By Anna Gustafson
Former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate surrendered this week to federal prosecutors on charges he misused city funds meant for a failed nonprofit in Corona to finance his own political campaigns, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan said.
Monserrate, who was expelled from his Albany seat in February after receiving a misdemeanor conviction for assaulting his girlfriend, allegedly used more than $100,000 he allocated as a city councilman to the Corona-based Latino Initiative for Better Resources and Empowerment Inc. for his Senate campaign, according to a two-count indictment unsealed in federal court in Manhattan Tuesday.
The indictment charges Monserrate with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and one substantive mail fraud count.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara also charged Monserrate with using workers from LIBRE to collect signatures to help Monserrate get on the ballot in 2006 as well as to canvass voters during his bid for the Council in 2005.
“As we move into the heart of the political season, today’s indictment of Hiram Monserrate should serve as a reminder,” Bharara said. “No campaign should ever be funded by fraud. Moreover, worthy nonprofits are supposed to have access to public money because they are meant to be a resource for communities, not a piggy bank for politicians. Public officials who act like they are above the law may get away with it for a while, but eventually we will find you and we will prosecute you.”
Joseph Tacopina, Monserrate’s attorney, said the former lawmaker intended to plead not guilty to the charges.
“He will fight the charges,” Tacopina said.
LIBRE ran English classes, immigration assistance, job placement programs and health education services. It shut down in 2008 after auditors from the city Department of Youth and Community Development began investigating it. Monserrate “played an important role in selecting LIBRE’s staff and the members of its board of directors,” from about 2005-07, according to the indictment.
Monserrate allocated $300,000 in Council discretionary funds to LIBRE, about $109,000 of which he allegedly used to finance his failed Senate campaign in 2006, Bharara said.
Monserrate in 2006 ran against then-Sen. John Sabini, a fellow Democrat, but lost by about 200 votes for the seat representing the 13th District, which covers East Elmhurst are surrounding areas. In 2008, he ran unopposed.
Prior to serving in the Senate, Monserrate represented the 21st Council District, now represented by Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst). Ferreras was listed in a 2005 tax return as LIBRE’s chairwoman. Ferreras has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
“I am aware of the indictments against Hiram Monserrate,” Ferreras said in a statement. “I have been cooperating with the authorities from the very beginning. Given the fact that this is an ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment any further.”
According to the indictment, LIBRE used the discretionary funds allocated by Monserrate to conduct a voter registration drive in the 13th Senate District in August 2006. At Monserrate’s direction, LIBRE created a database containing the names and contact information of the individuals in the voter drive and provided this information to Monserrate’s Senate campaign office, the court papers said.
Bharara said LIBRE also used discretionary funds to pay workers to gather signatures of registered voters on petitions to help Monserrate get on the ballot in 2006.
LIBRE also helped Monserrate when he ran for re-election for the Council in 2005, according to the indictment. Monserrate paid LIBRE workers about $5,000 to canvass residents of the Council district, it said.
“An indictment of a former elected official should be a rare and remarkable moment,” city Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn told a news conference at federal court in Manhattan Tuesday. “In fact, this is the third time in little more than a year that DOI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York have announced that a former or current city councilman has been charged with defrauding the taxpayers by abusing the discretionary funds.”
Martha Flores-Vazquez, a Democratic district leader in Flushing and a friend and supporter of Monserrate, said she did not believe the charges.
“At the end of the day, who’s behind this will come to light and I don’t think that will be Hiram,” she said. “I don’t know him the way that they’re depicting him.”
Additional reporting was contributed by Philip Newman and Connor Adams Sheets.
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.