Updated 04/21/2010 10:36 PM
Cuomo Launches Criminal Investigation Against Espada
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Federal authorities raided State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr.'s Soundview Health Clinic in the Bronx
, as State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo confirmed Wednesday that he is proceeding in a federal criminal investigation against the senator.
Beginning just after 7 a.m., more than a dozen FBI and IRS agents executed a search warrant in cooperation with State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office. They then moved boxes of documents from the building into a van.
The FBI says the search is part of an ongoing investigation, but that the clinic remains open to the public.
The state attorney general also filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday that accuses Espada of using the clinic as his own personal piggy bank. The suit charges Espada and 19 other current and former employees of the Soundview Healthcare Network with stealing $14 million in state and federal funds over five years.
The Bronx Democrat created the clinics to serve underprivileged New Yorkers – but Cuomo claims Espada was using taxpayers' money for lavish vacations to Las Vegas, expensive dinners, a $9 million severance package and even his own election campaign.
"This was not the private playground of Mr. Espada. These were public funds," said Cuomo. "I'd also like to point out that Mr. Espada himself is an elected official, and as such, is theoretically aware of the law and the regulations. And I think that makes this particular circumstance more egregious."
The attorney general's office said Espada could face criminal charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, theft of government funds and conspiracy.
Espada told reporters in the Bronx Wednesday that he would fight the allegations and that the suit is politically motivated in the wake of last summer's State Senate coup that he helped orchestrate.
"[The money] was earned, taxes were paid on it," said Espada. "Yes, my family, mostly my boys, have jobs at Soundview Health Center. I'm proud of that, that I've been able to give my family those opportunities."
The majority leader also asked Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson to be excused from Albany on Wednesday, saying he had to "deal with personal business matters."
Espada's absence left Senate Democrats without a 32-seat majority, forcing negotiations over the overdue state budget to a standstill. The legislative body adjourned for the day after meeting for less than an hour.
Some in Espada's district were outraged by the latest developments, while others were not jumping to conclusions.
"I'm mad, because as a Puerto Rican, I see my people in need, but here you've got this guy who was elected by the Puerto Rican community, and he has turned his back on them and taken the money to benefit himself and his family," said one local. "If Cuomo, who is a distinguished man, comes up with this allegation -- okay, a man is innocent until proven guilty. But if he is proven guilty, he should go to jail."
"I don't trust him. That's all I have to say. I don't trust none of them," said another local. "And I vote, but it's not like I have confidence in them."
"Until the facts are provided, we cannot say whether it's true or not," said a third.
Cuomo, who is expected to announce his candidacy for governor later this spring, told reporters he did not see any conflict of interest with a potential gubernatorial candidate running the ongoing investigation.