Nelson Castro in the Machine

Photo: Joe Marino/NY Daily News/Getty Images

The political career of Nelson Castro began with a piece of luck. In 2008, he received a message from the all-powerful Bronx Democratic county committee chairman José Rivera, who had a deal to offer. Rivera needed a reliable district leader in the 86th Assembly District of the West Bronx—a person who’d vote to keep him in power. District leader is an unpaid party post, small potatoes. But in return, Rivera could launch Castro’s political career. “What we have available is the State Assembly in the 86th District,” Rivera said.

“I was the most surprised of anyone,” Castro says, adding, with only slight exaggeration, “he chose me out of a hat.”

Rivera’s candidate was supposed to have been Hector Ramirez, a fireplug of a man with a shaved head and a highly imperfect grasp of English. Ramirez, a Dominican, had already put in half a dozen years serving the party. “It was Hector’s turn,” said one leader. But there was a problem: Chairman Rivera didn’t trust Ramirez, who was then serving as a district leader. “In his infinite wisdom,” Castro explains, “José said, ‘I’m not going to take this shit.’ ”

Given the shifting demographics of the West Bronx, Rivera, who is Puerto Rican, needed a Dominican. He’d occasionally crossed paths with Castro, a young, energetic community-outreach worker in health care, and Castro had lived in the Dominican Republic till age 11.

Though Castro had briefly worked in politics—he’d spent six months as chief of staff for Washington Heights then-assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican in the State Assembly—he had certain problems as a candidate, ones that might have disqualified him in another venue.* He had once been charged with grand larceny for collecting $4,950 in unemployment benefits while working part-time; in 2004 he pleaded to a misdemeanor and received three years’ probation. In March 2008, he was arrested for driving with a revoked license and for owing more than $3,000 in traffic tickets.

But to the chairman, these hurdles did not seem so high. After all, Castro had one all-important qualification: He was happy to take orders. “What do you need me to do?” Castro asked Rivera when they first met. Rivera was blunt: Castro could have the Assembly seat, but the chairman needed him as district leader, which was on the same primary ballot. “It was understood,” Castro says. “José would have had one extra vote that he probably needed to remain county chair.”

So the deal was made, and 32 minutes before the deadline, Castro was placed on the ballot for state assemblyman. And Castro was in. “José Rivera had total control in the Bronx,” says one political leader. “He could say a dog or a cat should be elected to the Assembly, and it would be.” (Rivera declined to comment for this article.)

Castro’s good luck did not last long, though it took five years for that to become public. This past April, Castro, now 41, had to resign his Assembly seat when it was revealed that he’d been indicted for perjury, after which he was a government informant for almost his entire tenure in the State Assembly—and helped make a bribery case against a legislative colleague.

Castro has agreed to meet me at ­Liberato, a Dominican restaurant next to an elevated subway line on Jerome ­Avenue at the edge of his former district. He’s wearing a sharp navy blazer, dress pants, a button-down shirt, looking like a young executive. He flashes a dimpled smile. I’m hoping to understand how he handled the tensions of his dual life. But Castro shows little hint of inner turmoil. Instead, as the oxtail stew arrives, he talks excitedly about his political life, which, he tells me, began early.

As a 7-year-old growing up poor in the Dominican Republic, Castro wanted to be president. He even made himself a sash like that of the president of the Dominican Republic. He colored the sash with crayons and wore it with his friends, who called him presidente.

“I always talked about how I would do things differently, and what I would change, even when I was a kid,” he says. After he won, an elated Castro phoned his mother, who lives in Michigan, doesn’t speak English, and wasn’t aware of her son’s latest career move. “¿En que te metiste [What mischief have you gotten yourself into]?” she asked him, suspiciously.

“No, no, Mom, this is good,” he told her. He was the first Dominican-American from the Bronx elected to state office. “I made history,” he said.

“The elation was short-lived,” he tells me.

The agent of Castro’s demise was an unlikely figure on the Bronx political scene. Richard Soto is a shrewd, indefatigable self-appointed agitator who’s run for one Bronx office or another in most election cycles of the past fifteen years—without a single victory. In 2008, he had wanted to run against Castro for state assemblyman but didn’t live in the ­district. “So I ran my brother, Mike,” Soto explains to me. “He’s a ‘good family man.’ ” We are sitting in Soto’s office, which is on the second floor of a three-story building, above a Dominican restaurant. The building’s entrance is a three-walled metal cage of a kind one might see in a prison. Soto, who sits behind a desk piled high with papers, is 63, with a wide belly and a white beard. “I fight corruption,” he tells me grandly, then supplies the motive: “I was fucked.” On his office wall is a campaign poster plugging a dark-haired Richard Soto for City Council in 1997—the first time, he says, he was done wrong by the machine.

*This article has been corrected to show that Castro worked as Espaillat’s chief of staff for six months, not two years.

Photos: Clockwise from top right, Lucas Jackson/Reuters (Bharara); William Farrington/Polaris (Belyansky); Ben Fractenberg/ (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.”

One of the adult-day-care centers at the center of the scandal.Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times/Redux

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.

On January 6, 2012, Castro met with Gonzalez and Igor Tsimerman and Igor Belyansky, two Russians who’d worked together before—in 2010, Allstate sued them, among others, for insurance fraud, a case that was eventually settled. Gonzalez explained that his clients planned to open adult-day-care centers in the Bronx and wanted help securing permits and licenses. Castro’s puppeteers at the D.A.’s office had rehearsed him. The assemblyman referred the Russians to a consulting company, which seemed legitimate. But Castro then dangled the bait. He told the Russians that he expected “special treatment.”

“I believe I know exactly the ‘special treatment,’ ” said Tsimerman, according to the government’s complaint. “We’ll be able to help. We’ll be there for you.”

On January 25, 2012, Castro met Gonzalez in the Bronx—alone this time. Castro, who secretly recorded the conversation, promised that the Russians would get their money’s worth. He said he would secure contracts for them with HMOs. While the Russians had been discreet, talking vaguely of “special treatment,” Gonzalez went right to the point. “I called [Belyansky and said], … ‘Listen, pay [Castro]. Give him a birthday gift,’ ” according to the government’s account. Castro’s birthday is January 25. Two days later, Tsimerman handed Castro three manila envelopes containing a total of $12,000 in cash. “Consider this a contribution,” he said.

After the handoff, Gonzalez took Castro aside—for his troubles, he took $2,000 from the envelope.

Castro told Gonzalez, “Whatever they need legislatively …”

Gonzalez cut him off. “They call me. I call you. That’s it, and it’s how we work,” said Gonzalez, as if to remind Castro of the new chain of command.

Once the authorities heard the recording, Gonzalez was done. He was indicted in a bribery scheme, but the indictment was sealed in exchange for his cooperation, which he hoped would earn him a lenient sentence.

Gonzalez was a much more active government informant than was Castro. The job wasn’t so different from the one he’d been doing before—and he was good at it and seemed to enjoy it.

On April 19, 2012, he met with the ­Russians at a Bronx steakhouse. They wanted another politician to help speed the opening of another center.

“Let [me] do the legwork,” Gonzalez told them in a conversation he recorded.

A week later, on April 27, Gonzalez met Eric Stevenson, an assemblyman from the 79th Assembly District. Stevenson, tall and ­barrel-chested, was a first-term legislator, but he’d grown up in Bronx politics and was beloved by some constituents. “He’s done so much to help,” said one community leader. His grandfather, Edward A. Stevenson Sr., was the first Caribbean-born state legislator in New York history. His father had been a district leader. “They brought me up from childhood stuffing doors with political literature,” Stevenson tells me one day by phone. “I got in the seat my grandfather sat in … That was something I wanted to accomplish in my life.” Stevenson had a long history with Gonzalez, and it didn’t give the assemblyman much reason to trust him. At one point, Stevenson refused to support Gonzalez’s bid for office. Explains Stevenson, “He would be angry and not speak to me for a year.”

But Gonzalez could be calm and reassuring when he had to be. “My mother passed away, and I promised her I would run for no more political office,” Stevenson remembered Gonzalez telling him when they reconnected in 2012.

And Stevenson welcomed Gonzalez’s proposal to open an adult-care center in his district, where seniors are starved for services. Gonzalez mentioned that the Russians had worked with Castro to open a center in his district, and that gave Castro one more part to play. At the beginning of May 2012, Stevenson ran into Castro in Albany. “Nelson [Castro] has always been a guy to tell me, ‘Eric, make sure you do this or make sure you do that,’ so I always looked at him as a friend,” ­Stevenson said.

Castro told Stevenson that, yes, he’d met with Gonzalez about an adult-day-care center. Then, according to a person familiar with the case, he gave Stevenson some more friendly advice. “Stop fucking around with the Russians. You’ll get in trouble.” Castro’s minders in the U.S. Attorney’s office were furious at the apparent warning. What was Castro up to?

But Stevenson, in any case, ignored Castro’s admonition. He promised the Russians he’d help them get a center up and running. At first, he said he’d do it for the “community” and turned down a bribe. Gonzalez was willing to be patient. “What happens in this business Eric,” he said into the recorder, “when the money is good and there is a way you can get it and you start to do it, and then you do it once, and then you notice that … you don’t get caught, then you go and do it again, and you keep doing it again, again, again.” Gonzalez apparently didn’t believe Stevenson could resist for long. He baited the hook. “We took care of” Castro, he said. “They’ll bless you too, brother.”

And indeed, Stevenson did not resist for long, according to the government. On July 23, 2012, he let the Russians know that he could use a blessing. It was an election year, and though Stevenson had no meaningful opposition, he said, “I need the support and help like everyone else.” Three days later, Gonzalez handed Stevenson a check for $2,000 for Eric Stevenson 2012, from an account called New Age Adult Day Care Inc.—the government looked at that as a bribe. The Russians, encouraged, moved to solidify the relationship. They wanted to name the center in Stevenson’s district after his grandfather.

“They were thinking of a good reputable person, a name they could put on it, for the community,” Stevenson tells me. “It’s good for me politically, and guess what? It gives a credit to my grandfather’s name, and it does good work for our community. Why not?”

The working relationship grew closer, and according to the government, they were now involved in a criminal enterprise, and closeness bred mistrust. Privately, the Russians nursed suspicions. “You know what I can’t understand?” asked Belyansky one day, in a recording made by Gonzalez. “Why [Stevenson] wants his [grand]father’s name on the day care while [Castro] is scared to talk to us. You see the difference?”

It should have been a tip-off, but by then the Russians were focused on the business opportunity. Tsimerman swept away concerns. “I’ll tell you what the difference is: [Castro’s] a rookie … This guy [Stevenson] has been in politics all his life … He knows what he can and cannot do. [Castro’s] afraid of everything.”

Stevenson, meanwhile, told Gonzalez that he believed Tsimerman was recording their conversations—ironically, in a conversation that Gonzalez himself reported to his handlers.

Having accepted money and gotten away with it, Stevenson now wanted more, according to the federal government. Soon, Stevenson seemed to be running his own con. He had figured out the Russians. They weren’t very shrewd. In fact, they were gullible. Steven­son promised to help them obtain permits, even though he had little real influence at the City Department of Buildings or at Con Ed.

“Gonzalez was playing a psych game with me,” Stevenson tells me. “I played a psych game with him.”

Stevenson would lead the Russians to believe that he was controlling events, directing this strange enterprise.

The government claims that Stevenson got in deeper and deeper, insisting on more payments.

On September 7, Stevenson met the Russians at Jake’s Steakhouse, a power spot not far from Yankee Stadium with a $44 filet mignon on the menu and valet parking at the door. At Jake’s, Belyansky tried to give Stevenson an envelope, but Steven­son, who by now acted as if he were being pursued, noticed the steakhouse’s cameras and wouldn’t take it. Outside the restaurant, Belyansky tried again, handing Stevenson the envelope once more. This time Stevenson stuffed it into a pants pocket, then covered it with his shirt. There was $10,000 in cash inside.

On November 6, 2012, Stevenson was reelected with 97 percent of the vote. On December 27, he let Gonzalez know that he needed money for his inauguration party. “I gotta take care of, I got a lot of shit, man … I got to feed the people.”

At about the same time, Stevenson, Gonzalez, and the Russians began to plan on a grander scale. In late December Gonzalez told Stevenson that the Russians wanted legislation to enhance their competitive position, and Stevenson was willing to oblige.

“I’ll help you write the bill … and then you submit the bill in Albany,” said Gonzalez. In fact, the federal government wrote the key points (although other legislators insist a bill of the kind Stevenson proposed, regulating the adult-day-care industry, is long overdue). Later, the bill included a three-year moratorium on opening more adult-day-care centers in the city, except for those already in the business, which would include the Russians.

“We get that bill passed, we’re gonna be good money,” said Gonzalez.

“I’m telling you, it’s done. It’s no problem,” said Stevenson.

Stevenson, of course, knew that this was entirely false, a promise he had very little chance of keeping, even if he wanted to. There was virtually no chance a novice legislator could get the Russians’ bill passed by both houses and signed by the governor—he didn’t even have a State Senate co-sponsor. But the Russians didn’t know that. When the bill was introduced, Belyansky exulted, the value of his stake would double.

Stevenson asked Gonzalez for another payday: “Are Igor and them putting together a nice little package for me, huh?”

“I’ll have these guys bless you. Don’t worry, man,” responded Gonzalez.

The complaint made it seem that Stevenson was addicted to a steady flow of cash. He also became more paranoid, playing the tough guy. “They bring me down, somebody’s going to the cemetery,” he told Gonzalez. One time, he took a cash-filled envelope from Gonzalez, and put a finger to his lips to signal silence.

On February 16, 2013, Gonzalez was given another envelope, this one with $4,500 in cash, for Stevenson.

On April 4, U.S. Attorney Preet ­Bharara called a press conference. After five years, the government had finally gotten an indictment against a politician—it was time to declare victory and move on. Bhahara announced that Assemblyman Stevenson had been indicted on a charge of bribery, along with the four Russians. He referred to—and praised—the role of “Assemblyman 1,” who it quickly became known was Castro, and “CW,” or cooperating witness, who was Sigfredo Gonzalez, according to reports. Stevenson, defiant, refused to resign. He felt he’d been targeted. “I do the right thing,” he tells me, “and then here comes this thing where they wanted to turn me into a criminal, and it makes me wonder, Why attack me? What have I done?

Stevenson, as it happened, was just one of the New York politicians who was caught up in the U.S. Attorney’s political-corruption probes. Two days before, Bharara had announced the separate investigation that netted Malcolm Smith, the former State Senate majority leader, and three other politicians on charges of wire fraud and bribery. “It becomes more and more difficult to avoid the sad conclusion … that a ‘show me the money’ culture in Albany is alive and well,” Bharara said.

At Liberato, Castro recalls the phone call informing him that his political career was over. Castro is, as always, friendly and engaging, but as he talks about his demise, his hands wind around one another, as if turning a crank. Castro loved being an assemblyman, admired and respected in the community—people on the street called to him, “Hey, Nelson,” and it thrilled him. For many members the Assembly is a part-time job, but Castro had invested all his energy. “Five years of my life,” he says, “I did nothing but this.” Just a few months earlier, he’d been sworn in for a third term (again he ran with the government’s okay), and he’d finally received an interesting committee assignment and more funds to hire staff. He was in the midst of renovating his office.

Then his attorney relayed the message that he should prepare his resignation. “It was heartbreaking,” Castro tells me. “My world ended right there.”

There are long, empty stretches in Castro’s days now. “When I wake up, I go move my car most of the time. I go jog. I come back and do my worshipping, and then I think a lot about what I’m going to do for the day.”

Castro lost more than his Assembly seat. Everyone who’d ever spoken to him wondered what he’d recorded them saying. “My relationships are burned in one second. Friends won’t even pick up the phone.”

Still, as the oxtail stew is cleared, Castro suddenly turns buoyant. He confides that just the evening before, he’d attended a meeting at a respected Dominican Democratic club in the Bronx. “Listen,” he asked the assembled, “if I were to run, would you support me?”

Castro said that the response was uniformly positive. But the U.S. Attorney, which still controls his fate, doesn’t want an informant speaking as a candidate—the possible legal complications are too numerous to control. Soon Castro was resigned to staying out of the race.

Still, Castro won’t give up. A few days later, he excitedly tells me he’s running his own candidate for the seat he resigned—Keny Nuñez, a Dominican-born attorney. He’s a stand-in. “He shares my ideals,” says Castro. He’s quietly walking Nunez around to community groups. If he can’t be a candidate, he can at least be a broker. And who knows what the future will hold. “If I run,” he says, “I think I’ll win.”

Nelson Castro in the Machine