Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Report: Bender, Cantone leave Forest City for new consulting firm; could pending Ridge Hill corruption trial be the spur?

Capital Tonight's Liz Benjamin had a scoop today about the departure of two key Forest City Ratner executives, but didn't connect the dots to a pending federal corruption trial that likely will mention--and perhaps involve--one of those executives.

[I've queried Forest City for confirmation. This would mean that four of five key executives listed as lobbyists in 2006 are gone.]

In Forest City Departures, New Firm In Offing, she wrote:
A reader called to report two departures from the Brooklyn-based developer, Forest City Ratner, whose name has become synonymous with the Atlantic Yards project: Bruce Bender and Scott Cantone are striking out on their own to create a new political consulting firm.

Apparently, there’s no ill will involved here. The duo felt that after a decade with Forest City, it was simply “time to go.” They’ll be doing a little of everything – consulting, lobbying etc. – and focus largely on NYC, although there might be some forays up to Albany, too. This enterprise is so new, it doesn’t even have a name yet.
Well, could that "reader" be someone close to Bender or Cantone who wanted to make sure to spin this the right way?

There may be no overt "ill will," but why would these top executives leave Forest City before their achievement--the arena--comes to fruition? Why would they leave Brooklyn's most powerful developer?

The Kruger case, or Ridge Hill?

Benjamin referenced Bender's most recent misstep:
Bender got some unwanted press recently when he was caught on the federal wiretap negotiating for state funds for a non-Ratner project with former Sen. Carl Kruger, who lost his seat after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.

Lobbyist Richard Lipsky, who represented Ratner, also pleaded guilty in the pay-to-play probe. Federal prosecutors said he paid hundreds of thousands in bribes to Kruger, the former Senate Finance Committee chairman.

No one from Forest City was indicated or charged in the case, and it is unclear if the company knew what Lipsky was up to.
The Kruger case must have been embarrassing for Bender--he was caught on wiretap not only cajoling (with foul language) Kruger for money to rebuild the Carlton Avenue Bridge (and then agreeing "I don't mind fucking the bridge"), he sought support for his wife's charitable project, the Lakeside Center in Prospect Park.

That must have raised a few eyebrows at Forest City offices, but that case is done.  However, on February 14, the federal corruption trial involving Forest City's Ridge Hill retail/residential project in Yonkers begins.

Forest City's point man

With Ridge Hill, Forest City needed a rezoning, but it didn't have the votes--and then it did. And Bender was apparently involved, if not implicated in the process of getting to yes. City Council Member Sandy Annabi, not long after she said the developer was “robbing the city blind,” changed her vote in 2006 to approve the project.

Annabi, who had a taste for luxury goods and apparently lived well beyond her means, was charged in early 2010 with accepting bribes regarding Ridge Hill and another (non-FCR) project, known as Longfellow. Her cousin, Zehy Jereis, then chairman of the Yonkers Republican Party, was charged for giving bribes regarding Ridge Hill and Longfellow. Anthony Mangone, also charged in the Longfellow case, has already pleaded guilty.

FCR, which shortly after Annabi’s vote hired Jereis for an apparent no-show job as a “real estate consultant,” was not charged and issued a statement that federal prosecutors said that neither it nor its employees was a "target" of the investigation.

FCR has never explained or justified that no-show contract, but it benefited significantly. Given the developer’s apparent cooperation with federal investigators, it will be interesting to see who will say what on the stand.

And if Forest City got immunity from prosecution, how will it look for an executive--say Bender, FCR's Ridge Hill point man--explaining in court exactly how business got done?

Former FCR lobbyist (and longtime Assemblyman) Mike Spano was elected Yonkers mayor last year, despite his opponent John Murtagh’s efforts to tie him to the unresolved charges regarding Ridge Hill.

Spano introduced Jereis to Forest City Ratner, specifically Bender. Murtagh has further said that Bender was with Zereis when the latter pressured him to change his vote on Ridge Hill, given that Annabi had turned.



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