Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas arraigned on criminal charges – The Journal News | LoHud.com

  • Video: Schneiderman announces corruption charges against Mount Vernon Mayor Thomas

    Video: Schneiderman announces corruption charges against Mount Vernon Mayor Thomas

  • Video: Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas holds press conferences after being charged with corruption

    Video: Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas holds press conferences after being charged with corruption

  • Video: Mount Vernon Councilman urges restraint after Mayor is charged with corruption

    Video: Mount Vernon Councilman urges restraint after Mayor is charged with corruption

  • Video: Chaotic scene after Mount Vernon Mayor's press conference who is facing corruption charges

    Video: Chaotic scene after Mount Vernon Mayor’s press conference who is facing corruption charges

MOUNT VERNON – Mayor Richard Thomas was arrested Monday, accused of stealing more than $12,000 from his political campaign and diverting more than $45,000 from his inaugural committee in what the state Attorney General’s Office called a wide-ranging scheme to use those funds as his “personal piggybanks.”

The 35-year-old Democrat is accused of using Friends of Richard Thomas and the Richard Thomas Inaugural Committee to pay for such personal expenses as rent on his home, car insurance, a family vacation to Mexico, even a $2,000 Chanel purse.

And he’s accused of failing to disclose on his city ethics forms gifts totaling tens of thousands of dollars from a campaign adviser, relatives, other individuals and their companies for credit-card expenses, reimbursement to the inaugural committee and tuition for his master’s degree at New York University.

At a news conference Monday, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called it an “appalling” scheme in which Thomas used the money as a slush fund and his elected post to “reward those who paid his bills.”

“The pattern of looting here really is extraordinary,” Schneiderman said. “Public corruption strikes at the heart of our democracy” and conduct like Thomas’ “erodes the public trust and makes New Yorkers cynical about their public servants.”

He urged residents to read the 10-page criminal complaint “to understand exactly what your mayor has been up to.” He acknowledged that there is some latitude in how campaign funds are spent, but “there are limits to what you can do.”

The first-term mayor surrendered Monday morning to state investigators at the Westchester County Department of Public Safety, accompanied by his lawyer. He was arraigned in City Court on a felony count of third-degree grand larceny, a felony, and two counts of filing a false instrument, one a felony, the other a misdemeanor.

The felony charges could force him from office if he is convicted. 

COMPLAINT: Read the Attorney General’s complaint

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His arraignment came amid heavy security in Roosevelt Square, with police blocking streets and allowing only city employees to park in the City Hall lot. 

“We intend to vigorously defend this and our position is that the mayor did nothing wrong criminally,” said Carl Bernstein, one of Thomas’ lawyers. “He never intended to in any way to violate the law. It doesn’t mean mistakes are not sometimes made.”

In a statement released later in the day by the mayor’s office, Thomas “strongly disputed” the allegations against him, and described them as “claims of a technical nature relating to Election Law, campaign finance and ethics disclosures.”

“It should be noted that the funds in question, paid to then candidate-Thomas’ personal account, were legal and justified, and made on the advice of counsel, as compensation for his own campaign duties,” the statement said. “Thomas, while a candidate for Mount Vernon mayor, left his job to work solely for his campaign; responsible for a variety of roles, ranging from manager to mail clerk.”

After a four-year term as city councilman, Thomas in 2015 was elected the youngest mayor in the city’s history. He defeated the incumbent, Ernie Davis, who had held the post for 16 of the previous 20 years.

But Thomas’ tenure has been marked by a tempestuous relationship with the City Council, from budget squabbles to lawsuits about the reach of his authority. He has publicly feuded with the city’s powerful Democratic Party and failed in a bid to wrest control of it. 

He has called his critics in city government “obstructionists” for blocking his efforts to modernize City Hall, bolster the Police Department and other offices, and restore Memorial Field to its previous glory. His arrest came three days before he was scheduled to deliver his annual State of the City address.

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In the city’s midterm election last year, Thomas failed to get any close associates elected to the City Council. Four tried to run, but the only one who got onto the November ballot was his brother Butch, a Republican who finished last among seven candidates for three seats.

The mayor and his supporters did manage to unseat longtime city Comptroller Maureen Walker, who lost in the Democratic primary to eventual winner Deborah Reynolds.

Walker was a thorn in Thomas’ side throughout his tenure and in the months leading up to the primary Thomas did not endorse either of the two other candidates but spoke publicly of wanting “anyone but Walker.”

The Journal News/lohud has reported extensively on Thomas’ campaign finance woes, from duplicated contributions on reports filed with the state Board of Elections to his failure to file three primary and general election reports until after he was elected.

And although a pledge to be transparent has been a hallmark of his campaigning and mayoralty, he has refused to reveal publicly what was raised and spent for his inaugural celebration.

According to the complaint, the inaugural committee raised more than $180,000 in January 2016 and spent some money on legitimate expenses, like flowers, a videographer and $50,000 to rent the VIP Country Club in New Rochelle for the gala. But the complaint alleges that Thomas withdrew more than $35,000 from the committee over the next 11 months to pay off personal credit-card expenses. He also went to great lengths to hide an additional $14,000 he took by initially having the committee pay two companies owned by relatives only to have them give him nearly the same amount.

Thomas is the second straight Mount Vernon mayor to face criminal charges while in office. Davis pleaded guilty in October 2014 to a pair of federal misdemeanors related to his personal taxes.

That followed seven years of investigations by federal agents into the Davis administration and his personal finances, and he expressed vindication that the misdemeanor charges were unrelated to his city position and were all that resulted. 

He was sentenced to probation and resisted calls to resign from office, but the conviction proved a liability when he ran for re-election the following year.

On the day of Davis’ guilty plea, Thomas, then a councilman, was among the public officials who weighed in, calling the case “very disturbing.” 

“The people of Mount Vernon deserve better,” he told The Journal News/lohud. “Mayor Davis has to do a serious gut check at this point in time and put the interests of the people of Mount Vernon ahead of his own.”

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UPDATES: Corrections to Thomas campaign finance reports raise questions

In court Monday, Thomas appeared subdued during his brief appearance before City Judge Adrian Armstrong.

Assistant Attorney General Brian Weinberg gave a brief summary of the allegations and said he was not seeking bail but that Thomas had agreed to turn over his passport to prosecutors. Thomas shook hands afterwards with Weinberg and Assistant Attorney General Daniel Cort and told them he understood “you have a job to do.” Thomas is due back in court May 1. 

Ten minutes later he appeared with his wife by his side and told reporters he expects to be “fully vindicated” and wanted to assure Mount Vernon residents that the allegations had “nothing to do with my service in office.”

“The allegations are not true,” Thomas said, adding that he does not want them to distract from his work at City Hall. 

He would not take questions, he said, on the advice of his lawyers.

Questioned about his campaign finances by The Journal News/lohud last year, Thomas blamed his campaign filing problems on the ailing health and eventual death of his campaign treasurer.

When his campaign finally amended the reports this past summer, they showed he had spent about $40,000 more than originally reported. But they did not address what appeared to be several large donations in excess of the 2015 contribution limits.

One campaign worker, Robert Baskerville, told The Journal News/lohud last year that when he asked to be paid by the campaign, he received a $1,500 check from R&S Waste Services, the carting company run by Joseph Spiezio, Thomas’ campaign adviser and now deputy police commissioner. 

Baskerville said he never did work for that company and Thomas’ campaign filings with the state did not show any payments to Baskerville or repayments to R&S. It did not appear that the Baskerville payment was part of the criminal complaint against Thomas.

 While no one else was charged, the complaint refers to several individuals and companies that gave Thomas money that were not reflected in his city ethics disclosures.

Among them is ‘Individual 1,’ who gave $8,000 to Thomas’ American Express account through three of his companies. While the individual is not named, it is a clear reference to Spiezio as the complaint explains that, shortly after taking office, Thomas appointed that person to a “high-ranking position with a city agency that deals with public safety although he had no prior law enforcement experience.”

Spiezio could not immediately be reached for comment.

Thomas knew about the probe by December 2016 when state Investigator Angel LaPorte served subpoenas on the campaign and inaugural committees. Four months later, in an apparent effort to return money he had taken from the inaugural committee, Thomas deposited $11,900 in his personal account and wrote a check the same day to the committee. But he didn’t disclose on his ethics forms the following month that $9,700 of the money he deposited was from two other individuals.

Schneiderman did not rule out the possibility that additional people could be charged and said the investigation was continuing. 

Thomas’ arrest marks the latest in a stepped-up effort by Schneiderman and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to use their joint task force on public integrity to crack down on officials who violate state election laws.

The effort recently resulted in a felony conviction and prison sentence for former New York City Councilman Ruben Wills, who had stolen $30,000 in public campaign funds and state grant money.

Last year, Schneiderman’s office filed felony charges against state Sen. Robert Ortt and his predecessor, George Maziarz, for allegedly trying to hide campaign payments.

But the charges against Ortt were dismissed and Maziarz this month was allowed to plead guilty only to a misdemeanor.

He had been accused of making $95,000 in campaign payments to a former staffer who resigned after he was accused of sexual harassment.

Twitter: @jonbandler

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Take an aerial tour of downtown Mount Vernon, New York’s second-most densely populated city.
Video by Adam McIe/for lohud

 

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