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29th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 29, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Henry Stern, the former Parks Commissioner who has become one of our city’s most knowledgeable watchdogs of the public interest, has issued a challenge to anyone who wants to present an alternative view on Guy Velella’s early release from prison. No one has yet taken advantage of this offer to make a case on Velella’s behalf.

Until now.

As the editor of newspapers that circulate in his home borough, I have followed Velella throughout his public career. I like him, and I have turned to him for support on public policy matters that impacted on my community. I have endorsed him on the editorial pages of my papers.

After his offices and his home were raided by the Manhattan District Attorney in the spring of 2000, it was clear to me that the rumors about possible corruption had finally put a cloud over him that should preclude his reelection. That year I endorsed his opponent.The voters, however, disagreed, despite the pending indictment.There is some evidence that werehis name was on the ballot today,he would best the three men currently vying to replace him.

The idea that Velella should be returned to prison is wrong and unfair.Unless someone can come up with evidence of a payoff, all Velella has done is advocate, successfully, for his own early release.This is his right.Did anyone expect him to petition for a longer sentence? Velella clearly had an advantage knowing that the low-profile commission that freed him existed. Should he be punished for this? As part of his plea agreement, both the prosecutor and the judge agreed not to oppose Velella’s conditional release, which suggests they knew such an effort would be made.

Now what exactly is Velella’s “conditional release?” Had he served his full sentence, less time off for good behavior, he would have walked out of Rikers in February, finished with the criminal justice system.The purpose of the Local Conditional Release Commission is to identify inmates who could serve, without endangering the public safety, as an alternative to incarceration — a rigorous probation. Remember that the board was created when the jails were bursting at the seams,and some inmates had to be released to alleviate overcrowding.

So for the next year, well beyond the time that he would have served in Rikers, Velella must report in to his probation officer twice a week. His probation officer can visit his home, unannounced at any time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Velella is forbidden to leave the boundaries of the city, not even to cross the Westchester border, five minutes from his home, to visit the portion of his old district that is not in the Bronx. He is similarly barred from the practice of law. This may be better than Rikers, where Velella was kept in virtual solitary confinement, but it is a real punishment.

One might ask how Velella’s punishment compares with the penalties imposed on other public officials for similar infractions. Gloria Davis, a veteran Democratic Assembly member from the Bronx, was forced to resign in another corruption scandal not even two years ago. What did she do? She solicited and received a $24,000 bribe to steer a contract for the construction of a drug treatment center in her district.There was no pretense here,as in the case of Velella,of a fee to a law firm or a campaign contribution. This was a cash payment pure and simple, including thousands of dollars in marked bills confiscated from her person.

Her “bagman” was a fellow named Carlos Jenkins, who was forced to resign from a Civil Court judgeship literally weeks after assuming the judicial post that Ms. Davis obtained for him. Davis was also implicated in the scandal surrounding the private corrections company seeking to do business with the state that was bribing legislators with transport to and from Albany and other perks. Davis took advantage of these free rides, and then put in for an illegal travel reimbursement from the state.Davis was sentenced to 90 days in jail, and served just 60, a month less than Velella.

In his presentation to the board,Velella could produce a portfolio of letters attesting to his accomplishments in his community and his general decency. To their shame, a number of those who wrote have since hemmed and hawed, backing away from the letters they penned on the ex-Senator’s behalf. Only Mayor Koch asked, “What are friends for, only the good times?”

If the former members of the Local Conditional Release Board failed to follow their own procedures, that is not Velella’s fault. Mayor Bloomberg acted swiftly to address the questions about the board raised byVelella’s premature, but perfectly legal and,in my view,proper, release. It is time to move on.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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