Former Bronx state Sen. Pedro Espada was accused of plundering the nonprofit Soundview health network he founded through lavish spending on personal perks as he and his son went on trial for conspiracy in Brooklyn federal court Wednesday.
A prosecutor told jurors that Espada, 58, a onetime majority leader of the State Senate whose party-switching in 2009 plunged the evenly divided legislative body into chaos, had "betrayed" a public trust by stealing from federally funded clinics that were supposed to care for the poor.
"They did it because they were greedy, because they were powerful, and because they thought they could get away with it," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolyn Pokorny. "Money that was supposed to go to care of the sick and needy went to beach vacations, thousands and thousands for flowers, spa treatments and family parties."
But Espada's lawyer, Susan Necheles, portrayed her client as a victim of a massive government witch hunt who built the Soundview health network from scratch into a major health provider in the Bronx, and was now being prosecuted for -- at worst -- sloppy bookkeeping and accountants' mistakes.
"Pedro Espada is a driven person," Necheles said. "He has done many things in his life. But one thing he has never done is balance a checkbook."
Espada and his son, Pedro Gautier Espada, referred to in court as "Gautier," face a total of up to 65 years in jail on three counts of conspiracy and five counts of theft or embezzlement of government funds. They were indicted in December 2010, shortly after Espada lost his bid for re-election.
In addition to a $500,000 salary, from 2005 to 2010 Espada allegedly charged $100,000 in restaurant bills to his Soundview American Express card, including $60,000 on sushi and lobster, and used the nonprofit to pay for a Mercedes, a family holiday in Puerto Rico, and political expenses.
And Pokorny said the Espadas ran several other scams to "bleed" Soundview -- overcharging it for janitorial services through a for-profit subsidiary they controlled, using that company to collect rents due to Soundview, and later rigging the result when the Soundview board of directors put the contract out to bid.
She said the health network was chronically short of funds. "You are going to see a trail of fraud, of money and of thievery," she said. "And that trail leads here, to these defendants in this courtroom."
Necheles countered that many of the credit card charges were covered by a "per diem" of $200 in expenses that Espada was due under his contract. "If Espada thought it was part of his compensation, it's not theft," she said.
She told jurors it was not a crime to make a lot of money -- even when you are working for a charity -- and urged them not to punish the ex-politician for his success.