge Hill her support in order to help Mr. Jereis obtain a no-show job from the developer, Forest City Ratner.
“The jury was entitled to conclude that the thing that changed Sandy Annabi’s mind about the Ridge Hill Project was her benefactor Zehy Jereis’ financial interest in getting the project approved,” the judge, Colleen McMahon of Federal District Court in Manhattan, wrote in her decision.
...Neither Forest City Ratner nor any of its employees were charged in the case. The developer has said it cooperated with the authorities throughout the investigation.
Forest City's deal

It's true that the developer cooperated, but McMahon's decision (bottom) reminds us that Forest City did not exactly behave honorably. (Here's my coverage of the case, including an analysis of why Forest City wasn't charged.)

Though Forest City agreed to pay more to Yonkers, a claimed concession to Annabi, "both supporters and opponents of the project testified that the extra $10 million that FCR agreed to pay was totally insignificant," McMahon wrote.

"The evidence showed that Jereis was indeed able to get FCR the private meeting with Annabi that it had been unable to arrange without his help," McMahon wrote. Five days later, they produced what then-Forest City executive Scott Cantone termed a "political parachute" for Annabi.

(Given testimony by Cantone and his boss Bruce Bender about unseemly though not illegal behavior, it's understandable why Bender left Forest City before the trial and Cantone soon after. They now run a consulting company, Bender Cantone Consulting, which relies on part on old ties for new clients.)

Jereis, as McMahon described it, then began hounding Forest City for a job, the $60,000 consulting contract for a no-show position. "In the end, the jury was entitled to conclude that the only relevant thing that changed about the Ridge Hill Project between December 2005 and June/July 2006 (or for that matter, between June 9 and June 15) was that Jereis now had a financial interest in getting the Project approved," she wrote.

And while McMahon agreed there was no evidence that Annabi was aware of Jereis's request to Forest City for a job before she flipped her vote, the jury didn't need to find that to reach a conviction, the judge noted.

Moreover, according to judge, "there was circumstantial evidence" for a jury to reach that conclusion, given the close political relationship between Annabi and Jereis and the fact they spoke 81 times on the day the two first met with Forest City.

Sentencing Nov. 19

Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 19. In a voluminous memo, Annabi's lawyer, Edward Sapone, asks for probation, house arrest, and community service, not jail time, serving up a significant support for Annabi, with dozens of people citing her civic spirit and good works throughout her career.

As the Journal News reported:
Relatives called Annabi the rock of her family ever since she was a teenager, when her parents were arrested in a federal drug case. Her mother spent a year in prison and her father 13 years, forcing Annabi to work through high school and college.
Her dreams of becoming a prosecutor were dashed because financial hardships kept her from attending law school, relatives wrote.
Sapone suggested that Annabi was susceptible to Jereis’ political and personal efforts to gain her support, citing a psychiatrist’s assessment that she was naive when it came to others’ motivations.
Pulling at the heartstrings

The memo also pulls at the heartstrings. For example, it states that, as her grandparents' first grandchild born in the United States, "That status would prove to be detrimental to Ms. Annabi, who would be overly sheltered and deprived of life's experiences and the freedom to make small mistakes and to develop and grow in a healthy way."

They lived in an area overrun by gangs, and her parents were enormously protective, leaving her "little opportunity to test boundaries, experience life's situations, and establish relationships outside her family."

After her parents went to prison and even when her mother came back, Annabi was forced to grow up and be a virtual parent to her two younger brothers. Later, after her father returned from prison, Annabi, at 27, was still living with her mother and brothers:
Ms. Annabi's family continued to suffocate Ms. Annabi, and they simultaneously heavily relied on her. They tried to protect her while relying on her to protect them. Consequently, Ms. Annabi did not move out of her family's apartment until she was 34 years of age.
A friend said in a letter cited in the memo: "Everyone in her family leans on her. On the inside, Sandy is 80 years old--I know--I am her closest friend. It's not fair. She is worn out."

Learning from the mistake

Sapone's memo does acknowledge, "Ms. Annabi recognizes that she should not have accepted Mr. Jereis' gifts, and she has learned a lot from her mistake."

Meanwhile, Annabi's family relies on her to monitor her infirm parents' health, even as she "battles to control her own pain," including migraine headaches and other health problems.

"Additionally, the public does not need protection from Ms. Annabi," the memo states, citing "immense support" not only from those close to her but "from every segment of society."

On the other hand, Annabi doesn't apologize for flipping her vote--her defense was that the concession was worth it.

It will be up to the judge to decide how much the public needs protection from--or to make an example of--an elected official whose decision privileged corporate interests over the public interest.

McMahon's decision

Yonkers Corruption Case, Judge's Decision on Post-Trial Motions, 11/7/12


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