Photos: Clockwise from top right, Lucas Jackson/Reuters (Bharara); William Farrington/Polaris (Belyansky); Ben Fractenberg/DNAinfo.com (Tsimerman); Brendan McDermid/Reuters (Stevenson); Courtesy of New York State Assembly (Rivera)
Soto saw in Nelson Castro a way to get back at the bosses. In his view, Castro was a ludicrous candidate, a weak link in the machine. “Castro is a delinquent,” he says jovially.
Soto went to work doing opposition research. He quickly found Castro’s criminal record; he even tracked down Castro’s ex-fiancée, who briefly served as his campaign treasurer. She had signed the lease for Castro’s campaign headquarters. Soto proudly shows me a copy of the letter she provided him explaining that she was trying to get him to pay back rent.
But Soto’s biggest score was in Castro’s designating petition for district leader. To get on the ballot, all Castro needed was 500 signatures—an afternoon on Jerome Avenue. When Soto saw Castro’s petition, he almost laughed—nine of the signers listed their address as 2269 Hampden Place, which Castro had listed as his residence. Another fifteen people shared another address, 2200 Morris Avenue, the home of the mother of a close Castro associate, Steve Santana.
Soto challenged the petition, and on August 7, 2008, a month before the primary, Soto’s lawyer asked Castro a seemingly harmless question: “Do you know a person by the name of Steve Santana?”
“No,” Castro told the presiding official at the Board of Elections, under oath. It was an obvious lie—in fact, Soto had photos of Santana and Castro together.
The lie was actually completely immaterial—he never was put on the ballot for district leader because the cover letter accompanying his petition was defective. (Hector Ramirez, who was also running for district leader, won the election and eventually helped to depose big boss José Rivera as chairman.) But because the county machine had correctly prepared the State Assembly petition, Castro remained on that ballot.
To Soto’s dismay, most of his hard work in exposing Castro’s past misdeeds seemed to backfire in the Assembly race. Castro was a natural candidate. “He has the same issues of what we have,” explains Steve Santana. “This is the feeling of the community.” Castro had something else going for him. He proved to be a talented retail politician. In front of a microphone, he communicated emotion easily and radiated good intentions—in English and in Spanish. And he had a politician’s indispensable gift: an excellent memory. “He remembered everyone’s name. They all thought, He treats me like I’m important,” says a political insider.
Castro easily won the Democratic primary on September 9, 2008, 1,597 votes to 998 for Mike Soto—and in the Bronx, the Democratic primary is all that matters. But Richard Soto wasn’t done with Castro yet. “I hate the political bullshit,” he tells me. Soto complained to the Bronx D.A.’s office, which in November 2008, a few days after Castro swept the general election with 95 percent of the vote, secretly summoned the freshly minted assemblyman to its office.
The Bronx assistant D.A. quickly got to the point, informing Castro that they were investigating election-law violations. It soon became clear that the D.A. planned to charge him with perjury for his false testimony with regard to the district-leader petition. Castro couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “We didn’t think we were doing anything wrong,” he tells me. “Everybody does it.” In fact, the Bronx D.A. had never before prosecuted anyone for election fraud, according to a spokesperson.
But Castro recognized his predicament: The facts were incontrovertible. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in jail.
He weighed his options: Would a Bronx jury convict a bright young Dominican of perjury on such inconsequential matters? What if the jury is from Riverdale? Even if he avoided jail, a felony conviction would get him booted from the State Legislature. For Castro, being an assemblyman was too good to give up—not so soon.
Michael Farkas, Castro’s attorney, had spent eight years in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office and knew the ropes. Perhaps there was a way to get past this “misstep.” What if Castro went to work for the D.A.? Admittedly, Castro didn’t have much to offer. He hadn’t yet been sworn in, and his “godfather,” Rivera, had been voted out as county chairman (an event that prompted Rivera to tell Ramirez, who had voted against him, “You motherfucker, I’m going to kill you”). But Farkas spoke the prosecutor’s language. Wouldn’t a person on the inside in Albany be valuable? Besides, what was the downside?
The D.A. offered a deal, and Castro began an intense inner program of rationalization: “Do we have that goodness in our heart that we want to make sure we have a clean government, a responsible government? Would I be able to blow the whistle if I were just a normal citizen? I think I would do it.”