Most people will accept that certain perks are available to a state’s top lawmakers. What is unacceptable, however, is that these perks often continue even after the public trust has been violated. The case of former New York Senator Guy Velella, a once powerful Republican convicted of accepting bribes from state contractors, is a prime example. From being given a sweetheart deal, to gaining early and improper release from jail, to remaining free for Christmas after he lost his appeal, the disgraced senator’s case is rife with favoritism.
Evidence of preferential treatment was apparent from the start. In May 2002 Velella, 60, his father Vincent, 90, and two co-defendants were indicted in a scheme to accept bribes from state contractors. But prosecutors bargained with Velella. In exchange for pleading guilty to a felony charge of accepting at least $137,000 in kickbacks, his father was given immunity to prosecution and Velella was sentenced to just one year in jail. Velella’s co-defendants—Hector Del Toro, 52, and Manuel Gonzalez, 67—were sentenced to jail terms of 9 months and 8 months, respectively.
The actual sentences, though, turned out to be much less. After spending just three months behind bars, Velella was released from Rikers Island on September 28, 2004, by a virtually unknown city entity—the Local Conditional Release Commission CLCRC). His partners in crime were also sprung. Unforeseen at the time was the firestorm of controversy the releases would ignite.
As it turns out, the decision to release Velella was plagued with improprieties. First of all, Velella’s release was not based on any particular merit, but rather his tearful calls to commission members and letters of support from friends in high places.
In several calls and one letter to the panel, Velella said he had trouble breathing, couldn’t sleep, and feared he would have a heart attack. Velella also allegedly told Raul Russi, the panel’s then-chairman, that he “was going to kill himself” if he wasn’t let out. In August, Russi called a rare meeting to consider Velella’s case. Russi said he called the meeting because the case was so prominent.
Velella’s treatment is in sharp contrast to that of typical prisoners. While his cries prompted city officials into action, no oneseemed to notice the despair of less prominent prisoners like David Pennington and Milton Diaz. Pennington, a prisoner serving time at Rikers for burglary, hung himself with a bed sheet in July 2004. That same month, Diaz committed suicide in a Bronx jail—hung himself with a pair of shoelaces. But did any public official take special notice of their emotional state? Apparently not.
When New York legislators created LCRCs in 1989, they were seen as a way to ease overcrowding and save money. But they were never cost-effective because they were rarely used for ordinary prisoners who tend to be poor and politically unconnected. In the early 1990s, for instance, when the city’s jail population peaked at 20,000, the LCRC was approving only about 200 prisoners a year for early release. “[E]ven when they were releasing a lot, it was still a little,” said Michael Jacobson, former head of New York City’s criminal justice programs.
Recent years have seen the numbers decline even further. Between 1999 and 2004 the city’s LCRC—which has an annual budget of $386,000—granted early release to just 15 people. And in 2004, only 4 won early release: Velella, his collaborators, and one other.
For many New Yorkers, Velella’s case confirmed “their most cynical suspicions about government,” said Councilman David Yassky, a Brooklyn Democrat. “It seems to me unlikely that the three people most worthy of compassion in Rikers Island were these three people who happened to be co-conspirators in this bribery case,” said Yassky. “I think there is very, very good reason to suspect that something else went on here.”
Ironically, while still a senator in February 2004, Velella had voted with his senate cohorts, mostly Republicans, to abolish the very panel that freed him. The move came after an LCRC in upstate New York released Mary Beth Anslow, a woman convicted of operating an illegal daycare where a 3-month old died. Like Velella to follow, Anslow was released just 3-months into her one year sentence. The bill died due to opposition in the State Assembly.
Several months later, in a classic case of the double standard, the bill’s main sponsor, Republican Senator Michael F. Nozolio, along with 31 other prominent Velel1a cheerleaders, wrote letters petitioning the LCRC for Vele11a’s release. Other letterwriters included former mayor Ed Koch, the Archdiocese of New York, and a host of civic leaders, lawmakers, and retired judges.
Responding to the outcry over Velella’s apparent preferential treatment, Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly ordered the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) to examine his release. The results were not good. The DOI found that the LCRC kept slipshod records, was largely ignorant of the rules under which it operated, and failed to follow procedure when considering early releases. In Velel1a’s case, for instance, the LCRC had not waited the mandatory 60 days after rejecting his initial application before conducting a second review. Moreover, only two panel members were present when the vote to release Velella was taken, rather than the required quorum of three. The investigation also revealed that Velel1a had hired the husband of panel member Jeanne Hammock to advise him on the board’s procedures. Ms. Hammock, who voted against releasing Ve1el1a the first time, was conspicuously absent during the second vote.
Embarrassed by the imbroglio, Bloomberg in October forced the resignation of all 4 board members—Russi, Hammock, Amy Ianora, and Irene Prager—and appointed 5 new ones. On November 19, 2004, the reconstituted panel ordered Velella, his fall partners, and two others back to jail. In revoking the five paroles, the commission cited irregularities uncovered by the DOI.
But Velella, unwilling to accept the board’s decision, immediately challenged the reversal in court. Ten days later, at 10:00 a.m., a state supreme court upheld the panel’s decision and gave Velella until 5:00 p.m. to surrender. Just 3 hours later, however, Ve1ella’s lawyers obtained a lightning-fast ruling from the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, First Department, allowing him to remain free until December 16, when the court’s 5 judges would hear’ his appeal.
Ultimately, the panel of Appellate Division judges affirmed the lower court’s ruling [see sidebar], but allowed Velella to remain free until December 27. The Christmas reprieve was especially charitable since every day Velella remained free was subtracted from his jail term. Velella was freed from jail on March 18, 2005, after serving 182 days of his one-year sentence in jail.
Critics of Velella’s release are glad the new board’s decision was upheld. David M. Kapner, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, said Velella’s controversial release reinforced the worst perceptions of the criminal justice system. “The public perception is if you’re rich and well-connected, the system works for you,” Kapner said. “He pled guilty, he got his deal. You live with it.” Civil-rights attorney Ron Kuby complained that the poor and unconnected defendants he represents never get the kind of breaks Velella has. “In terms of both the whining and the corruption, it’s hard to compare him to anybody else,” said Kuby. “Who would have thought Martha Stewart would be a more stand-up convict than Guy Velella?”
Velella will continue to draw his $80,000a year state pension. In August, 2005, it was
revealed that Velella’s campaign finance group, Friends of Guy Velella, had donated $50,000.00 to the state Republican Party. When media outlets asked the Republican Party if they had a problem accepting money from a convicted felon, convicted of crimes related to his public office no less, Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno’s office said the GOP had no problem taking campaign funds from Velella. “The senator was a valued member of the [Republican] majority, and we value his continuing support,” said Bruno spokesman Mark Hansen.
Sources: New York Times, New York Post
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