Espada’s own legal hassles, he claims, are the result of a long-running vendetta by Bronx district attorney Robert Johnson at the behest of the county’s Democratic old guard. In 1998, Johnson indicted Espada, accusing him of siphoning $221,000 in Medicaid money and using it to pay campaign expenses. Espada wired himself and secretly recorded conversations with Democratic officials and the Reverend Al Sharpton, and tried to show that the investigation was politically motivated. Espada was acquitted. Four Soundview employees, however, later pleaded guilty to using money intended for family care and aids treatment to help fund Espada’s unsuccessful 2001 race for borough president.
“Look, Robert Johnson is a hack D.A.,” Espada says. “I think he’s made this entirely personal. Remember that guy from The Fugitive? I got away once, and he’s mad.”
Besides Cuomo, however, Johnson has some company on the Espada beat. The IRS and New York’s tax department have liens against his health-care business for more than $300,000 in unpaid taxes. Somehow, though, the operation was still able to afford Espada’s six-figure salary.
“When I was 17,” he says, “I was interviewed by a community newspaper and I said, ‘I want to do something good at a community level, in social services. I want to make a lot of money. And I want to succeed on a public stage in a big way.’ ” And in December 2008, Espada saw his chance to move into the spotlight.
“Plotting [the coup] was fun,” Espada says, “testing your willpower and courage.”
They were dubbed the “Three Amigos”—two Latino state senators from the Bronx, Espada and Díaz, and Carl Kruger, a Jewish state senator from the far reaches of Brooklyn. At the end of last year, the trio positioned themselves as the holdouts keeping Malcolm Smith, a black state senator from Queens, from becoming majority leader. Eventually, when their demands were satisfied with chairmanships and other perks, they voted in Smith as their leader.
Espada, however, never really stopped dealing. The Republicans, recognizing the fragility of Smith’s two-vote Democratic margin, soon came calling, as did Tom Golisano, the Rochester billionaire who’d helped bankroll the Democrats’ win in November but who had grown disenchanted with Smith’s leadership—especially when Smith didn’t stop a “millionaire’s tax” that was part of the package to help fill the state’s $16 billion budget deficit. Golisano’s aide Steve Pigeon and Espada quietly recruited another disenchanted Dem, Hiram Monserrate. The conspirators met furtively for six weeks, sometimes in a bar, sometimes in Espada’s Albany residence. What Monserrate, who is facing felony assault charges, got out of the bargain is still unclear; the Republicans promised Espada they’d make him president of the Senate. On June 8, the coup was sprung. Espada has clung to that 32-30 vote ever since, even though it’s meant driving state government off a cliff.
“They call Pete a turncoat, but I don’t see the Democratic Party doing much for Hispanics,” says Felix Rosado, an accountant who has been one of Espada’s closest friends for 38 years. “All the New York leaders are black. I can’t put words in Pedro’s mouth, but we’ve talked about this—how [the party] doesn’t do anything for us, but it expects us to support it without question. But there’s no Hispanic leadership anywhere in sight. So kudos to you, Pete—by hook or by crook, he’s put himself and Latinos in power.”
Espada’s poisonous relationship with Smith has made any real compromise impossible. When Espada jumped ship, Smith’s team claimed that the real reason was that the Democratic leadership had blocked $2 million that Espada was trying to funnel to groups associated with Soundview. Not true, Espada says, but then he goes on to complain about Smith’s not allocating him enough money to begin with. “I was not given a fair allocation of resources like every other senator,” Espada says. “Malcolm Smith had $85 million in member items. Pedro Espada got $2 million. I never asked for $2 million; that was his decision. On the very day when I was planning this uprising and voting for leadership change, there was a resolution which contained over $2.7 million for various organizations, more than 25 that I sponsored, on my desk. If I was so interested in those member items, I could have easily said, ‘Dean, you know what? Why don’t we do the leadership-change vote right after I take my $2.7 million?’ So it was never about that.” Then again, Espada is mad that he and other Democrats didn’t get their money faster. “The assembly gave out their member items, and the members knew exactly what they were getting in April,” Espada says. “Malcolm Smith decided to not do that. He thought he needed to [withhold member-item money] to control people on the MTA bailout and various other highly contentious issues. That was a huge misread on his part, because it created a weakness he didn’t have to have. As we moved along, people asked, ‘When are we going to do this?’ ‘Next week, next week, next week.’ So it became clear that folks who had problems with school governance or some other legislative issues would not get their member items.” Dangling pork, of course, is a time-honored strategy of political leaders—yet Espada, confusingly, complains that Smith was a weak leader.