Mount Vernon’s top lawyer pleaded not guilty today following his indictment in what state prosecutors allege was a $365,000 scheme to use city water department money to fund Mayor Richard Thomas’ criminal-defense legal bills and hire a public relations firm.
Corporation Counsel Lawrence Porcari Jr. was arraigned on felony charges including corruption and grand larceny after surrendering to authorities earlier in the morning.
Westchester County Judge David Zuckerman released Porcari without bail. Porcari declined to say anything as he left the courthouse with his lawyer.
“We’re looking forward to a speedy resolution at which time we hope Mr. Porcari will be vindicated of all these charges,” the lawyer, Nicholas Kaizer, said.
The most serious charge in the seven-count indictment, first-degree corrupting the government, carries mandatory incarceration and is punishable by up to 25 years in prison. Porcari was also charged with one count each of second-degree grand larceny and defrauding the government and four counts of offering a false instrument for filing.
In a joint press release with Attorney General Letitia James, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Porcari “violated both his duty as a public servant and as an attorney by diverting public money and falsifying records.”
“New York has zero tolerance for those who cheat taxpayers, commit fraud, or violate the public trust,” said James.
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Porcari was indicted by the same grand jury that voted not to charge Thomas after hearing evidence about the use of city water department funds to pay for the mayor’s legal bills.
The mayor, running for a second term and facing a stiff challenge in the June 25 Democratic primary, is still facing grand larceny and false statement charges. He is accused of stealing $12,900 from his campaign committee and failing to report on city ethics forms more than $75,000 he received from his inaugural committee and several individuals and companies. His trial is scheduled for July 8.
Two of Thomas’ opponents, City Council President Andre Wallace and Shawyn Patterson-Howard, a former city planning commissioner, called on the mayor to resign.
“It’s time to stop pretending that the buck doesn’t stop with Mayor Thomas, that it’s always someone else’s fault,” said Wallace, who later penned a letter to Thomas demanding Porcari’s ouster. “This administration has lost its way, clearly, and they have repeatedly acted like the rules don’t apply to them.”
Patterson-Howard, who recently hosted a Town Hall on integrity in government, said public officials cannot use their positions for financial gain.
“Mount Vernon cannot afford any more indicted elected officials,” she wrote on a post to Medium.com. “We cannot afford any elected officials who misuse and attempt to defraud the people.”
The fourth candidate on the ballot, former police commissioner Clyde Isley, stopped short of calling on the mayor to step down but said he was clearly responsible for what Porcari did. Isley questioned how the mayor can expect taxpayers to fund his criminal defense and suggested that water-rate hikes coincided with the mayor’s personal need for money.
“It appears that he knowingly sought counsel regarding use of water department funds to pay his legal expenses and seemingly has no problem doing so,” Isley said in a statement.
Councilman Marcus Griffith said Thomas should be held responsible because he’s the sole beneficiary of Porcari’s alleged scheme.
“The Mayor is in charge of these agencies and he either knows what went on or he’s willfully blind to what’s going on,” Griffith said.
Late in the afternoon, Thomas issued a statement defending his administration’s top lawyer and predicting he would be vindicated. He cited instances in which Porcari had obtained court orders blocking obstruction of the Thomas administration by the city council and comptroller.
“I have the highest confidence in Corporation Counsel Porcari’s legal judgment as he has served with distinction since joining my administration in 2016,” Thomas said. “Larry did nothing wrong and everyone must remember that an indictment is simply an accusation based on allegations that must be proven in court.”
He suggested that the charges were based on the same “false narrative” that grand jurors rejected by choosing not to indict him. He said it was part of the “Rich-hunt being facilitated by political enemies.”
The Journal News/lohud reported extensively last spring on Thomas’ efforts to have the city Board of Estimate & Contract retain the firm of Boies Schiller Flexner for unspecified purposes as well as the hiring of the public relations firm, Todd Shapiro Associates. The PR firm was already working for Thomas as of the day of his arrest in March 2018. And within weeks Thomas was being represented in his criminal case by Randall Jackson, a lawyer for Boies Schiller.
The PR firm stepped down in May days after Thomas’ indictment. An official said they had been paid but refused to disclose the source of the payment.
A spokesman for the law firm on Wednesday would say only that they were cooperating with the Attorney General’s investigation. Asked if the firm has returned any of the water department money, he would not respond.
The misappropriated money came from the Mount Vernon Board of Water Supply, which runs the city water department as a separate agency outside the oversight of the city comptroller.
Prosecutors contend that Porcari arranged for water department funds to go to the lawyers as well as the public relations firm. And in the fall, they said, he directed more water department money to go to a second law firm representing Thomas.
“To further the scheme, Porcari allegedly submitted memorandums to the Board of Water Supply for “emergency” payments to the law firms, including memorandums containing false statements,” according to the press release.
Prosecutors have not publicly identified any of the firms that got water department money
Asked last week whether the grand jury had indicted anyone, including Porcari, one of the mayor’s lawyers, Michael Pizzi, said he did not.
Porcari, who lives in Yonkers, has run the city’s law department since Thomas took office in January 2016. He has also served as the vice chairman of the Industrial Development Agency. He had previously worked as an associate lawyer in the office of the Yonkers Corporation Counsel.
He has been the point man regarding several controversial moves by the Thomas administration. Early on in the administration, it was Porcari who signed a contract for the emergency demolition of a home while bypassing the rules requiring the involvement of the city council and the Board of Estimate and Contract. When the comptroller refused to pay and the contractor sued, Porcari settled the lawsuit for the entire amount.
He was among the administration officials who successfully sued then Comptroller Maureen Walker and the city council when they tried to block their employment because they did not live in Mount Vernon. His living in Yonkers did not violate residency requirements.
Besides Thomas himself, Porcari is the latest member of the mayor’s administration to face legal trouble.
Fraida Hickson, a deputy police commissioner in charge of the parking bureau, pleaded guilty last month to a federal insurance fraud charge, admitting the unauthorized use of someone else’s credit to get more than $7,000 worth of plastic surgery.
Buildings Commissioner Dan Jones was charged with DWI in New Rochelle in January after driving his city SUV into a car and a tree and onto a sidewalk. He had eight license suspensions at the time. His license is still suspended, according to the state DMV, and his DWI case is pending.
Businessman Joseph Spiezio, a key campaign advisor who Thomas made his deputy police commissioner, was pulled over by a New Rochelle police officer in February when he was seen using the siren on his city SUV to get around traffic. He was cited for driving with a suspended license, a misdemeanor, but pleaded guilty to a violation of not having his license with him at the time and paid a $100 fine.