Grimm times for New York Republicans
Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) became a blip on the national radar screen with an on-camera tirade against a reporter that was equally inappropriate and hilarious. It was easy to understand why Rep. Grimm was angry – he got sandbagged with a question about a developing local scandal while holding a press conference to respond to the State of the Union address. The reporter was doing a “late hit” segment, to borrow a term from football, using his control of the camera to slip in a last word that made Grimm look especially bad. Still, Grimm did himself no favors by barging into the shot and threatening to break the reporter in half like a little boy, and throw him off the balcony they were speaking on.
At the time of that incident in late January, the local story that reporter was asking about did not directly involve Grimm himself. It was a campaign finance investigation into the alleged use of straw donors by some of his supporters. However, a different investigation into a potentially related matter was also in progress, and on Monday morning Rep. Grimm – himself a former FBI agent – surrendered to the FBI. The Washington Post reviews his legal situation:
The charges stem from his ownership of a Manhattan health-food restaurant that has ties to an Israeli fundraiser who served as a liaison between Grimm and a mystic, celebrity rabbi whose followers donated more than $500,000 to Grimm’s campaign in 2010.
While the investigation has focused on Grimm’s fundraising, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch is expected to announce an indictment centered on his restaurant business, which Grimm launched after leaving the FBI in 2006, according to officials familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the pending charges.
The state fined the Upper East Side restaurant, Healthalicious, $88,000 for not providing workers compensation. In a lawsuit against the company, workers accused the owners of not paying proper wages and sometimes giving out cash payments to skirt tax and business laws.
It is unclear whether federal prosecutors will eventually expand the charges to encompass Grimm’s campaign activities, but investigators have been moving on that side of the case against several key players, some with ties to the restaurant.
The Boston Herald adds that some of the workers at Healthalicious were in the country illegally, and that the charges against Grimm might include lying under oath about his business practices. Fox News reports a total of 20 charges were filed against him on Monday, none of them related to campaign finance violations. The House Ethics Committee has also considered an investigation of his 2010 campaign, but said it would wait until the Justice Department has completed its inquiry.
At this point, as far as any official statements on the matter are concerned, the restaurant lawsuit is only tangentially related to the campaign-finance investigation through a corporate partnership. That relationship connects Grimm to an Israeli businessman named Ofer Biton, who in turn connects him to the campaign donor who is currently under investigation for arranging straw-donor financial support in 2010:
Biton often served as a go-between for Grimm, a Roman Catholic, and followers of Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a multi-millionaire celebrity rabbi with a strong following in the United States. Pinto is currently in discussions with officials in Israel over a plea deal in a case involving alleged bribery of police leaders there, according to Israeli reports. Pinto has congregations and charitable institutions in the United States and Israel, according to the Associated Press, and reportedly has close relationships with many business leaders, politicians and celebrities, including the Miami Heat’s LeBron James. Forbes Israel recently ranked Pinto as Israel’s seventh-richest rabbi, with a net worth of about $21 million.
The donations from Pinto’s followers proved crucial for Grimm in his 2010 campaign, his first political race, demonstrating to party leaders that he was a viable candidate. He narrowly beat the Democratic incumbent after a campaign that he devoted to his own biography, trumpeting his background as a Marine and an undercover FBI agent as a sign of his ethical standing.
Pinto’s followers were good for somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000 in donations. Some of them have admitted to making illegal donations through third parties, but at present there is no compelling evidence that Grimm knew about these activities.
Adding to Grimm’s woes was the indictment of his friend (and, according to some sources, either current or former love interest) Diana Durand on Friday for using straw donors to funnel $10,000 into his campaign, and allegedly making false statements to investigators about her reimbursement of the straw donors. (The idea is to encourage lots of people to donate money to a candidate, with promises to quietly pay them back later, because a deep-pocketed supporter is legally barred from donating more than a certain amount.)
Her lawyers insist she made honest mistakes due to her misunderstanding of complex campaign finance laws, and is only facing felony charges because the government wants to use her against Grimm. Her lawyer Stuart Kaplan, also a former FBI agent, is quoted in the New York Daily News as saying Grimm was “a stickler for ensuring that everything was done by the book,” and had no idea Durand might have been doing anything illegal.
Grimm’s lawyers likewise insist he is innocent – the target of “a politically driven vendetta,” according to attorney William McGinley – and predict that investigations of both his campaign finances and restaurant operations will vindicate him. It seems unlikely that vindication would come in time to reverse his 2014 campaign fortunes. As the Washington Post reports, the accumulated weight of the allegations against him is already damaging him politically:
While Grimm’s attorney has proclaimed the lawmaker’s innocence, the charges and the investigation have provided an opening for his Democratic opponent, former New York City councilman Domenic Recchia, who barnstormed the congressional district over the weekend. Recchia bounced around Staten Island and the southern end of Brooklyn, concluding the weekend at a charity event Sunday evening at the Yellow Hook Grille in Brooklyn. Upon his arrival, a waitress rushed up to Recchia and expressed interest in volunteering with his campaign.
Already inclined to support Recchia, Jessica Hauser told him that the arrival of new charges in the Grimm case “makes me extra inclined to volunteer.”
Recchia has tried to keep the campaign focused on kitchen-table issues, but he took indirect swipes at the congressman’s legal problems. “It’s very troubling what has transpired,” he said, suggesting that the criminal case will make it harder for Grimm to serve his constituents. “They want someone who is going to focus on them 100 percent.”
An added twist to the story that has some Republicans crying foul is that the charges against Grimm were revealed two weeks after the filing deadline for the 2014 race… a suspiciously precise bit of timing that could end up allowing Recchia to run unopposed for the seat. It might not even make a difference if Grimm voluntarily drops out of the race. The last-minute Democrat switch of Frank Lautenberg for scandal-plagued Robert Torricelli in the 2002 New Jersey Senate race is the precedent on everyone’s mind. Critics have long regarded that substitution as illegal; there’s no telling if the New York courts would cut Republicans the same sort of break New Jersey’s Supreme Court gave Democrats.
Politico reports on the pickle New York Republicans find themselves in:
Mike Long, the state’s Conservative Party chairman, said his party would still support Grimm for reelection unless he is found guilty. He said he was suspicious of the timing of the indictment, which came soon after the closing of the district’s filing period.
But Long said he had no doubt that the development would severely damage Grimm in his reelection campaign, making it hard for him to raise money and motivate his supporters.
“Does it make a difference?” Long asked. “Very much so.”
The state’s deadline for submitting petitions to appear on the primary ballot closed April 10, meaning that it’s too late for another Republican besides Grimm to run for the 11th District seat, which spans parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn.
And New York’s party nomination process closed earlier this month, closing off another avenue to replace Grimm with a different Republican on the ballot.
With that in mind, there might be no alternative for Republicans but to support Grimm, who is still said to be a prodigious fundraiser, unless something emerges from the legal battle that completely destroys his candidacy. He probably won’t be starring in any more global-warming propaganda, either.