BY KATHY KAHN
The Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in mid-2013 after the Legislature bypassed his “Clean Up Albany” initiative, had a prominent Rockland figure on it 25-member panel: District Attorney Thomas Zugibe.
Better known as the Moreland Commission, Zugibe, fellow DA’s and professors from Columbia University were officially appointed “assistant Attorney Generals” by Eric Schneiderman, giving them the same power as the AG himself.
Moreland was barely out of the gate when it ran into problems with Cuomo and his aides. Perhaps it was U.S. Attny. Preet Bahrara, who was already investigating several top elected officials, including Sheldon Silver and his affiliation with the law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg that sent Cuomo and Co. into a tailspin. By March, 2014, Cuomo disbanded the Commission, apparently willing to let Albany clean itself up.
It has taken time—thousands of hours to go through hundreds of thousands of documents, e-mails and other seized materials—but in the end, justice won out. Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, his Republican counterpart in the Senate, Dean Skelos and Skelos’ son, Adam, have all been convicted and packing for a long stay at a Federal pen.
“I was very disappointed for all of us that it (Moreland) was stopped short,” Zugibe told members of the Rockland Business Association at its May luncheon. “I still hope to see more good come out of the work we did. Most important were the indictments of Silver and Skelos. We were grateful Preet Bahrara continued the process by filing federal indictments.”
When it comes to corruption in Rockland—in particular, the Town of Ramapo—Zugibe told listeners the seizure of computers, files, taped recordings and other materials in 2013 amounted to more than a million pieces of evidence to be examined and catalogued before any conclusion could be reached—and one that would stand up in court.
“We have a special investigations unit specifically focusing on mortgage fraud, with destinations up and down the Eastern seaboard,” said Zugibe. “So far, the trail has led us to nearly $150 million in mortgage fraud.
“We have made several arrests, including the former mayor of Spring Valley, Noramie Jasmin and deputy mayor Joseph Desmaret.” (Arrested and convicted with Jasmin and Desmaret was developer Moses “Mark” Stern of Monsey, who also was a key FBI informant leading to the downfall of the others). Said Zugibe, “We have a formal Memo of Understanding with the FBI, focusing on public corruption in Rockland County.”
Several arrests have been made in concert with the FBI, including Town of Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence and Aaron Troodler, who headed the LDC (local development corporation) that spent millions to build a minor league ballpark the taxpayers rejected in a public referendum. St. Lawrence and his cronies allegedly made their own Muni-Monopoly money to cover misuse of public funds.
The Rockland DA said the convictions of Silver and Skelos are a “political landmine…it may give voters pause to think twice about who they re-electing or supporting for public office.”
Rooting out corruption is a resource intensive undertaking, said Zugibe, and while FBI investigators are well-trained, they need the help of local police and investigators while putting the pieces together. “We work closely with all our Rockland police departments. We have tremendous resources and can give help to federal authorities who do not know the ‘lay of the land’ as we do.”
“When I was on the Moreland Commission, we looked at everything as a potential crime; we found loopholes in the laws and laws to make those loopholes legal. We need ethics reform on all levels, but it’s a slow process…they still don’t get it.”