The war within the Queens Republican Party flared up this week when Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) accused some members of the leadership of corrupt behavior, and his targets responded by slamming the lawmaker’s own ethics.
The party has long been divided between the group that supports the leadership of Chairman Phil Ragusa and an insurgent faction, in which Ulrich has become a leader since his election to the City Council. Other prominent figures in the rebel group include Bart Haggerty, Ulrich’s chief of staff, and his brother, the political operative John Haggerty, who was recently found guilty of stealing nearly a million dollars from the 2009 re-election campaign of Mayor Bloomberg.
But according to Ulrich, who points out that Bart Haggerty hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing, it’s some members of the establishment faction who make corruption a regular Queens GOP practice.
The accusations were first reported in Sunday’s New York Post, and Ulrich reiterated them in an interview with the Chronicle on Tuesday.
“No matter how difficult it is, when you’re serving the public you have an obligation to expose corruption, even when it’s in your own backyard,” Ulrich said. “I hope that if the authorities believe that there may have been any criminal activity they’d like to investigate, I hope the district attorney or the U.S. Attorney’s Office opens an investigation.”
The councilman claimed that party leaders essentially seek to “sell” nominations for elective office, in a manner reminiscent of what former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich received a jail sentence for doing with President Obama’s old Senate seat. In Queens, he alleged, they extort would-be candidates by giving them party support only if they agree to hire particular campaign consultants, for example, for five- or six-figure fees.
“They bring shame to themselves and the party, but it’s also brought shame to me as a Republican,” he said. “I have to explain to my constituents why these people are in positions of power.”
Ulrich singled out the Queens GOP’s executive director, Robert Hornak, and Vince Tabone, an attorney who has assisted many Republican campaigns, fought the insurgent faction in court and once ran for elective office himself.
“Phil is not so much the problem; the people around him are,” he said. “Tabone and Hornak are a disgrace. They should be thrown out of the party.”
Both Republicans bristled at the charge.
“Eric Ulrich is intemperate, immature and not fit to hold public office,” Tabone said.
“The councilman is definitely walking a fine line close to slander and libel,” Hornak said. “I don’t know if those avenues would be pursued, but he definitely should be more judicious in the future.”
Ulrich claimed that the political advisors the party leadership forces candidates to hire are ineffective and not really qualified for the work they claim they can do, further evidence that they are only forced on nominees for the financial benefit.
In response to that charge, Hornak said he has been working on Republican campaigns for nearly 20 years, while Tabone pointed out that he is a lawyer who has advised many candidates on intricate matters like making sure signatures on ballot petitions can withstand legal challenges.
Tabone is also assisting the party in its challenge to the insurgents’ claims that actually have won the leadership.
The claim arises from a rival meeting the rebel caucus held in which it elected its own leader and tried to win state recognition of him. The party establishment took their opponents to court and won the case, but the Ulrich-Haggerty faction appealed. The matter is still before the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division.
Asked if he might ever run for the party chairmanship himself, Ulrich said he wouldn’t rule it out. According to Hornak, however, the City Charter says a sitting councilman cannot serve as a party chairman. That could not immediately be confirmed.