Friday, February 17, 2012

Ridge Hill trial opens, but mystery persists regarding Forest City Ratner's role in compensating accused consultant who paid accused Council Member

According to the opening statements yesterday by defense lawyers in a federal corruption trial, there are explanations for why Yonkers Council Member Sandy Annabi was given money by her distant cousin, Yonkers Republican Party Chair Zehy Jereis, and why she changed her vote to enable Forest City Ratner's Ridge Hill development.

Jereis was infatuated with her, and Annabi believed that changes in the Ridge Hill project--retail, residential, and more--finally made it worthwhile.

The question is whether those arguments--presaged in pretrial papers--is whether they add up. After all, Annabi has denied the romantic relationship purported (or perhaps merely pursued) by Jereis. And, as previously reported, those changes in Ridge Hill were small beer.

Defense lawyers went after the go-between regarding the second project, Longfellow, Anthony Mangone, who already pleaded guilty to funneling cash to Jereis to pay off Annabi.

The question is whether and how they will go after Forest City, three of whose former staffers are expected to be mentioned or to testify in the trial, which is expected to resume Tuesday.

From the Times

In an article today headlined Prosecutor Tells How Ex-Yonkers Councilwoman Got Secret Payments, the New York Times reported:
A lawyer for Ms. Annabi, William I. Aronwald, said in his opening remarks that Ms. Annabi had changed her vote, but only after Forest City Ratner agreed to improve its deal with Yonkers, paying it an additional $10 million, as well as $500,000 more for a traffic mitigation study.
Whatever Mr. Jereis was hoping that his payments to her would accomplish, Mr. Aronwald said, “it had absolutely nothing to do with her vote.” He said there was “no quid pro quo” for Ms. Annabi “to vote for either one of those two projects.”
Mr. Jereis’s lawyer, Anthony J. Siano, suggested to the jury that much of the government case would come from a disbarred lawyer, Anthony Mangone, who had pleaded guilty in the conspiracy and was cooperating with the government. Mr. Siano explained his client’s payments to Ms. Annabi as resulting from his romantic feelings for her. Mr. Siano said that Mr. Jereis had “spent a lot of money pursuing Ms. Annabi, not for her vote but for her body” and that he had appeared to have been “enthralled, infatuated, bewitched” by her.
Forest City Ratner has not been accused of wrongdoing in the case. It has said that it “cooperated fully with the U.S. attorney’s office during the course of its investigation and will continue to do so.”
Does cooperation mean they got a deal--testify and avoid prosecution? The developer may not have been accused of official wrongdoing, but the actions--giving Jereis a no-show job after Annabi changed her vote--sure look fishy.

From the Journal News

The Journal News described, in an article headlined Ex-councilwoman Annabi accused of 'repeated betrayal' of public trust as Yonkers corruption trial opens, what might be called a "stream of payments theory," which does not require proving that specific bribes be connected to specific actions:
The prosecution contends that, beginning with her election to the City Council a decade ago, Jereis made frequent payments to Annabi and on her behalf in an effort to control her conduct on the City Council.
There were $60,000 in downpayments on two homes Annabi bought and the monthly utility and maintenance payments for a third she had to buy because the others were not in her district. He helped her pay off student loans and gave her $10,000 for lease payments on a Mercedes-Benz....
Will Forest City representatives describe bribes? The defense said no:
The defense went much further, and insisted jurors would hear about bribes from the mouths of only three witnesses, Mangone and the Milios, who themselves just pleaded guilty to evading taxes on $2.1 million.
That could be because Forest City, in its thinking, was not paying bribes, just rewarding Jereis.

The Journal News's coverage provided some rebuttal for Aronwald's defense of Annabi's actions:
Aronwald said Annabi had opposed the project because the city would give away too much in tax abatements and the developer was not willing to budge on the traffic and environmental concerns surrounding the project. Annabi changed her mind when the developer agreed to pay an extra $10 million to the city and $500,000 for a traffic mitigation study.
[Assistant U.S. Attorney] Halperin said those fgures were a pittance to the developers and that the concessions were conceived as political cover for Annabi.

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