Sunday, June 14, 2009

Non Compos Governmentis

IT'S TIMES LIKE THIS when you throw up your hands and break out the You Can't Make This Stuff Up line. Allow me to explain.

I had about an hour to kill this morning before meeting my brother for coffee, so I decided to run out and grab the Sunday papers. I wanted to read about the Subway Series as well as the latest developments on that bush league coup up in Albany, where two Democratic senators defected to the other side on Monday. So what do I see on the cover of the Daily News? For a second I thought it might have been Photoshopped or even a clever caricature, but it was real: Under the headline SCREWBALLS, it's the two jokers at Yankee Stadium yesterday taking in the game from $650 box seats -- Pedro Espada wearing a Yankees jersey and cap, Hiram Monserrate sporting a Queens Dominica shirt and I Love NY hat. And just like that we have a new post-Spitzer low in dignity and decorum.

Following gains in last November's election, Democrats took control of the state senate for the first time in 40 years, but on Monday that majority was history after less than six months as Republicans enticed Espada and Monserrate to join their power grab. The result: a slim 32-30 Democratic advantage became a tenuous 32-30 Republican advantage -- with a court set to rule on the gridlock Monday.

Not to worry, because the two freshman senators come with impeccable credentials when it comes to holding their own in the free-for-all Albany infighting. Espada represents a Bronx district but, contrary to Senate law, may not actually live in the borough he serves. Instead he is accused of residing in an exclusive Westchester suburb, and at last check did not even have an office in the Bronx. But wait, it gets worse. He's also been fined tens of thousands of dollars for campaign violations, with more pending, and the state attorney general is investigating allegations he diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions to a nonprofit healthcare organization he founded.

The other statesman in question, Hiram Monserrate, is even more scary. Last year, the same Republicans who on Monday welcomed him with open arms were calling on him to resign after he was charged with stabbing his girlfriend in the face with broken glass:
"It took more than 20 stitches to close the wound - "first in the face and muscle and then to the top layer of skin," prosecutors wrote. The heavyweight former cop was enraged because he found another man's business card in her purse, prosecutors said. Monserrate was caught on tape dumping the card into the trash chute and dragging his screaming girlfriend from the building."
That's right. This piece of work, who represents Elmhurst, a part of Queens about one district over from where I sit typing this stirring entry, was forced to "retire" from the NYPD because of a "psychological disability." He's also accused of falsifying a campaign bio, claiming he served in the Persian Gulf War although "military records indicate he never left the United States."

Yesterday's Room Eight New York Politics has a possible smoking gun. The website speculates on Monserrate's motivation for joining the coup and turning control of the Senate over to the Republicans. The dots connect the dissident senators to state power broker Tom Golisano -- the Rochester billionaire and serial gubernatorial defeatee (1994, 1998, 2002). Turns out Monserrate is looking at 7 years if convicted in the assault case, and maybe just maybe Golisano is willing to help out a little in a textbook case of political quid pro quo for dummies.

The turning point for Golisano, according to the New York Times, may have come "when Golisano met with senate majority leader Smith a few months ago to demand that the new majority drop its plans for modest tax increases for the wealthy, the billionaire was not treated with sufficient deference." Golisano soon was announcing he was moving to Florida to escape New York's burdensome tax code, claiming he would save $13,800 per day in income taxes, plus more from sales taxes, gasoline taxes, utility taxes and property taxes. Golisano then let it be known that he planned to fund "worthy causes" instead of spending it to fund "Albany's bloated bureaucracy, corrupt politicians or regular handouts to the special interests."

Room Eight notes that back in early May, just as Tom Golisano, political operative Steve Pigeon, Monserrate, Espada and new majority leader Dean Skelos began plotting to overthrow the Democratic majority, Monserrate switched lawyers to high-powered Joseph Tacopino -- who represented Michael Jackson in his child abuse trial. Among the revealing questions Room Eight raises are:

-Where's Monserrate getting the money to pay Tacopino $750 per hour, and what's its provenance?

-Was Monserrate promised help with this by Golisano, Pigeon, Espada, Skelos, Libous or any other individual?

-Were Monserrate's legal problems raised during the planning or recruiting stages of the coup, and if so, in what context?

-Why was Monserrate, in particular, recruited by Espada for the coup, and no other Democrat?
Juan Gonzalez also tried to make sense of the switch Friday in his Daily News column, noting that it came with just two weeks remaining in the session. The move put on hold legislation relating to issues like mayoral control of the city's education system, same-sex marriage, ethics reform, property taxes, changes to NYC rent laws:

One of the most important bills to be voted on in the last days of this Senate session is the end of vacancy decontrol. More than 200,000 city rental apartments would be placed back under rent stabilization. That would brake skyrocketing rents and directly benefit thousands of working-class Latino tenants. That legislation is the landlords' biggest nightmare.

Espada, as the head of the Senate Housing Committee, gets huge backing from those landlords. Monserrate, on the other hand, has always had a liberal voting record. People forget he was the first cop ever to sit on the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union. He is also the main sponsor of the bill to end vacancy decontrol. So why would tenant champion Monserrate join with landlord buddy Espada? And why would both defect to Republicans on the eve of the all-important vote on vacancy decontrol?

Why indeed? Well, it's never a surprise when politicians act according to sheer opportunism, self-interest and greed -- which in this case would certainly explain why rats like Espada and Monserrate would jump ship. After all, the former is reputedly upset he didn't get enough consideration for legislative “earmarks,” money for favored projects, as well as other perks; while the latter is said to be still smarting from the "Senate leadership’s stripping him of a committee chairmanship and the $12,500 stipend that goes with it after his indictment." Also, according to the Daily News, the Bronx District Attorney is looking into "whether Espada lives within his Senate district, as required by law" and in a separate matter, "whether a nonprofit Espada controls...demanded $2 million in state funds."

The new coalition immediately showed signs of fracture, with Espada claiming more Democrats were coming over and the new majority was "growing stronger by the minute" -- at the same time Democrats were trying to lure Monserrate back into the fold as he attempted to explain, if by explain you mean shed no new light whatsoever on the subject: "I am not a Republican. I am a Democrat. My understanding and agreement to coalition government was under certain criteria. You can't have a coalition with two Democrats and 30 Republicans."

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