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11th January
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, January 11, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Allies of mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer, the former president of the Bronx, are privately sweating over a federal probe that involves a number of his closest Bronx supporters.The investigation is thought to involve as many as nine public officials and Democratic Party functionaries. Fourteen subpoenas were issued back in August.

At the center of the investigation is state Senator Efrain Gonzalez Jr., a veteran lawmaker known more for his deal making and fund-raising prowess than for his legislative skill. Mr. Gonzalez has incorporated a web of nonprofit groups, funded in part through money he raised ostensibly for his campaigns. At least one of these, the West Bronx Neighborhood Association, seemed to rack up quite a bit in questionable expenses.
Mr. Gonzalez has raised more than a million dollars in campaign funds, despite never having any opposition until just last year. So little was left that Mr. Gonzalez’s modest 2004 campaign ended up $56,000 in debt.
Federal prosecutors appear interested not just in the trail of the Gonzalez funds, but in similar groups and campaign funds of other top Bronx Democratic politicos, all allies of Mr. Ferrer. The probe is thought to reach the highest levels of the Bronx organization, across the various family fiefdoms that, while all on the Ferrer bandwagon, are engaged in intense intramural competition for future advantage.

With several politicos targeted simultaneously, there is palpable fear over who may be implicating whom in the effort to avoid prosecution and cut the best possible deal for himself.

While neither Mr. Gonzalez nor his attorney, Murray (Don’t Worry) Richman, the Bronx’s most respected criminal lawyer, will comment, Mr. Gonzalez’s son, Efrain III, is flooding Bronx weeklies with e-mails proclaiming not only that his father is innocent, but that when completed, the probe “will reveal more than some people in the political arena will ever want disclosed.”

Mr. Gonzalez fils believes that the entire investigation is nothing more than a Republican plot to help Mayor Bloomberg defeat Mr. Ferrer.

“The GOP controls the White House, the N.Y. State House, and City Hall, so if they want to attack the members of the Bronx Democratic Party, who is going to stop them? When my father and the 14 other members were issued subpoenas, that alone was a message being sent by the GOP that they will do anything in their power to keep Mayor Bloomberg in power, because all those members being probed, are working to support Ferrer in [the] mayoral race.”

If the Republicans were looking for a target through which to derail Mr. Ferrer, Efrain Gonzalez is a curious choice. More than any other Bronx Democrat, Mr. Gonzalez has been a reliable ally for the GOP, having supported Alphonse D’Amato in 1992 and 1998, Rudy Giuliani in 1997, and George Pataki in 1998.
There is speculation that the ultimate target of the probe might be power broker Roberto Ramirez, Mr. Ferrer’s most intimate campaign aide. Allegations of manipulation of Mr. Ferrer’s 2001 campaign for Mr. Ramirez’s personal financial benefit first appeared in the Village Voice in August 2003. According to the Voice, $1.7 million of Mr. Ferrer’s campaign expenditures, financed in large part by public matching funds, went to firms with ties to Mr. Ramirez.

A scandal is the last thing Mr. Ferrer needs in the effort to unseat a mayor whose billions make him appear incorruptible.

Ironically, it is the Rev. Al Sharpton who warned Mr. Ferrer about his ties to Mr. Ramirez. In a recent interview with Gerson Borrero of El Diario, Mr. Sharpton cautioned the former Bronx president that his reliance on Mr. Ramirez and the Bronx Democratic machine could sink his campaign. Mr. Ramirez ran Mr. Sharpton’s presidential campaign, a political marriage that ended badly, awash in unpaid bills and broken promises.
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“It’s good,” Mel Brooks reminds us, “to be the king.” For Mayor Bloomberg, being the incumbent provides the opportunity to use the powers of office to advance his re-election bid.

When the mayor made a quick stop in Riverdale last week to crow about the MTA takeover of the first of the city’s private bus lines, he demonstrated how that power gives him an advantage.

After picking up a bagel —“Well done – almost burned, that’s how I like it” — and coffee to go from Rolen Bagels, Mr. Bloomberg crossed the street to greet commuters waiting for the 7:20 a.m. express bus to Manhattan. Minutes later, as cameras rolled, the most magnificent, gleaming new bus drove up. The mayor announced to wide-eyed commuters, accustomed to the seedy 15-year-old models used by the now-bought-out Liberty Lines, that more such buses were on the way.

As the incumbent, the mayor can commandeer a bright shiny new bus to feed a photo-op. But as an earlier king, Louis XVI, can attest, being king can be a double-edged sword. Next month, those impressed commuters will have to start dropping another dollar a ride into the fare box. That is the point at which the mayor may feel the February wrath of the grateful commuters of January.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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