A Bronx grand jury indicted Castro on July 31, 2009, on three counts of perjury, but the indictment was sealed. Castro was permitted to become an assemblyman, and in return, he agreed to secretly record conversations whenever the government wanted. As part of the deal, Castro had to resign when the authorities told him to. That’s how Nelson Castro became an assemblyman wearing a wire.
Compartmentalization is another politician’s gift, and Castro awoke bright and early every morning thinking of himself as an assemblyman, not a snitch. But he soon realized that being in the Assembly in Albany was not all that he’d hoped for. The leadership took little notice of him, and the press even less—except when El Diario ran a front-page story about his affair with his office manager. This affair resulted in a child.
At the restaurant, Castro—a Seventh-Day Adventist who doesn’t drink or eat pork or shrimp, and keeps the Sabbath—explains, “I messed up with the sex part. You have to have some type of vice.”
Shut out in Albany, Castro focused his energies on his district, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. Castro’s double life, though, was never far from his mind. No matter his focus, he knew that one day the phone would ring and his life in politics would be over. There was one benefit. Castro says that that helped make him a more dedicated public servant. “[The authorities] were going to say, ‘This is it, it’s over.’ So I needed to make the best out of every day that I worked in the Assembly,” he says. Castro was tireless. He hosted dozens of events—from jobs fairs to connect employers and constituents to galas that “celebrate our mothers.” Castro, who hadn’t become a U.S. citizen until he was 25, understood the immigrant experience, and his office helped 1,600 people become citizens. He taught the citizenship classes himself—though under indictment for perjury. While working for the authorities, Castro was named Legislator of the Year by Somos El Futuro, a Hispanic advocacy group.
In 2010, Castro, up for reelection, checked in with his government handlers. He didn’t want to speak to me about his days as an informant, but sources close to his case said he asked for the go-ahead before declaring his candidacy. Of course, if Castro wasn’t in the Assembly, he was useless to the government. The government gave the okay.
Castro campaigned hard and won easily—and without the new county committee chairman’s support—though victory was bittersweet. He could beat the county machine, but he couldn’t free himself from his government masters. “What can I do? I can’t quit [being an informant] unless I lose, but I keep winning,” he tells me. Castro insists that law enforcement didn’t dictate his political agenda. “They did not interfere with my job at the Assembly,” he says.
But they did send him on spy missions. “Basically, I did whatever they told me to do, whenever they told me to do it, and it wasn’t that often,” he says. “I cannot divulge anything about what I worked on.”
Castro is at pains to impress upon me that the extent of his snitching was limited. “I can’t tell you I worked on this, this, this, but I could tell you it’s not the way people are saying, that I was out there recording everybody.” And he insists that it wasn’t as if his recorder was running all the time. “Elected officials are worried because they think, Oh, I wonder what I said to Nelson? Come on, man! You know me! I never asked anybody any suspicious questions or anything like that. I never did. We talked about women. We talked about, ‘Oh, this girl has a nice ass.’ I won’t lie about that. But basically I never tried to get any information from any of my colleagues.”
After roughly three years as an informant, Castro had produced nothing actionable. By then, the D.A. had apparently discovered a downside to flipping Castro: Running an informant can be expensive in terms of resources. So the D.A.’s office transferred its asset to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, whose resources are vast.
The U.S. Attorney had better luck. Castro began receiving phone calls from a seasoned political operative he’d known for years. Sigfredo Gonzalez is 44, with a round face, a friendly, jokey manner, and a fuzzy job history. Everyone knew he’d worked for State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. as community-outreach adviser around the time Espada was indicted for embezzlement and that he had his own political ambitions. (Espada was convicted last year for embezzlement and tax evasion, and he was recently sentenced to five years in prison.) Gonzalez had run for political office three times, never successfully. Still, Gonzalez knew all the political angles, and on the phone he told Castro he was using that knowledge to advance the interests of a group of Russian businessmen.