Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Defendant Jereis cross-examined in Yonkers corruption trial: contestations, contradictions, and a major question: were the lovesick emails a sham?

As defendant Zehy Jereis underwent a tough cross-examination yesterday, the Yonkers corruption trial in U.S. District Court turned into a stew of contestations and contradictions.

Jereis, a local politico accused of using $174,000 in cash and gifts to control the vote of former Council Member Sandy Annabi, who flipped on two development projects (Longfellow, and Forest City Ratner's Ridge Hill), was steady but sometimes evasive in denying not only the accusations facing him but also statements about him by a range of witnesses, including those from Forest City regarding their discussions with him.

And prosecutors raised significant questions--but no more--about the legitimacy of the stream of emails from Jereis to Annabi professing his love for her and, according to the defendant, explaining the reason for his generosity. They were found on Annabi's computer--which also had a wave of deletions--but not Jereis's computer.

An expert witness testified that no "remnants" of the emails could be found on Annabi's computer, which exhibited signs of potential tampering, and no sign of them--or responses to the--on Jereis's computer, though he acknowledged that he neither could explain more about the tampering or whether Jereis used another device.

And one email referred incorrectly to the date of a payment Jereis sent, which prosecutors suggested was a sign they were made up later.

The coverage in the Times and the Journal News focused on those revelations, though much more was raised.

Case moving toward closure if not clarity

With only about two witnesses left, the case should go to closing arguments today. Jurors are left with an impression of Jereis as a bit of a contradiction: a burly, ex-fat man with sculpted eyebrows; a politically savvy Yonkers guy who spends days operating a gas station in a tough part of Brooklyn; a pining self-described Annabi boyfriend with a wife and kids he never attempted to leave.

Annabi, slender and stylish, with a mane of well-tended dark hair and a carefully made-up face, may leave the impression she's no stranger to male pursuit. A former friend testified that Annabi once dismissed Jereis as "not her type." But an understanding of Annabi's relationship with Jereis nor her work on the Council is hardly fleshed out, as she has not testified. Nor have the two defendants interacted.

And while jurors certainly will judge the behavior of Annabi and Jereis, they cannot--as Hezi Aris wrote in the Yonkers Tribune--get at all the un-indicted bigger fish, including Forest City Ratner and local politicos. They may not have been charged criminally but their political decisions are tinged with controversy.

Leading off

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Halperin first challenged Jereis on his history of veracity, asking him whether the election law crime to which he pleaded guilty--as described during his direct examination last week--involved making false statements.

"I don't believe so," Jereis said.

Halperin showed him his testimony at the plea hearing, and Jereis concurred.

"You've made other false statements in the past," Halperin continued.

Jereis paused before concurring.

Halperin noted that Jereis applied to be a notary public and, when asked under penalty of perjury if he'd been convicted of a crime, checked "no."

"This lie was just another 'little problem," Halperin asked, with an edge in his voice he maintained throughout most of his questioning.

"It was actually an oversight," Jereis replied solidly.

"The statement was also false because you had previously been convicted of another crime," Halperin continued.

Jereis's attorney, Anthony Siano, sprung up for a sidebar, ready to get U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon to bar further inquiry into a drug-related conviction, as it had not been brought up on direct examination.

Halperin said he would press no farther, that he merely wanted to establish the date.

Jereis concurred that he had lied.

Why Jereis left his job

Halperin asked about Jereis departure from his position working for state Sen. Nick Spano, the local power broker, in late 2005/early 2006.

Halperin cited the October 2005 testimony of Albanian mobster Mo Sanginiti, who said he paid Jereis $10,000 to help scotch an investigation by working through Al Pirro, the husband of Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro. (Pirro, who at one point worked for Forest City as a lobbyist, never got any money, according to the Daily News.)

"This wasn't the good kind of 'free earned media,'" Halperin suggested, using a phrase from Jereis's testimony last Thursday.

Jereis agreed it was bad press.

If Jereis and Annabi spoke "all the time," according to his earlier testimony, did they discuss Sanginiti's testimony?

"I don't recall," Jereis said.

Jereis was asked if he'd heard Anthony Mangone, a former Spano aide who had already pleaded guilty to bribery but has a checkered record of honesty, testify that Jereis had to leave Spano's employ because of the testimony.

Jereis said yes, though on re-direct he claimed he had to be outside Spano's office to assist in his re-election.

The gas station

Prosecutors aimed to show that, just as defense lawyers were targeting Mangone for dishonesty, so too was Jereis vulnerable. Also, just as defense lawyers pointed to the Milios, the family behind the Longfellow project, as hiring illegal aliens, prosecutors aimed to pin Jereis with similar charges.

Jereis co-owns a gas station in Brooklyn, Atlantic Gas & Wash in East New York, initially with six partners, now apparently with one. (That partner is named Joseph Ratner, or Rattner, and it was stipulated he is no relation to the Bruce Ratner heading Forest City Ratner.)

Jereis, who operates the premises, distanced himself from the hiring and payment of the workers, and their immigrant status, "My partner deals with the accountant," Jereis said, when confronted with forms sent the Internal Revenue Service.

"Your business reported only four employees to the IRS in tax years 2008 to 2010," Halperin said.

"I don't know," Jereis said.

He was shown a document with four employees listed, then a list of 14 current employees.

"You paid your brother in cash," Halperin said, regarding the brother's work.

"I helped my brother out," Jereis said.

The relationship

Halperin pressed Jereis on his explanation that he gave Annabi all those gifts because he was in love with her and hoped to make a life with her.

"But you knew there was no realistic" chance, Halperin asked.

"No," responded Jereis, who admitted, after follow-up questions that he was not only married but had another child while he was serving as Annabi's political confidant and, possibly, more.

Halperin pointed out that Jereis got two sets of keys to the condo he helped Annabi buy, but she asked for one set back.

In 2005, Halperin related, Jereis called Annabi and a man answered the phone, and when Jereis challenged her, she denied it, and claimed it was a wrong number.

"So she lied to you, yes or now."

"At the time, I didn't believe it [to be a lie]," Jereis responded.

"Ms. Annabi was dating other people," Halperin continued.

"I've never seen it," Jereis maintained.

"It's fair to say you knew there was no realistic chance" with her, Halperin pressed on.

"Not true," Jereis responded, leaving jurors to wonder whether he was a deluded dude, a political mastermind, or some mix of the two.

Later, Halperin pointed out that Jereis had testified he had fallen for Annabi in May 2001. But "it wasn't love at first site. You had seen her before."

"At a distance," Jereis said.

"A few times," Jereis admitted.

"You saw an opportunity for yourself" in Annabi as a candidate.

"No," said Jereis.

"You don't deny saying to Mike Spano [lobbyist, now Yonkers mayor[, Annabi was 'your political creation'?" Halperin asked.

"Yes, I deny that," Jereis responded.

"You didn't leave your wife," Halperin asked. Jereis confirmed that he still lives with her. (It was later stated that his wife works for Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, brother of Nick.)

He also agreed that he transferred most of his assets into a company under his wife's

Political influence

Halperin also asked about Jereis's role in hleping Annabi to be elected.

"You recognized, as a member of the City Council, Council Member Annabi would have authority over development projects," Halperin asked.

"That was not on my mind," Jereis responded.

"You recognized that," Halperin continued.

"Yes," Jereis admitted.

When Jereis met with Forest City Ratner on 6/2/06 at Marco Polo Ristorante in Brooklyn, and then at two locations with FCR and Annabi, "you met because you thought it would benefit you personally," Halperin said.

"No," Jereis said.

Halperin reminded Jereis of former Forest City executive Bruce Bender's testimony that Jereis had said he really wasn't opposed to the project. Bender had reported that Jereis had told him, "Well, maybe you just hired the wrong people."

"You do remember saying that?" Halperin asked.

"Absolutely not," Jereis insisted.

At the end of the 6/9/06 meeting, "you asked Forest City Ratner for a job," Halperin related.

"I actually asked him [Scott Cantone] for an opportunity," Jereis tried to clarify.

"By opportunity you meant job," Halperin continued.

"Yes," acknowledged Jereis.

At that time, Halperin pointed out, Jereis was continuing to pay Annabi's mortgage, utility, and cable bills.

Witness Joe Galimi, a former Yonkers official and former aide to Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lentol, had testified he'd seen the press release, which announced Annabi's changed vote on Ridge Hill, on Jereis's computer.

"Not true," Jereis said.

"You told Mr. Galimi you helped draft Ms. Annabi's press release," Halperin continued.

"Not true," Jereis stated.

"The day after she issued the press release, you set a resume and cover letter" to Forest City, Halperin said.

"At the request of them," Jereis replied.

Halperin detailed three to five emails Jereis sent to Forest City and noted their testimony that he was "very persistent." Would he agree?

"That's not correct," maintained Jereis.

Forest City told you they would not give you a job until after Annabi's vote, Halperin suggested. (Actually, they said they put him off.)

"It was brought up," Jereis said. "They didn't get too into detail." He also denied that Forest City made clear that he wouldn't be hired until after Annabi's 7/11/06 vote.

The benefits

Halperin walked Jereis through a series of payments on behalf of Annabi, including student loans, down payments, on houses and a car, utilities and cable bills.

He noted that, while Jereis disputed the $20,000 Longfellow bribe within the $174,000 that had been previously identified, Jereis had admitted spending other $20,000 on election expenses, making it a wash.

"The farther her political career went, the more influence you would have," Halperin suggested.

"No," responded Jereis.

"You spoke to Ms. Annabi about how you were seeking a job from Forest City Ratner?"

"I never mentioned that to Ms. Annabi," Jereis responded.

At a meeting before the City Council vote on Ridge Hill, Jereis set up a meeting with another Council Member, John Murtagh, advising him to join the majority, then 5-2.

"You were looking for political cover for Council Member Annabi," Halperin suggested.

"Not necessarily," Jereis responded. He later testified that he was trying to help Murtagh in a future campaign.

The Forest City contract

Sometime before Jereis signed the $5000/month consulting contract with Forest City Ratner, he asked Mangone to review a draft, right?

Jereis agreed, without being asked the date. Later he'd say it was after the vote.

"It's fair to say you did almost no work" for Forest City?

"It's not true," Jereis maintained.

"You never filed monthly reports until after" March 2007, when news of the federal investigation surfaced, Halperin pressed.

"They never asked me for reports," Jereis responded.

Halperin described how, in a 3/12/07 email, Jereis "attached the last seven months of monthly reports," from August 2006 through February 2007.

"I guess so," Jereis responded.

"You testified the first time anyone from Forest City Ratner asked for monthly reports was March 2007?"

"Yes," responded Jereis.

Halperin pointed to the terms of Jereis's contract, which required monthly report.

"They never brought it up to me," Jereis maintained.

"You did not think you had an obligation to file monthly reports?"

"Yes," Jereis responded.

"You treated your consulting contract as a no-show job," Halperin suggested.

"Not correct," Jereis responded, adding that he was "searching" properties for Forest City throughout the period.

But many of those properties, a Forest City witness had testified, were already sold or way too small for their needs, Halperin noted.

The Yonkers City Council contract

Halpering reminded Jereis how Kevin Cacace of the Yonkers Chamber of Commerce testified how Senator Nick Spano was to arrange a member item grant for $175,000, including $100,000 to pay Jereis.

The Chamber paid Jereis more than $96,000 in 2006-07.

Halperin reminded Jereis how Cacace testified he contributed "practically nothing" and how they "had to continually prod and ask for reports." The majority of reports were submitted after news of the investigation surfaced.

"Are you claiming Mr. Cacace never asked for monthly reports until after March 2007?" Halperin asked.

"Yes," said Jereis.

"You would agree you contributed 'practically nothing'?" Halperin asked.

"I tried my best," Jereis maintained. "I did contribute."

Jereis later said that, while he had been hired to gain city, county, and state support for the Chamber, Cacace had made political enemies and that it was not possible to change that.

The Longfellow case

Jereis vigorously contested much testimony from chief defense witness Mangone, though he agreed that, when meeting with the Milios at Mangone's office, both he and Franco Milio reported that he had told Mangone, "Let me know what you want me to."

Jereis did dispute Mangone's testimony that Annabi, in June 2006, was "hounding" him for money.

When Mangone testified about how he and Jereis schemed to bribe a candidate to keep him off the Independence Party line, thus helping Nick Spano, Jereis said, "That's a lie."

Halperin then focused on the $10,000 Mangone purportedly paid Jereis on 7/13/06 outside a White Plains restaurant called Trotters. on July 13, 2006. Mangone said Jereis was driving a white Mercedes-Benz. Jereis, however, drove a blue Mercedes.

Halperin, displaying the lease for Annabi’s white Mercedes, which Jereis funded via a down payment, suggesting he could have been driving her car. However, on questioning from Annabi’s lawyer William Aronwald, Jereis said he never drove Annabi's car, which was smaller than his and thus less able to accommodate him.

The ticket upgrade and the limits of help

Halperin pressed Jereis on the $3864 ticket upgrade for Annabi's trip to Jordan. Jereis testified last week that he put in $1500, adding to family contributions.

"You recall her father filed for bankruptcy," Halperin pointed out, then added that Annabi had told an FBI agent that her father "never gave me a penny."

"It was a collection," Jereis maintained.

"You did a lot of things for her," Halperin pressed.

"I was trying to do whatever I could to win Sandy over," Jereis responded.

"You would do anything for her," Halperin continued.

"Whatever would make her happy," Jereis responded.

"That would include lying under oath," Halperin pressed.

"No," responded Jereis.

Later, Halperin pressed. "You never slept with her?"

"Correct," Jereis responded.

"You were never romantically involved."

Jereis hedged: "What do you mean by romantically?"

"You were never boyfriend/girlfriend."

"I considered her my girlfriend, yes," responded Jereis.

Later, Halperin tried to ask Jereis about testimony from two witnesses who'd said Annabi had said they were friends but not romantically or sexually involved. Defense lawyers successfully limited that line of questions, leaving McMahon to advise Halperin to avoid argumentative questions and save such rhetoric for closing arguments.

The (contended) connection

"You testified that Sandy Annabi enjoyed the benefits you provided," Halperin stated.

"I guess," Jereis said.

"You were in a position to make her available for a meeting [with Forest City]," Halperin said, "because nobody else had that kind of political sway."

"No," Jereis said, prompting Halperin to point out that Forest City lobbyists Al Pirro and Mike Spano couldn't get a meeting with Annabi.

"You know that Ridge Hill could not proceed without Sandy Annabi," Halperin added. "You were thinking of cashing in also."

"No, that's not correct," Jereis stated.

Repairing the testimony

Annabi's attorney Aronwald then had his shot, greeting Jereis to start. The defendant responded, "How are you."

"Probably better than you," quipped Aronwald, who proceeded to gently lead Jereis through testimony that aimed to repair his arguments.

What was Jereis's intent in giving Annabi money?

"I wanted to help Sandy out in any way I could help her," Jereis stated. "I wanted to be her boyfriend and take care of her."

Did you ever tell her the money was to control her vote?

"Absolutely not," Jereis responded.

As for a string of phone/text contacts among Jereis, Mangone, and Annabi on the day the bribe was allegedly delivered, Aronwald pointed out that Jereis's contact with Annabi came some two hours after a contact with Mangone.

Was there any relationship between the two contacts?

"Absolutely not," responded Jereis.

"Mr. Jereis, did you receive any money from Anthony Mangone at any time in connection with the Longfellow project?"

"Absolutely not."

What about the meeting outside Trotters?

"Never happened."

Jereis's payments began in 2001. Aronwald pointed to a 2005 email professing romantic feelings. "Did this email have anything to do with getting Sandy's vote?"

"No," responded Jereis.

Aronwald asked why Jereis stayed overnight outside Annabi's apartment one night in July 2005.

"It was a hot summer night," Jereis said, and her neighborhood was dangerous. "She was scared and worried.... I didn't want nothing to happen."

"Remember, politics is secondary," Aronwald read from one of Jereis's emails. "And our friendship is a lifetime."

Arondwald pointed to a December 2006 email in which Jereis stated, "I finally woke up and realized it was not going to happen."

Jereis testified that 2005 and 2006 were "hot and cold," and that, I gave it my last shot with this email, maybe a few others."

"You continued the stream of payments," Aronwald asked.

"On the co-op," Jereis agreed.

Regarding the meeting with Forest City, Aronwald pointed out that Jereis told the developer the only way to get Annabi's vote was to make concessions--and they did.

"Did you tell Sandy Annabi you were discussing a consulting job [with Forest City]?" Aronwald asked.

"I never did.

In getting Annabi's vote on the Longfellow project, Aronwald pointed out, Annabi wanted concessions, and got them.

Repairing the testimony, part 2

Jereis's lawyer Siano then got the defendant to explain some of the testimony previously elucidated.

The meeting with Murtagh, Jereis said, was to protect him politically.

Did Jereis see a contract from Forest City in or about July 2006?

"No."

Did he share that contract, which came around October, with Mangone?

"Yes."

Did anyone tell Jereis to submit reports to FC Acquisitions, the subsidiary--which Siano called "fictitious"--of Forest City?

"No," Jereis responded.

"Did you have an understanding of what [Forest City executive Rich] Pesin wanted?" Siano asked, regarding the consulting agreement.

"He wanted me to locate empty lots where they could build small supermarkets," Jereis stated.

Pesin didn't testify, but former Forest City exec John Swagerty testified that the developer only looks for large properties. Either Jereis was lying or Forest City asked Jereis to do something, perhaps within his skill set, that was of little or no benefit to the company.

Did Jereis's departure from Spano's employ have anything to do with the Sanginiti testimony?

No, Jereis said.

When was the first time Jereis learned that the member item to fund the Yonkers Chamber never passed?

Only just before the trial, said Jereis, who added that Cacace's political ambitions hampered any effort to raise money.

Regarding Mangone and Longfellow, "did you initiative conversations?"

"He did," Jereis testified.

"Did he offer you money?"

"No."

"Did he give you money?"

"No."

"Did he tell you to pay money to Sandy Annabi?"

"No."

Jereis, Siano elucidated, had worked for more than 75 candidates, but had never fallen in love with or made expenditures on behalf of any other.

"Was it in any way your plan to stop paying if she had decided to vote against Ridge Hill?" Siano asked.

"I would have paid them regardless," Jereis stated. "I had a vested interest in that apartment, and I cared for her."

Challenging the repairs

Halperin, given a chance for re-cross, pointed out that, after Jereis acknowledged that he realized "it was not going to happen," you kept paying Ms. Annabi's bills."

Jereis assented.

Halperin pointed to an email from 7/25/05 in which Jeres recounted how he paid for Annabi's new apartment in late December 2004. But the actual check date was 11/30/04.

"So, Mr. Jereis, your time is off by about a month," Halperin stated.

"There's an explanation for this," Jereis asserted.

"You forgot the date because you made up these emails years later," Halperin pressed.

"That's not correct," Jereis stated.

"None of these emails has any substantive response from Ms. Annabi," Halperin continued.

"Correct."

"She never responds."

"She responds."

"No emails from her."

"Not in here," Jereis allowed.

Jereis then left the stand.

Challenging an FBI agent

Siano then called FBI Special Agent Michael Mazzuca, lead agent on the case. He got the witness to acknowledge that Mangone had told investigators two different accounts of which members of the Milio family had delivered the money, as well as when it happened.

"Did you ever say to Mr. Mangone, 'the Milios weren't in the country?'" Siano asked.

Prosecutors objected.

Siano re-phrased the question. "When did you learn the Milios were out of the United States?"

"During the trial," Mazzuca acknowledged.

"Where did you write down that you expressly confronted Anthony Mangine with the conflict" in his testimony, Siano asked.

"It wasn't specifically written down," Mazzuca said.

On cross-examination, Mazzuca agreed that he didn't think Mangone's testimony was "anything other than an honest lack of recollection."

"Once he began cooperating, his story did not change," Mazzuca said.

Siano, given another shot, pressed Mazzuca on his methods, and whether FBI reports were presented to other agents for investigations.

Then the defense rested.

The question of computers

In contrast with Mazzuca, who with his close-cropped hair looks like a government agent, Detective Shlomo Koenig, a computer expert with the Rockland County Sheriff's Department, cut a different figure: a Hasidic Jew, with sidecurls and kipah.

Koenig first testified at length outside the jury, giving McMahon a chance to opine on whether the testimony was admissible, then repeated that testimony, in truncated form, when the jury returned.

The gist was that there was something odd about Annabi's computer. The file holding AOL mail should have a current date that is more recent than the backup file, but in this case, that was reversed, with the current file dated 2/22/07 and the backup 3/22/07, both shortly after news of the federal investigation surfaced.

Any change to an email, Koenig said, would change the file.

"The current folder was older than the backup," Koenig said. "It shouldn't be that way."

Also, he said, on 2/20/07 and 2/22/07, some 6000 files were deleted from Annabi's computer. "I can't say why they were deleted."

Typically computers show remnants of emails that are opened, Koenig said, but no such remnants were visible on Annabi's computer.

Were they any responses to Jereis's emails?

No.

More recently, Koenig was asked to search Jereis's computer, and looked at the drive that was used from 2005-08.

He found none of the emails, even when he searched for deleted mail, Koenig confirmed, though he found other emails.

Koenig's cross-examination before the jury will begin this morning.

However, before the judge, Aronwald asked him, "Isn't it true you cannot express an opinion that these emails are not authentic?"

"Yes, sir," Koenig responded.

Koenig acknowledged that the emails would not have shown up on Jereis's computer had they been sent form his office, or his Blackberry. However, on re-direct, he said he had searched the only Jereis computer offered, and it was pointed out that one message was sent early in the morning just after Jereis said he got home.

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