Harendra Singh was a desperate man.
The Long Island restaurateur had fallen far behind on rent for his East River eatery in Queens. He looked for help from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, to whom Singh said he’d been a “very loyal” friend and to whom Singh had directed tens of thousands in campaign donations.
While Singh’s company was offering postdated checks and excuses for late payments to the agency managing his lease of city land, Singh was pleading with de Blasio’s aides for access.
“I am a very loyal and early friend of Bill and not be able to get in touch with anyone is a little heart wrenching,” Singh wrote on March 22, 2014, to Emma Wolfe, a top de Blasio aide.
“Happy to see if I can help,” a Wolfe aide replied two days later.
Over the course of 2014 and 2015, Singh repeatedly sought City Hall’s help in connecting him with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, or DCAS, to save Water’s Edge, his restaurant in Long Island City, Queens, according to correspondence obtained by Newsday under the Freedom of Information Law. De Blasio’s aides were initially receptive, the emails show.
Singh, 59, of Syosset, secretly pleaded guilty in October 2016 to federal charges of attempting to bribe de Blasio, according to court documents unsealed last month and a judge’s decision filed Friday. Singh also pleaded guilty to bribing Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, who are scheduled to be tried on federal corruption charges.
An active donor
“I gave these donations to the elected official in exchange for efforts by that official and other City officials to obtain a lease renewal from the City agency for my restaurant on terms that were favorable to me,” Singh said at his Eastern District of New York plea hearing, according to a transcript.
Singh, his parents, his wife and the people from whom he bundled donations raised more than $54,000 for de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral bid and transition committee. He hosted two fundraisers for de Blasio at the now-shuttered Water’s Edge.
The mayor’s fundraising practices were investigated by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. But federal prosecutors said last March that they would not bring criminal charges, citing, among other factors, “the high burden of proof.” But they were critical of some of the practices.
De Blasio has maintained he acted ethically.
“Everything we did on that matter and everything else we’ve done in this administration was legal, was appropriate,” he said recently, growing short with reporters’ questions about Singh and repeating that he had “nothing else to say.”
Mangano’s lawyer, Kevin Keating, argued late last month that Eastern District prosecutors had “ample evidence and authority” to charge de Blasio but engaged in “selective prosecution” by indicting Mangano but not de Blasio on corruption charges in relation to Singh.
U.S. District Court Judge Joan M. Azrack on Friday denied the defense motion, differentiating between alleged personal gifts to Mangano and campaign contributions to de Blasio, which she said increased the government’s burden of proof for bribery.
‘Friend of the mayor’
At the office where de Blasio worked as city public advocate in 2011, and then at City Hall in 2014 and 2015, de Blasio staff told DCAS staff to “resolve this matter” because Singh was a “friend of the mayor,” according to a July 7, 2017, city Department of Investigations memo, which cited DCAS employee interviews.
De Blasio called DCAS Commissioner Stacey Cumberbatch directly about Singh, according to the memo, which summarizes city investigators’ probe with the FBI and Southern District prosecutors.
Being in the red was preventing Singh from securing a lease renewal.
A DCAS rent statement dated July 1, 2015, said Singh’s company owed $2.1 million, and an email from a Singh lobbyist to the mayor’s special counsel on March 28, 2015, said DCAS was “demanding” $4 million toward the replacement of a city pier used by the restaurant.
A July 31, 2015, settlement proposal emailed by City Hall to DCAS shows Singh’s company’s financial burden negotiated down to $1.1 million of the total rent arrears and $2 million for the pier.
A day earlier, a senior aide to the unnamed city official arranged for a meeting between Singh and the head of the unnamed agency “in an effort to pressure the City Agency to make its proposed settlement terms more favorable to Mr. Singh,” an Eastern District prosecutor said at Singh’s plea hearing.
The mayor, in the wake of the disclosure of Singh’s guilty plea, denied he had helped the restaurateur.
“This is a guy who obviously is a bad human, who did bad things and was caught doing bad things,” de Blasio said on WNYC. “And then when people do that, all they try and do is lessen the punishment and save their own skins. But this has been looked at really carefully. Nothing that he describes as having happened, happened, period.”
‘I will connect you’
Singh said in court he brought in campaign cash “in exchange for efforts” toward a more favorable lease, and emails show de Blasio aides making such efforts.
Javon Coney, who as a “body man” to de Blasio was regularly at the mayor’s side, communicated regularly by email with Singh in 2014, checking in to see if Singh had what he needed from DCAS.
“Per the Mayor’s request, I will connect you with Stacey Cumberbatch to have a meeting ASAP,” Coney wrote Singh on June 3 after saying it had been a pleasure to meet Singh at a fundraiser for then-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, a Huntington Democrat.
Three days later, Coney apologized when Singh told him no one from DCAS had been in touch.
A meeting between Singh and Cumberbatch was set for July 8.
Around that time, a DCAS deputy had been taking a sterner tone with a comptroller for Singh’s company.
“The account is in arrears at this point,” Shelly Goldman wrote to Salvatore Russo on May 1. “We would prefer full payment rather than these little payments — we are not a bank . . . however we won’t refuse your payments.”
Russo in a Sept. 10 exchange with Goldman revealed the depths of the company’s financial troubles.
“If I send you a few checks at a time can you deposit them on different days?” he asked. Goldman said the city agency would accept partial payments but not postdated checks.
Singh continued to reach out to Coney in November and December for further DCAS meetings. He wrote on Jan. 9, 2015, that he had “hit a major obstacle with DCAS.”
Escalating Singh’s case
The restaurateur turned in 2015 to Wolfe, de Blasio’s director of intergovernmental affairs, and her aide, Gabriel Schnake-Mahl.
“What time is good to speak today?” he asked Schnake-Mahl on Jan. 20. “I need to know my next move.”
In another email that day, Singh said he was concerned “that City will start a litigation and I will have no option but go out of business. Please help.”
Henry Berger, de Blasio’s special counsel, and Cumberbatch exchanged emails in March and June 2015 that were redacted by the mayor’s office, which provided them under FOIL. Some inter- and intra-agency communications are exempt from FOIL.
On July 17, Singh, his lobbyist Neal Kwatra, Wolfe and Cumberbatch met at City Hall, according to the city investigators’ memo.
Escalating the Water’s Edge case to the commissioner level was unprecedented, the memo reads.
“According to several DCAS staff, a meeting at City Hall regarding a minor matter such as a lease negotiation was also unprecedented,” says the memo.
On Aug. 3, Schnake-Mahl sent Cumberbatch and another DCAS official an email with the subject line, “Draft settlement proposal.” Wolfe was CC’d.
The next month, Singh was arrested on Long Island.
De Blasio press secretary Eric Phillips defended City Hall officials’ dealings with Singh.
“This is a felon who thought his money was buying him something. It wasn’t,” Phillips said. “We make decisions on the merits and we help small businesses all the time regardless of whether their owners are politically active.”
Cumberbatch’s attorney, Jim Walden, declined to comment.
Though the Southern District declined in March to prosecute de Blasio on corruption or other charges, acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim in a rare statement cited “several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the City, after which the Mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies on behalf of those donors.”
The Southern District declined to comment on Singh’s guilty plea in the Eastern District.
Singh’s attorney, Anthony LaPinta, said his client is cooperating against all the officials.
“Mr. Singh pleaded guilty to his crimes because he is, in fact, guilty of those crimes,” LaPinta said. “He is prepared to testify truthfully irrespective of his past relationships with his co-conspirators or their public status.”