Espada Pleads Not Guilty to Embezzlement

Wednesday, Nov 14, 2012  |  Updated 11:38 PM EDT
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A high-ranking state senator and his son have pleaded not guilty to charges they embezzled more than $500,000 from their Bronx health clinic.

Democrat Sen. Pedro Espada and his son Pedro Gautier Espada entered the pleas Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn.

Federal and state authorities have accused the pair of raiding the federally-funded, not-for-profit Soundview clinic's coffers. The Espadas were charged with five counts of embezzlement and one count of conspiracy. 

Cuomo had charged Espada back in April with using Soundview, as his "personal piggy bank."

Read the indictment.

Espada has strongly denied any wrongdoing. Espada's lawyer said Tuesday that "Today is a sad day for Soundview and a sad day for the Espada family....we intend to fight the charges in court."

According to Gov.-elect Cuomo, “Taxpayer funds meant for the sick and poor were instead used for Broadway shows, fancy meals, and other opulent personal expenses of Pedro Espada."

"There was no doubt he and his son were looting Soundview for a lavish lifestyle," Cuomo, a Democrat, told reporters. He said the "cruel twist" was "they were using funds that were supposed to go to poor people."

Even  as allegations of embezzlement swirled, the politician -- who will be out of office this month -- reportedly continued to draw a $287,000 per year salary from the center.

He and his son are accused of spending up to $20,000 in center money on sushi delivery to their private residence and thousands of dollars spent on entertainment and show tickets.

The men also allegedly used a for-profit janitorial company to divert Soundview funds and spend it on rent for Espada's campaign headquarters, pony rides and a petting zoo at a birthday party, and the investigation found that Espada attempted to use a $49,000 check as a down payment on a Bentley automobile.

If convicted, the two Espadas face up to 10 years in prison and  fines of $250,000 on each charge.
Espada had called the court filings a politically motivated witch-hunt by Cuomo.
 
Espada is just the latest Albany politician to be indicted in office, and the second Senate majority leader in three years. But like former Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno who is appealing a conviction charge for mixing private business with his state power, Espada vows to take his case to court. Espada called the investigation that lingered throughout his two-year term as a political "witch hunt" by Cuomo.

Few doubt Espada will carry out his threat. He rose rose from impoverished street fighter in Puerto Rico to Fordham University graduate and boldly manipulated Albany's old-boy political power structure in the Senate. Within days of his election in 2008, his second stint in the Senate, the Democrat formed his "three amigos" coalition with two other Democrats to threaten his own Democratic majority. He demanded leadership positions in part for what Espada said was a needed Latino voice, or the three would join Republicans and end the Democrats' first majority in a half-century.

Espada won.

Then in June of 2009, Espada and freshman Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens, then under investigation for a domestic violence incident that would later cost him his seat, carried out the threat. They joined the Republicans, with Espada gaining the title Senate president. More than a month of gridlock ensued, with neither side recognizing the others' authority — even holding simultaneous sessions at one point and locking each other out of the chamber without a clear majority.

But when Democratic Gov. David Paterson appointed a lieutenant governor, in a constitutional gamble upheld in the courts, Espada returned to the Democratic fold. He also gained the powerful and lucrative majority leader's post.

With his bold suits of gold pinstripes in the Senate long dominated by white men in dark blue, the Latino had a charismatic manner in English and Spanish with all lawmakers, and posessed a shrewd political sense.

He became "Pete" to senators of both parties, who voted for him and often castigated him later. Hours before his indictment Espada issued a year-end report of the majority leader expounding on the importance of state grants for nonprofit agencies and taking credit for reforms in the Senate to make lawmakers accountable.

"I am proud to have served as the catalyst for this reform," he stated in a press release the Senate's Democratic majority refused to pay for. After the indictment was released, Espada was immediately stripped of his majority leader title and removed as housing committee chairman.

"Thirty years ago Senator Espada founded the Soundview Health Care Center," said his attorney, Susan R. Necheles. "Soundview has provided high quality health care to thousands of families, children and senior citizens in the Bronx. Today is a sad day for Soundview and a sad day for the Espada family. Senator Espada and his son deny any wrongdoing and we intend to fight the charges in court."

Espada lost his seat in the September primary, with most Democrats clamoring to be seen opposing him. Republicans used Espada's image in what appears to be their successful effort to win back the majority in the November election, pending an ongoing appeal of the vote.

Espada and former Democratic Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens last year briefly joined with Republicans to form a coalition that claimed majority control of the Senate, with Espada in a leadership role, leading to a month of gridlock.
 
Espada and Monserrate later returned to the Democrats, with Espada named majority leader.
 
Monserrate was later expelled by the Senate because of his conviction for misdemeanor assault in a domestic incident.

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