Bronx Bribery Bust Leaves the Fate of Two State Assembly Seats Uncertain
THE BRONX — In The Bronx last Thursday, the word de jour was scandal.
Federal prosecutors revealed that day not only had they arrested Bronx state Assemblyman Eric Stevenson for allegedly accepting thousands of dollars in bribes, but also that he was ensnared by a wire-wearing colleague, Assemblyman Nelson Castro, who cooperated to avoid prosecution for a separate crime.
But now that the press conferences have ended for now and the shock subsided, some are wondering what the busts mean for The Bronx.
“Now, it’s like we don’t have anybody representing us,” Evelyn Rosado, 34, said Friday outside Castro’s office in University Heights.
Castro, the Bronx’s first Dominican-American elected to public office, agreed to resign, effective Monday, as part of a deal with prosecutors.
The lawmaker, who represented parts of University Heights, Fordham, Mount Hope and Tremont, aided the offices of the Bronx District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney in a multi-year corruption probe by wearing a recording device and relaying conversations.
In exchange, the feds agreed not to prosecute Castro on perjury charges from 2009 stemming from statements he made under oath in an election fraud case.
Now that Castro has stepped down, Governor Andrew Cuomo must decide if and when to call a special election to replace him. If he declares one, then it must be held 70 to 80 days after that proclamation, said election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder.
In such elections, no primaries are held, Goldfeder added. Instead, each party’s district leaders or county committee chooses its candidates.
A county committee spokesman added that Democratic hopefuls began contacting the office almost immediately after news of Castro's resignation broke Thursday. The spokesman declined to name potential candidates.
But other insiders suggested that frontrunners could include Yudelka Tapia, the party-backed female leader of Castro’s district, and Hector Ramirez, whom the party picked over Castro in the 2010 assembly race.
Cuomo could also opt not to call a special election, which would delay the vote to replace Castro until the general elections in November. Fair election groups often favor this option, since it elbows out the party leaders and forces would-be candidates to petition to get on the ballot.
But Goldfeder said no governor has filled a seat that way for decades, nor is Cuomo likely to, since it would require leaving Castro’s seat vacant for many months. Either way, while Castro’s 86th District office will stay open (without him there), his former constituents will go without a representative in Albany for the immediate future.
“They will in essence be disenfranchised,” said Michael Benjamin, a public affairs consultant and former Bronx state Assemblyman. “But then again, they were disenfranchised when a possible felon was representing them for four years.”
Stevenson, whose district covers parts of Morrisania, Claremont and East Tremont, was charged with taking more than $22,000 in bribes to help several businessmen open an adult daycare center in his district. He even agreed to draft legislation that would block competing daycare centers from opening, according to the criminal complaint.
Stevenson’s lawyer said Thursday that his client does not intend to resign.
He is due back in court May 6. If he is convicted of the felony charges, he will be forced to give up his seat.
In the meantime, he has several incentives to remain in office, observers say. By doing so, he temporarily saves face, stays on the state payroll and retains a bargaining chip — the promise to resign — that he could use to negotiate with prosecutors.
And, of course, despite the recordings and other evidence that investigators appear to have amassed against Stevenson, he could be found innocent.
But already, the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, appears convinced by the evidence. In a statement Thursday, he called Stevenson’s alleged actions “a clear violation of the public trust” and encouraged him to resign.
Should other lawmakers feel similarly, Stevenson is likely to have a rough time in Albany, said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at SUNY New Paltz.
“If, in fact, his colleagues believe that the indictment is well grounded,” Benjamin said, “then he’ll be isolated and marginalized.”
Whatever the outcome of Stevenson’s case, the accusations alone — which came just days after corruption charges against two other elected officials — seem to have chipped off another chunk of the public’s brittle trust of politicians.
“It’s a shame, but it’s happening every day,” Lilliana Mateo, 32, a Stevenson constituent said Friday of the charges against the assemblyman. “I think there’s a little bit of corruption in all the politicians.”