Council Scandal Sends Shockwaves Through Queens

The worst scandal to shake the New York City Council in recent memory centers around a plot of land in Brooklyn, but the aftershocks of Angel Rodriguezs collapse are reverberating through Queens.
When Councilman Rodriguez (D Brooklyn) was arrested last week and charged with extortion, fraud, and a host of other crimes, he embarrassed the new, idealistic City Council, tarnished the legacy of the recently departed old guard, and cast suspicion upon the negotiations that take place behind the closed doors of the Council Chambers.
There is no evidence to suggest that any other councilmember was a party to Rodriguezs alleged misdeeds. But because of their positions in the Councils Land Use Committee, a number of Queens members are critically placed to shed light on the proceedings that resulted in the Rodriguez investigation.
Federal prosecutors have accused Rodriguez, a second-term councilman, of orchestrating a transaction whereby he would receive a payoff of $50,000 in cash and a $1.5 million discount on real estate from developer Gregory OConnell in exchange for a reversal of his public position opposing OConnells plan to convert a dilapidated warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn into a Fairway supermarket. Rodriguez, an accountant by trade, and his alleged accomplice, Jonathan Morales, were apprehended following a sting operation in which OConnell secretly tape-recorded conversations with the two defendants. They also allegedly made two separate payments of $9,000 toward the demanded sum. Rodriguez and Morales have entered pleas of not guilty and have been released on $500,000 bail. If convicted, both men could face maximum penalties of 85 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
Wielding Influence?
Rodriguez, who served as chair of the Revenue and Forecast Subcommittee of the Finance Committee until resigning last week, was not a member of the Land Use Committee, or its Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee, the bodies most integral to the approval process. Rodriguez figured into the decision, it seems, as Red Hooks representative to the Council.
Still, the charges against Rodriguez suggest that the councilman represented himself to OConnell as having the authority to influence the Councils decision on the Fairway deal, some local elected officials said. As a result of Rodriguezs initial opposition to the Fairway project, Zoning and Franchises delayed its decision on the issue. However, according to Queens Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D Forest Hills), who chairs the Land Use Committee, the subcommittees ultimate decision was not influenced by Rodriguezs change of heart. "Anytime a councilmember has a problem with something or an application, out of respect you give the councilmember a few days to work it out. That was done," said Katz. She insisted that "at no time whatsoever" was this project going to be turned down. "In fact, the subcommittee voted to approve the project even before Angel had withdrawn his opposition," added the councilwoman. Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), chair of Zoning and Franchises, declined to answer any questions regarding Rodriguez.
Councilman Eric Gioia (D Woodside), who is a member of Zoning and Franchises, said that the subcommittee approved the proposed Fairway on its "merits." He says that Fairway will serve as part of the Citys much-needed waterfront revitalization. Gioia also noted that the Fairway issue was one inherited by the current Council from the previous one. Former Councilman Walter McCaffrey (D-Woodside), who chaired the Zoning and Franchises Committee in the last session of the Council, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Councilman Leroy Comrie (D St. Albans), who serves on the Land Use Committee, said that he was not involved in the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittees discussions. He stated, however, that "we were told he [Rodriguez] didnt make any significant mark in influencing the process one way or the other." Comrie pointed to the fact that the Dept. of City Planning, the City Planning Commission and the local community board had all advocated for Fairway prior to Rodriguezs alleged improprieties.
Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D Jackson Heights), also a member of Land Use, said that "there was a consensus that the project should go forward and thats how we dealt with it." Both the subcommittee and the full Council unanimously approved the proposal.
No Finger Pointing
Like most of Rodriguezs Council colleagues, Monserrate did not point an accusatory finger at Rodriguez, stating that all Americans are innocent, until proven guilty. "Im not saying theres culpability. Theres no culpability towards any of us. In fact, if these allegations are decided to be true through a judicial process that would be the actions of one individual"
Monserrate said that he had "a good relationship" with Rodriguez and that the "allegations were terribly shocking." Though Council colleagues close to the January speakers race, in which Rodriguez was a frontrunner, said that Monserrate backed Rodriguez for the position, the councilman claimed that he was "neutral" in the contest.
The principal concern of most councilmembers now is that the publics confidence in their propriety has not been damaged. Councilman David Weprin (D Hollis), who chairs the finance committee of which Rodriguez was once a member, said that "its still too early to tell" what will be the fallout of the scandal. "If they [the accusations] are true, it would be a terrible tragedy. It makes people cynical about public officials in general and thats certainly not good."
Rodriguezs disgrace comes only a few months after his failed bid for council speaker. Rodriguez was unable to assemble a broad coalition of support, and his campaign collapsed, leaving him ultimately without a single vote. Tom Manton, the head of the Queens Democratic Party, who was instrumental in arranging the victory of his opponent, A. Gifford Miller (D Manhattan), chose Miller after interviewing the two finalists for the job. Though Manton says he had no inkling of what was to transpire, he is humbly relieved that he made what now seems unquestionably the right decision. "Someone said to me: Are you smart or lucky?" recounted Manton. "I said, Youre dealing with someones life here. Youre not smart or lucky in this situation. Its a terrible tragedy."