Everybody does it-- pays their workers off the books, that is, according to former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm.
“The reality is that you cannot operate a small business in New York City like a restaurant and not have a dishwasher off the books,” said the ex-congressman who represented parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Grimm is eyeing another run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat he resigned in 2015 after pleading guilty to tax evasion after prosecutors said he hid more than $1 million in sales and wages partly through off-the-books payments to workers in the country illegally while running a Manhattan health food restaurant. And in a wide-ranging interview with News 4 this week, Grimm said he is ready to go back to public office -- and has called on President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon to help him unseat his successor, Rep. Dan Donovan, in a race that is already drawing national attention.
“I’m an attorney,” he said. “I know better than that. What I should have done is closed the restaurant, lost my house, lost everything and walked away. That was the only option.”
Grimm says he deserved a fine, but not jail time, insisting he was targeted as a Republican by a politically motivated Justice Department under the Obama administration. While he admits his actions were wrong, Michael Grimm’s new stump speech is not one of contrition.
“I think it’s a disgrace what the weaponized Obama administration did to me,” he said. “No other restaurant owner in the history of the city has ever been given more than a civil fine.”
He added that “what I did was civilly wrong. And I am sorry for that,” before making the case that all restaurant owners do the same thing.
“(Paying someone off the books is) the only choice. You can ask any restaurant owner anywhere in this city right now. They’ll tell you of course we can’t get someone on a bicycle to deliver food on the books. They don’t show up for work if they’re not.”
A Justice Department spokesman Friday declined to respond. News 4 has reached out to the New York State Restaurant Association seeking comment.
Now, the fiery Grimm is swinging hard at Donovan, saying the former Staten Island prosecutor “never wanted to be a congressman.” He added that it’s time for Donovan and other members of Congress who have opposed Trump’s policies to be punished.
“The job fell in his lap,” Grimm said. “And quite frankly it’s a big disappointment. He doesn’t show up for work.”
But Grimm claims since he jumped into the race, Donovan appears to be warming up to President Trump in his statements and policy positions.
“That’s the definition of a swamp politician,” Grimm said.
Donovan spokeswoman Jessica Proud denies any shift in positions, saying “While Mr. Grimm was in a jail cell for fraud, Dan Donovan was fighting against the Iran deal, and for Zadroga funding for our 9/11 heroes and FEMA reform for Sandy victims. Mr. Grimm is a con artist who didn’t even vote for President Trump.”
Grimm confirmed he did not vote in the 2016 election because of his felony conviction, but he promised to have President Trump’s back if he is elected.
“I think overall he is doing very well, considering the Congress is not there to support him.”
Grimm says he would like to see Trump campaign for him in his district, but does not advise the president to get involved in GOP primaries.
But Grimm is still trying to capture some of the excitement he said Trump generates on Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn.
He said he reached out to Bannon, currently the executive editor at the right-wing website Breitbart, to help him with strategic advice. Bannon’s involvement has drawn national attention to the race, with political insiders saying the firebrand could help Grimm’s fundraising efforts with out-of-state Republicans supportive of the president.
But Grimm told News 4 that money never came up in his conversations with Bannon.
“We never spoke about fundraising,” he said.
Grimm also waded into city and state politics. He said that Mayor de Blasio’s Republican challenger, Nicole Malliotakis “made a very big mistake saying she regretted voting for Trump. And she lost a lot of her base and that’s gonna hurt her.” Grimm says the New York State GOP made a calculation that they cannot win in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, and has under-invested in the Mayor’s race. The Malliotakis campaign declined to respond to Mr. Grimm.
He declined to detail how he has paid off his legal fees and $139,000 in fines, but said a full accounting on the rest of his debts will be filed publicly in the weeks to come.
“I borrowed the overwhelming majority of that from my family and a very small loan from a friend. This isn’t like a mystery like it came from some sort of nefarious source.”
Grimm says if elected, he hopes to turn his attention to the scourge of opioids and reforming the justice system, after experiencing prison first-hand which he described as “a horrible experience.”
“A big part of this is certainly about redemption.”