Gotham Gazette Tue, 10 Dec 2019 05:19:23 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Former Informant, Out; Candidate Indicted on Voter Fraud, In Hector Ramirez petitioning

Hector Ramirez petitioning in the Bronx (photo via Facebook)

Bronx Assemblymember Victor Pichardo will no longer be facing former Assemblymember Nelson Castro, a onetime federal informant who helped dig up dirt on fellow electeds in an attempt to reduce charges he was facing for election-related perjury, in the upcoming Democratic primary.

Instead, Pichardo will again be opposed by Bronx activist Hector Ramirez, who is facing a 242-count indictment for voter fraud in relation to his activities in his last race against Pichardo.

According to the Bronx District Attorney’s office Ramirez has a date in court before Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett on September 13, the day of the Democratic primary.

While Castro has dropped his plans to run, Ramirez presents a stiffer challenge to the incumbent as the former districts leader’s name has appeared on ballots in the Bronx for over 20 years and he recently challenged Pichardo in the special election to replace Castro in 2013 and during the Democratic primary in 2014.

Ramirez’s entrance into the race is another chapter for the 86th Assembly District, which has been rocked by scandal and infighting for years. Castro served two terms in the Assembly while also working as an informant before abruptly resigning in April 2013. Ramirez announced his candidacy in a press release on Tuesday night touting that he had filed three times the required signatures to get on the ballot.

Pichardo’s camp is expected to challenge Ramirez’s petitions, with the possibility of knocking him off the ballot.

Castro told Gotham Gazette that he decided to bow out of the race after collecting 2,300 signatures petitioning because it was difficult to raise money. He said he now expects to back Ramirez. “I decided to stay out, but I think I will be endorsing Hector Ramirez,” Castro said. Asked if the indictment against Ramirez concerns him at all, Castro replied: “I haven’t endorsed yet. He’s not guilty until proven guilty in a court of law.”

Ramirez, who has clashed with county Democrats, is positioning himself as a man of the people running against Pichardo, who he has labeled the establishment candidate and an outsider. "[T]he first step in having our voice and concerns heard in Albany is allowing the people of the district to exercise their constitutional right of electing whomever they want fighting for them in Albany, not a poppet [sic] imposed by politicians," Ramirez said in the statement.

Pichardo reacted to Ramirez’s announcement by requesting the Department of Justice monitor the contest. "This announcement is yet another example of both Hector Ramirez’s contempt for the law and his lack of respect for the voters of the 86th Assembly district,” Pichardo said in a statement.

In 2014, dozens of witnesses told the Bronx DA office that Ramirez and his staffers duped them into handing over their absentee ballots - some of which Ramirez’s staff then filed as votes for their candidate. After the first tally Ramirez led Pichardo by 11 votes out of over 3,500 ballots cast. A hand recount put Pichardo ahead by only two votes.

At the time, Ramirez accused Pichardo of election fraud because Pichardo’s mother was active as a poll worker in the district. Further, Ramirez and other candidates complained that levers were missing on voting machines making it impossible to cast a ballot for Ramirez. The Board of Elections said that anyone who encountered a problem was offered a paper ballot.

Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, chair of the Bronx County Democrats, said he believes Pichardo will defeat any challenge because “Victor brings integrity to the job.” He said, “The Bronx deserves better than this continual parade of candidates with clouds around them.”

Crespo added that he thinks candidates should wait to run until “their legal issues are behind them.”

Ramirez was not immediately made available for an interview for this story.

Castro said he feels Pichardo and Ramirez have something to settle. “It’s a matter of principle. Hector won those elections but apparently after they counted paper ballots Pichardo won by two votes. I decided to stay out to let them duke it out. They have something there to work out.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Former Informant, Out; Candidate Indicted on Voter Fraud, In Wed, 13 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Former Government Informant to Run for Old Assembly Seat pichardo

Current Assembly Member Victor Pichardo

Former Bronx Assemblymember Nelson Castro wants his seat back. Standing in the way, along with the rigors of a campaign and the incumbent, is the fact that Castro served as a government informant for years - to avoid perjury charges.

In April 2013 Castro abruptly resigned his Bronx Assembly seat, shocking his colleagues and constituents by announcing that he had worked for the U.S. Attorney’s office and that his role as an informant was key to convicting former Assemblymember Eric Stevenson for taking $20,000 in bribes from businesspeople building a daycare facility. Castro told Gotham Gazette on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe that bit of his past will come into play as he challenges sitting Assemblymember Victor Pichardo, the man who won his vacant seat, in the upcoming September Democratic primary.

“The only perception that matters to me is that of the voters of the 86th district,” said Castro. “We're gearing up to run, and basically the reason why is that I can't come out of my house without people telling us, ‘We miss you. Why don't you come back?’”

Castro’s return to the political arena comes at a time when the capital is consumed by investigations by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Both recent legislative leaders, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, were sentenced on multiple federal corruption charges. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s massive economic development programs and members of his inner circle are under scrutiny. And, current Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reportedly faces an investigation into reimbursements he received from the Bronx Democratic Committee. 

Castro said that he was motivated to run by what he sees as a lack of constituent services from Pichardo, who he says he does respect. Castro said constituents complain of long lines at the district office and having to make appointments to speak to anyone there. “I saw Victor and told him I don't think he's a bad kid but he needs to be more attentive to the district,” Castro said, adding that Pichardo is seen by many constituents as a staffer who reports to Bronx Senator Gustavo Rivera, who has backed Pichardo in both of his electoral contests.

Castro faced questions from his colleagues and constituents after revealing he was an informant - questions about what his focus was when he was in office. During his last year in office Castro moved one bill. He was still a candidate in 2009 when he agreed to work as an informant and later ran for reelection while still in the same position.

For his part, Pichardo told Gotham Gazette that he is focused on finishing out session and working for the people of the Bronx in Albany. He doesn’t plan to be distracted by electoral matters until session is finished, he said. Lawmakers are wrapping up session in the capital before heading home to their districts and their reelection bids.

Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, who is Bronx County Democratic Chair, questioned whether Castro could legally run for office, given that he pled guilty to perjury. “I am fully committed to Victor Pichardo,” Crespo told Gotham Gazette.

A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office declined to comment on Castro’s run.

Castro actually faced a number of scrapes with the law before running for Assembly in 2009. The Daily News reported that he was arrested for felony larceny in Michigan in 1989; he pled down to a misdemeanor. In 2003, he was arrested for grand larceny for collecting unemployment checks while being employed; he pled that charge down to petty larceny, repaid the funds, and served three years probation. In 2008, he was arrested for driving with a revoked license, and also had $3,000 in unpaid parking tickets.

As for the perjury charge that led to his work as an informant, Castro stresses that the actual case had nothing to do with his work in the Assembly. The charge stemmed from Castro’s involvement in a district leaders race. Ten people were registered to vote out of Castro’s one-bedroom apartment. Asked about the situation by a special referee, Castro claimed he had no idea that many people were registered to vote there. He also testified he didn’t know the man who in reality served as his volunteer coordinator. That testimony led to an investigation by the Bronx District Attorney and the charges that led to Castro’s agreement to serve as an informant.

“It was at a hearing that I committed perjury,” Castro told Gotham Gazette. I didn’t do anything fraudulent to become Assemblyman. I committed perjury and I lived through the repercussions and I am truly sorry.”

Some in the Bronx do see Pichardo as being ripe for a challenge. In 2014, Pichardo claimed victory over challenger Hector Ramirez by only two votes - after a recount. Ramirez accused Pichardo of subverting the vote. But, in the end Ramirez was charged with a 242-count indictment related to massive voter fraud. Some Bronx politicos believe the race was tighter than it should have been despite Ramirez’s alleged voter fraud.

A number of observers wonder whether Castro will actually carry his campaign through petitioning, how he will raise money, and if he has given any thought to what life would be like for him in Albany should he actually win.

Castro said he is used to being out of the good graces of the Bronx County Democrats and expects not to have any union support, often key to marshalling votes in Democratic primaries.

“I think people are afraid of what county can do,” Castro said, referring to the Bronx County Democratic Committee. “I’ve beaten them just by knocking on doors. I will have to do everything by hand. I won’t have unions, but I did it before. I’m not afraid of it.”

It is unlikely Castro will be the only entrant into the primary to challenge Pichardo, and his candidacy seems like a long shot, but there appears to be something else at play in Castro’s run: his desire for a platform to redefine himself. Castro told reporters he was “done with politics” while leaving court after his November, 2014 sentencing. He said he would focus on selling energy efficient light bulbs. But it appears life out of politics didn’t give him the redemption he was seeking.

“Part of why I am running again is to let me say my piece,” Castro told Gotham Gazette. “There was no wire,” he said referencing stories that he wore a recording device when dealing with his colleagues in the Legislature. “I guess I broke an unwritten rule that you are not supposed to turn your back on your buddies. Once I get to Albany I will know how to handle myself. I had no friends there last time. It's not a problem.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Former Government Informant to Run for Old Assembly Seat Tue, 07 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Rumored Scheme Brings Scrutiny to Bronx Political Machine diaz jr heastie crespo

Diaz Jr., Heastie, Crespo (l-r) (photo: @rubendiazjr)

By all reasonable indicators, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson should cruise to reelection this November despite his low conviction rate, notoriously slow pace in filing charges, and apparent lack of serious fundraising. But many are watching closely to see if Johnson drops off the ballot this month and makes himself eligible to be appointed to a judgeship--thereby allowing the Bronx County Democrats to name his replacement.

As rumors and suspicions swirl, the notion of Johnson and other longtime Bronx party leaders manipulating the electoral system to their advantage comes as little surprise to those who've seen the Bronx machine at work. But, with powerful Bronx elected officials newly more prominent, the risks of such machinations are greater than in the past.

District Attorney Johnson has been in a unique situation for decades. Thanks to the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party, he has faced few serious political challenges since taking office in 1989 and is running this year on the Democratic, Conservative, and Republican ballot lines.

Bronx insiders are convinced that Bronx County Democratic Chair Marcos Crespo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (Crespo's predecessor as county chair) have decided to appoint Johnson to a judgeship and then replace him on the ticket with one of their allies, thereby subverting the democratic process.

The technique that could be used to replace Johnson isn't unique; it has been used time and time again across the city to, basically, gift seats to party-friendly candidates. The Bronx has long been a haven for the workings of the County Democratic machine, but with Heastie's ascent to one of the post powerful positions in the state and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.'s rising profile, it appears it will be much more difficult to pull off such maneuvers without paying a price.

Actions in the Bronx are now linked to the larger political aspirations of these rising stars and they've earned the attention of good government groups and media outside the borough.

What is particularly concerning to reformers inside and outside of government is that Crespo, Heastie, and Diaz would essentially be appointing the person who is, in part, supposed to police their actions. Johnson's record on corruption busting is suspicious to many. He has pursued cases against former Assemblymember Nelson Castro and former Senator Pedro Espada, but at the time both men were out of the county party's good graces. In fact, they were known for causing Bronx Democrats nasty headaches.

With Heastie, who this year replaced the indicted Sheldon Silver as speaker, pledging transparency and reform in the Assembly, some observers wonder if he isn't trying to avoid future embarrassment by being directly responsible for appointing the new district attorney.

"The bottom line is that it is always nice to have your derriere covered by a prosecutor that owes you their job," said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College.

Johnson's office has refused to comment for this story. Heastie has told other reporters that he gave up decision-making abilities as the chair of the Bronx County Democrats when he became Assembly speaker. And Assemblymember Crespo has avoided responding to queries from numerous outlets, including Gotham Gazette.

It stands to reason that Bronx Borough president Ruben Diaz, Jr., who would also have a say in the matter given his relationship with Heastie and his quest to run, eventually, for mayor. Diaz Jr.'s office also ignored requests for comment.

The scenario has been further complicated by Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda, who has made it no secret that he is interested the district attorney position. Sepulveda is said to have informed Johnson he would be challenging him down the road, even while helping him collect petitions for his reelection this summer.

Bob Kappstatter, a prolific Bronx journalist who currently works as a political consultant and counts Sepulveda as a client, took to Facebook to decry the behind-the-scenes machinations that may be afoot.

"We can count on one hand how many Bronx politicians Rob Johnson has gone after, with most of those being County's enemies. Meanwhile the feds have vacuumed the borough ALMOST clean," Kappstatter wrote on Facebook. "Carl [Heastie], whom we hear didn't expect all this heat from the media and good government groups, has dumped the deal in the lap of new County Leader Marcos Crespo, an honest, decent guy who will have to take the heat if it goes through. Marcos is already looking like Heastie's puppet, diminishing his power among the city's four other Dem county leaders while Carl still pulls County's strings."

Sepulveda's interest in the DA position has angered the Bronx County Democrats. Earlier this month the Daily News ran a story detailing how Sepulveda's estranged wife sought an order of protection from him earlier this summer. Both Luis and his wife told the Daily News that she withdrew the request. Insiders see it as retaliation from County for his interest in Johnson's job.

Exposing any deal among Johnson and other officials could benefit Sepulveda, because outside pressure might lead to Johnson stepping down after the election rather than before.

The process Bronx County Democrats could use to replace Johnson is particularly effective because Democratic enrollment in the borough greatly eclipses that of all other parties.

Democratic voters decide the election during the September primary, with the November election essentially being a formality - not that Johnson was challenged in the primary. If Johnson steps down before Election Day, his county-picked replacement would move into office with all the benefits of incumbency and the backing of the establishment. Any future primary challenger would face a well-known, well-financed incumbent who hadn't actually been elected by a significant number of voters.

"This is a fairly common practice in New York politics," said Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. "It is anti-competitive and it allows the newly appointed incumbent to use that incumbency to defeat their next challenger."

"As a general principle of government, it stinks," said Gene Russianoff of The New York Public Interest Research Group. "The primary election process might not be perfect but at least it offers hope. Forgoing it is a thumb in the eye to voters."

Johnson would have to submit a letter to the Board of Elections asking to be removed from the ballot by Monday, September 21.

If Johnson resigns after he is elected in November, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could name an interim district attorney and would eventually set a date for a special election. This would likely allow Sepulveda and other hopefuls a chance to actually vie for the seat.

Professor Benjamin said that voters should be especially concerned about the machinations involved in Johnson's possible replacement and appointment to a judgeship given what The New York Times described as "an unusual string of legal lapses" that allowed Heastie to keep a home his mother purchased with embezzled funds.

Heastie agreed to sell the house as part of a deal that allowed Heastie's mother to avoid jail time. His mother died three weeks after being sentenced and Heastie stopped trying to sell the home. He sold it six years later at a profit of $200,000.

"Carelessness of those involved in the case could be to blame, or something more questionable could have occurred, given the Bronx Democratic Party's influence on the court system and its long history of back-room deal-making," wrote the Times.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Rumored Scheme Brings Scrutiny to Bronx Political Machine Thu, 17 Sep 2015 23:24:55 +0000