WEST HARLEM — His check to Bill de Blasio didn't clear, but that didn't stop a Harlem restaurateur connected to a federal probe of the NYPD and the mayor's fundraising from cashing in on city politicians who used his popular Harlem restaurant for fundraisers and campaign meetings.
The bounced check, for $4,950 to “Bill Diblasio For Mayor” written Oct. 3, 2013, was just one element in a swirl of schemes Hamlet Peralta allegedly used to curry favor with City Hall, uptown politicians and top police officials, according to sources, community leaders and records.
City and state campaign finance documents show that a half-dozen candidates spent nearly $16,000 in campaign funds at the restaurant between 2007 and 2013.
Former state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV accounted for more than half of that amount. Records show he paid $3,700 to Hudson River Café to throw a fundraiser there Sept. 18, 2008. A year later, he spent $5,000 on a fundraiser there, according to records.
Peralta’s joint was also a popular hangout among NYPD officers, including top brass who are now under investigation for possibly accepting money and jewelry in exchange for favors.
The restaurant — which provided indoor and outdoor seating as well as rooftop views of the Hudson River — was also a choice location for Manuel Lantigua, a retired NYPD sergeant who ran for City Council in 2013 to represent Harlem.
He paid $466 to the Hudson River Café to throw a fundraising cocktail hour May 23, 2013. Lantigua, who did not respond to requests for comment, then spent $3,834 at the restaurant July 25, 2013, to host a more elaborate fundraiser, records show.
Other politicos who used campaign cash at Peralta’s café were:
► Ex-Gov. David Paterson, who spent $955 on six campaign meetings there between 2007 and 2010.
► Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who paid $966 to host an event there Nov. 12, 2009.
► Former City Comptroller William Thompson, who spent $187.14 on food and beverages there Sept. 28, 2009.
► State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who spent about $130 during two visits there in 2007 and 2011.
The smooth-talking Peralta was busted earlier this month for a Ponzi scheme in which he told investors — some of whom were Hudson River Café customers — that their money would go toward a liquor business he started, Manhattan federal prosecutors said. Instead he’s accused of spending millions of the investors’ dollars on clothes and food for himself.
Rafael Cepeda, Peralta’s former business partner in the cafe, was among those who testified before a federal grand jury in January as part of the FBI probe into the NYPD and de Blasio’s fundraising, according to court records obtained by DNAinfo New York.
Cepeda and another ex-business partner, accountant Franklin Liriano Diaz, also met with FBI agents and the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau officers in May 2015, according to an affidavit that Cepeda made in a civil lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court.
“These officials asked us numerous questions regarding Peralta, mainly revolving around [the] street sale of liquor,” Cepeda said in his affidavit.
Cepeda also claims he was a victim of Peralta.
He bought the Hudson River Café from Peralta in 2011 after being a minority shareholder in the business. And then Cepeda hired Peralta as a restaurant manager in January 2014 because of his previous success with the business.
Cepeda, who also runs an insurance brokerage in Richmond Hill, said in court papers that in early 2014 Peralta used Hudson River Café’s tabs with liquor distributors to steal $216,500 worth of booze.
After Cepeda filed a police report about the theft, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charged Peralta in July 2014 with grand larceny. But the case never moved forward.
Around the same time, Cepeda also wrote in an affidavit for State Liquor Authority investigators — who were also looking into Peralta’s street sale of booze — that Peralta had made death threats against Diaz.
Cepeda, who closed the restaurant in July 2014, did not return requests for comment. His lawyer, Todd Engel, declined to comment.
Peralta has had other run-ins with the Manhattan DA’s Office.
Prosecutors charged him with grand larceny in January 2013 for not paying $211,603 in state sales tax connected to the Hudson River Café between 2007 and 2009. Peralta pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return and avoided prison by agreeing to pay back the money to the state.
He was also charged with assault and harassment for punching a hedge fund executive in the face in Murray Hill in May 2014, according to a criminal complaint.
'A LITTLE TOO SLICK'
Peralta opened the Hudson River Café to great fanfare in 2007, earning positive food reviews and getting credit for helping transform a stretch of 12th Avenue that runs along the Riverside Drive viaduct into a restaurant row.
"As soon as we opened, the business blew up," said a former business associate who helped start the restaurant with Peralta.
It was the perfect fit for Peralta. The 36-year-old had worked in the liquor business for nearly two decades, and he loved to gab.
"This guy, he liked to talk," said the former business associate, who asked not to be identified because he lost all of his money and home in the restaurant. "He could spend the whole night meeting people and making drinks."
The associate focused on keeping up the restaurant's operations while Peralta schmoozed and took meetings.
"I was working the place every day while he had meetings with the people," the associate recalled. "He would say, 'Oh I want to do this and want to do that.'"
As the lines to get into the restaurant grew, Peralta tried to make inroads with the West Harlem community.
Larry English, the former chairman of Community Board 9, said he remembers Peralta offering to host events and to be involved with community projects.
"He was definitely ingratiating himself into the political fiber of Northern Manhattan," English said.
Michael Oliva, a spokesman for Adam Clayton Powell IV, said that while Powell was then a state assemblyman, he did not have "much of a relationship" with Peralta.
Oliva said Powell, who is currently running for Rep. Charlie Rangel’s congressional seat, used the Hudson River Café as a campaign spot because people liked it.
"He had a few fundraisers there, he's eaten there, it's a nice place, it's on the water, it's in the district, people like it," Oliva said. "It's a nice summer place to have fundraisers."
Sean Darcy, a spokesman for Paterson, said the former governor attended campaign meetings at the restaurant but has no relationship with Peralta and can't recall ever meeting him.
Some Harlem sources — who asked not to be named to protect relationships — said Peralta and his flashy style created skeptics.
“He shows up, he opens Hudson River Cafe, he poured a lot of money into that building, and he's throwing a lot of money around," said the source. "Typically when an entrepreneur of color comes Uptown they were on Wall Street and got bored and decided to open their own business. He didn't have that background. He was slick. He was a little too slick."
Another source said rumors were rampant about the restaurant, including the sometimes "rough crowd" that frequented the cafe for special events.
"When it closed, no one knew the reason for the closure,” the source said. “I don't know that anyone knew much about them."
Still, the restaurant attracted police — who were looking to enjoy themselves.
"One cop would bring the other one who would bring the other," Peralta's former business associate told DNAinfo.
The associate said Peralta would let some officers drink and eat for free. The comped meals helped the business.
"When we did a party, and the neighbors would complain about the noise, the cops would help us," the associate said.
Rank-and-file officers weren't the only ones partying at the restaurant — it was top brass too.
Philip Banks, while he served as the NYPD’s highest ranking uniformed officer, and Deputy Chief David Colon, when he was a commanding officer in Northern Manhattan, were both regulars.
Sources said the officials routinely spent time dining there, hobnobbing with Peralta, Upper Manhattan politicians and two businessmen, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, who are caught up in the federal probe into de Blasio’s fundraising.
Banks, who retired from the NYPD in November 2014, was not an investor in Peralta’s business, sources said. But the former top police official went on trips to the Dominican Republic with Peralta, Rechnitz and Reichberg, sources said.
Meanwhile, Colon was recently transferred to a desk job from his present post as the No. 2 supervisor of Brooklyn’s Housing Bureau.
Peralta is currently in custody and on Tuesday a Manhattan Federal Court judge set his bail at $5 million cash.
The former business associate told DNAinfo that he cut ties with Peralta about six years ago after IRS agents grilled him about the restaurant's taxes.
The associate had poured his life-savings into the Hudson River Cafe, as well as the equity on his Long Island home. But he walked away with nothing but debt, claiming Peralta swindled him.
Now he lives in Florida and works as a Fed Ex delivery man.
"It's a very sad story to tell you the truth," he said.