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Queens Chronicle

Good times, bad times: Queens in 2008

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Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 12:00 am

News of disgraced politicians, public protests and fiscal crises in Queens made headlines throughout the borough, city and state in 2008. Various publications and media splashed sensational and, in some cases, serious stories on their front pages and evening newscasts.

Shocking sagas, like those of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio (D-Richmond Hill), sucked in audiences who got a glimpse of happenings in the borough that had a wide-spread effect.

It seems a bit of madness unfolded in March 2008, starting with Spitzer’s resignation on March 17. After The New York Times revealed one week earlier that the then-governor had been caught by a federal wiretap arranging an illicit rendezvous with a prostitute. Spitzer’s shameful secret earned him the nickname “Client No. 9,” and a spot in news broadcasts all over the world.

Just 10 days before the governor stepped down, former union heavyweight and state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Fresh Meadows), declared in a Manhattan federal courtroom that he was guilty of one count each of racketeering and perjury.

“I took funds illegally,” he said under oath, admitting they were for personal use. Among the monies acquired were political campaign funds and union funds. The plea agreement reduced McLaughlin’s sentence to eight to 10 years in federal prison. Without the plea he could have faced some 50 years behind bars.

McLaughlin would return to the scrutinizing public eye once more, this time through another politician’s scandal: that of Seminerio, a 30-year veteran assemblyman who was arrested Sept. 12 on federal charges of corruption for allegedly taking bribes from entities doing business with the state.

After an undercover FBI sting, which included an undercover witness — later revealed to be McLaughlin — federal agents charged Seminerio with allegedly pocketing $500,000 in bribes through a fake consulting firm.

Plea negotiations to keep the 73-year-old assemblyman out of jail fell through and Seminerio was indicted for fraud on Dec. 10. According to the indictment, he pocketed $1 million during his eight-year scheme.

Two other politicians who had run-ins with the law left many constituents, colleagues and state residents in shock when their alleged crimes were exposed in both local and national news.

Former City Councilman Dennis Gallagher (D-Middle Village) was not celebrating on Saint Patrick’s Day 2008: he was in Kew Gardens Criminal Court pleading guilty to forcible touching and third-degree sexual abuse of a 52-year-old Middle Village woman.

The crimes to which Gallagher admitted were significantly less severe than the felony charges originally brought against him. In July 2007, the victim accused Gallagher of having raped her.

In return for the guilty plea, Gallagher resigned from the council and agreed to enter an alcohol treatment program.

Fellow City Councilman and Sen.-elect Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona) was the last of the scandal-ridden politicians to be exposed in 2008. The morning of Dec. 19, Monserrate was arrested and charged for allegedly slashing his girlfriend in the face with a broken glass during an argument.

His girlfriend, Karla Giraldo, recanted her statements to police about the alleged assault. Both she and Monserrate claimed the incident was accidental. Monserrate, who sailed to easy victory last November in his bid to succeed Sen. John Sabini in the 13th District, proclaimed his innocence. He is due in court on Jan. 15.

Another infamous case that made international headlines in 2006 and continued throughout 2008 was the Sean Bell trial. Hundreds of thousands awaited the verdict, which was handed down by Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman on April 25th.

The three NYPD detectives on trial for the shooting death of Bell outside a nightclub in Jamaica in November 2006 were acquitted on a battery of charges including manslaughter and reckless endangerment, among others.

Cooperman’s decision enraged many throughout the borough, prompting them to stage protests and call on the city police department to take action.

Protests and public demonstrations seemed to occur on a regular basis in Queens throughout the year. Many borough drivers objected to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal, which would toll drivers entering Manhattan from 59th Street down. Throwing out the mayor’s idea, state lawmakers put an end to the year-long congestion pricing debate on April 7.

But another of Bloomberg’s controversial ideas sparked a fiery debate that lasted for more than a year: the $3 billion project to convert Willets Point from a neglected 62-acre lot filled mostly with auto junkyards into a mixed-use area that would include housing, a hotel, a school, offices and shops, and a small convention center.

There was an outcry from legitimate businesses in Willets Point that did not want to move and feared the city would use eminent domain to get them out. The plan was approved by Community Board 7, the borough president and the Department of City Planning, but a majority in the City Council opposed the project, saying they were against the use of eminent domain and wanted more affordable housing.

At the 11th hour, the mayor stepped in and made deals with three major business holdouts, ensuring that the city controlled more than 50 percent of the properties. The council capitulated after more affordable housing was promised, and the plan was approved in November.

Another major development that began in 2008 stirred borough residents, but it was in a way that created more nostalgia than anger. The construction of the Mets’ new $600 million stadium, Citi Field, continued unabated throughout the year in preparation for its scheduled opening next April.

A final press tour of Citi Field was held in early December when Mets officials showed off the 45,000-seat stadium. While it will offer better amenities than Shea Stadium did, Citi Field has 12,000 fewer seats, providing better views and more legroom, but also more expensive ticket prices.

And, considering the state of New York’s budgets, those tickets are an expense many will likely forgo. Both the city and state budgets are facing major shortfalls, according to Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson.

The city could see a deficit of more than $3 billion in the fiscal year 2009 budget and the state is expecting close to a $2 billion gap. The only solutions Bloomberg and Paterson have proposed include large cutbacks and new or increased taxes.

Despite the falling economy and troubles ahead, there are peopple in communities across Queens that have retained hope, who have held onto the pride that lingered in their hearts on Nov. 4, 2008 — the day Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.

That day, hundreds gathered at campaign offices throughout southeast Queens, getting out the vote. At the Maranatha Baptist Church on Springfield Boulevard, the Rev. Akim Beecham said he and his parishioners were preparing for a celebration.

“We feel that Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream is being lived today,” Beecham said. “When I was voting, I stood in line, and it was like I had an out of body experience. It meant so much.”

Voters in the 11th Senatorial District were less pleased when they found out the race between the two contenders for the seat was too close to call. City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) and state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) were only 723 votes apart, with the latter in the lead.

But the race was still in doubt because of the more than 800 absentee ballots that were handed out in the district, and outstanding ballots from newly registered voters in the district who weren’t able to vote at their new polling stations on Election Day.

Official ballot-counting began on Nov. 10 and has yet to conclude. Residents of the 11th Senatorial District could find themselves without a senator for the start of 2009.

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