Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ex-Assemblyman Seminerio Sentenced to Six Years for Accepting Illegal Payments

By Conor Greene

Disgraced former Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio has been sentenced to six years in prison for illegally accepting consulting fees from individuals and companies doing business with the state over the past decade.

Seminerio, 74, pleaded guilty last year to theft of honest services for accepting about $1 million from companies including Jamaica Hospital through a consulting firm he ran from his home. Last Thursday, he was sentenced to prison by a federal judge, despite pleas from his attorneys to grant him home confinement. He must repay $1 million.

“When you were elected, you were given a great privilege,” the Justice Naomi Reice Buchwald, told Seminerio while handing down his sentence. “You abused the trust placed in you... You decided to take a piece of the action.

Seminerio represented the 38th Assembly district for more than 30 years before resigning in disgrace last year after the consulting scheme came to light. When pleading guilty, Seminerio admitted to pulling strings in Albany for Jamaica Hospital while accepting more than $300,000 from the facility. In return, the hospital received state funding.

“I’ll be OK,” the fallen politician reportedly told friends and family as he exited the federal courtroom in Manhattan last week. When approached by reporters, he added: “I’m 74 years old. How much time have I left? I’ve been through enough, please. Be kind.”

Following Seminerio’s resignation last year, Democrat Mike Miller was victorious in a special election to represent the district, which includes Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, Glendale and Ozone Park. “The criminal justice system has run its course, and as a result of his criminal conduct, Tony Seminerio now faces several years in prison and the forfeiture of $1 million,” said Miller in
a statement issued to The Forum.

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D- Ozone Park), who has served in Albany for more than two decades, said the sentencing is the culmination of a long and painful investigation into the behavior of a former colleague. “I think he thought it wasa death sentence,” she said. “He is not young, and he’s not doing well, but the judge could have given him 14 years. The judge said it – he violated the public trust. It’s about integrity. People expect that we’re not doing anything illegal.”

The impact of Seminerio’s fall from power on the district includes problems with funding earmarked for various local non-profit and community groups that never material- ized, something both Miller and Pheffer touched on. “While the Seminerio case is closed, vital community groups continue to suffer as a result of his scandal,” said Miller. “The time has come for our community to move forward and focus on rebuilding these programs.”

Said Pheffer: “It seems that the district was upset about the delivery of member items and discretionary funding. There was money lost in the turnover. I think some groups were adversely affected by the loss of funding.”

Questions Surround Gov's Aqueduct Pick

By Patricia Adams

The sigh of relief that came with last week’s award of the bid to redevelop Aqueduct Racetrack was followed this week by a sigh of contempt from local elected officials and residents alike.

The focus of local furor centers on allegations swirling rampantly about Albany that David Paterson is on the cusp of a possible resignation from the governorship -- and that the bid award was motivated by political agenda. The contract in question is for the installation of 4,500 video lottery terminals at the struggling Ozone Park venue.

On Friday afternoon Paterson’s lead counsel, Peter Kiernan, made statements admitting politics was a critical factor in choosing the Aqueduct Entertainment Group as the winner. Kiernan’s statements came on the heels of protestations from groups who lost out on the bid, citing a flawed process complicated by what they called political favoritism.

James Featherstonhaugh, a veteran Albany lobbyist who represented Delaware North in the bidding, called the process and its associ- ated delays, “bizarre,” adding that he “never witnessed anything like it in 40 years of experience in Albany.”

State Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) spoke out on Friday during an interview with NY1. “I have been a critic of it [the process] ever since I felt that we had the same number of bidders for the last eight months and we’ve had all their financial information for the last eight months. We could have made this decision some time in 2009,” said Addabbo, “it took us this long to make this decision and then when the decision is made, it’s questionable.”

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer has been involved from the inception of the Aqueduct proposal. “It’s a very serious issue that we have these potential complications,” Pheffer told The Forum. “The state needs this money by April 1 and we can only hope that everything will move forward. I assume they [AEG] are going to come up with the $300 million and if they can’t I trust that they’ll tell us so that we can move on.” Pheffer says she was particularly encouraged by the transparency AEG displayed throughout the process.

During an interview with The Forum, Community Board 10 Chair Betty Braton expressed confidence in the winning bidder. "AEG's proposal to develop the VLT facility is a solid one, the company has been communicating with us and has been forthcoming over the course of the past year with any information the Community Board requested,” she said. “The conditions set forth as part of the decision are certainly reasonable ones and AEG has indicated the company can meet them. We expect that it will.”

Braton indicated that she shares the dismay of both Addabbo and Pheffer over extended delays and agrees that the focus must be on progress. “It's time this project become a reality. We look forward to working with AEG and their NY and Queens partners: Levine Builders, Turner Construction, and Green- Star Services to create the VLT facility along with the thousands of much-needed jobs it will create.”

Jeffrey Levine, a partner in AEG, said his group “was selected by Governor Paterson, Senator Smith and Speaker Silver because our bid represents the best value for the taxpayers of New York and the best plan for the residents of Queens. We will pay the $300 million upfront licensing fee by March 31, 2010, and are working towards signing the MOU and breaking ground as soon as possible."

Andrew Frank, a spokesman for AEG said the consortium was “very pleased to have been selected. We understand that the other bidders are disappointed. Had we lost we would be [disappointed] too.” Frank expressed confidence in the future of Aqueduct project under AEG’s lead. “We put ourselves in a po- sition to have been selected and we’ll get through it. We are going to pay the state $300 million, provide the jobs we promised and build it.”

On Tuesday, Paterson called a press conference and struck what was defined by one observer as “an almost defiant pose” following an interview with the Albany bureau of the New York Times. Paterson maintained that he would not be leaving the governor’s mansion unless the decision was made “at the ballot box” by the voters. The only option for Paterson leaving office before his termwould be “in a box.”

Now the state and local community sur- rounding Aqueduct will wait to see if AEG can meet the conditions imposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in order for the deal to be final and move through the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) process.

As part of the agreement to accept AEG, Silver laid out four “non-negotiable” terms:

--AEG must pay a $300 million up-front licensing fee.

--Anyone with a felony conviction within the past 15 years is barred from being a partner in the deal.

--The project must be environmentally sound.

--Legislative leaders must have veto power over any subsequent changes to the plan.

Following the announcement by Silver, AEG announced that the Darman Group would step down as a key partner in the project because of a misdemeanor conviction against one of its leaders, Darryl Greene. Greene has closes ties to AEG partner former congressman Floyd Flake, and state Senate President Malcolm Smith.

AEG released a statement on Tuesday to address the situation regarding political affiliations. "We can unequivocally state that Senator Smith nor any government official involved in this process will ever be employed by Aqueduct Entertainment Group or any of its partners, investors or affiliates.”

City Nears Deal to Buy Former Rite Aid Property

Ridgewood Site Eyed for New 600-Seat K-6 School

By Conor Greene

The city has reached an agreement to purchase the former Rite Aid property at Metropolitan Avenue and Tonsor Street in Ridgewood and plans to build a 600-seat school there to help alleviate local overcrowding.

A spokeswoman for the city Department of Education confirmed that the agency has “reached an agreement to buy the property” but was unable to reveal the purchase price until the deal is finalized. The plan is to build a K-6 school at the site, according to Community Board 5, which is holding a public hearing on the plan on February 24 at 7 p.m. in Grover Cleveland High School.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said she is “pleased” that the SCA is looking at potential locations in the area for new schools. “I will continue to work with the DOE, the SCA and the community to ensure this process is done with the best interests of the surrounding neighborhoods and for our future generations," she said.

The property, located near Grover Cleveland High School, most recently housed a Rite Aid pharmacy but has fallen into a state of disrepair over the past few years. It had been eyed as a potential location for a new supermarket, which is needed in the area, but was determined by one company to be too ex- pensive to modernize for that use.

It was one of several local sites identified by members of Community Education Council 24 to be included in the city’s upcoming five-year capital plan, according to the group’s president, Nick Comaianni. “This is a site we found a few years back and has stayed empty, so we told the SCA to pursue it for years,” he said. “It is a perfect site for a school - nice and big, the location is good on the main avenue and it’s in the right place to alleviate overcrowding in Ridgewood and Maspeth.”

The property measures about 100,000 square feet, meaning there is plenty of room for a building and other facilities such as a playground, said Comaianni. “To me, that’s going to be a great school,” he said, adding that it is accessed by a main road, meaning nearby residential areas wouldn’t be impacted by increased traffic. He recalled a number of chain stores failing at that location during his lifetime, including several supermarkets, and thinks it will be more appropriate for a school than another business.

Comaianni said CEC 24 has suggested several other local properties to the School Construction Authority as possible locations for schools, but he declined to specifically name them to preserve the city’s negotiating leverage. “What I’ve always pushed for with SCA is, when you find a spot, even if you don’t have the money to build on it now, purchase the property for the future,” he said. “Worst case scenario, the market is slow, so you can resell it as the market improves later on.”

The SCA is still finalizing the purchase agreement, and will need City Council approval to move forward with the deal, according to Crowley. It would take at least three years before the school is completed, said Comaianni, who added that the revised five-year capital plan still needs City Council approval as well.