Officially the chairman of the Queens Republican Party is Phil Ragusa. But if what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says is true, that may come as a surprise to the borough party’s Deputy Chairman Vince Tabone, who was one of six people indicted in the scheme centered on state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) and Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone).
“Nobody else runs the party, I run the party,” Tabone allegedly said to an undercover FBI agent, according to Bharara’s indictment.
For one prominent member of the rebel Queens GOP sect that sought to seize power from Ragusa’s wing in 2011, that comes as no surprise.
“I knew they were corrupt, I knew they were all corrupt,” said Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park).
Ulrich and former Councilman Tom Ognibene had tried to wrestle control of the party from Ragusa and Tabone in 2011 as a years-long intraparty battle climaxed that year. The party split then was geographic, with most southern Queens Republicans backing Ognibene and northern Queens Republicans behind Ragusa. Ultimately Ragusa kept his chairmanship.
Ulrich did express shock at the allegation that Halloran, the only other Republican in elective office in Queens, was part of the operation. His voice enveloped in a tone of disappointment and disbelief, Ulrich said he had a good working relationship with his colleague.
“I always knew him to be a person of integrity,” he said. “The allegations are deeply disturbing and I can’t imagine why he would let himself get roped in with these clowns.”
The GOP civil war came to a head again during last year’s elections.
Tabone and the party leadership supported Forest Hills attorney Juan Reyes over Ulrich for the GOP nomination to take on state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) last year. The primary race got heated with Reyes’ campaign accusing Ulrich of being a lackey for state Republicans and attacking him for hiring a gay staffer. In one mailer, Ulrich was pictured dressed as a Soviet soldier.
In an email to Ulrich last fall, Tabone threatened to sue the councilman if he did not retract his claims that he was corrupt, which Ulrich made to the Queens Chronicle in September during the primary fight. Ulrich ultimately won that contest but lost the general election to Addabbo a week after Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the district.
Ulrich also called this week for GOP mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis to suspend his campaign for mayor. Catsimatidis’ company, Red Apple Group, employed Tabone as its lawyer and in a statement, Catsimatidis said he was made aware of the investigation earlier this year and had cooperated fully with law enforcement.
“[Catsimatidis] knew about this,” Ulrich, who supports former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota for mayor, alleged. “He protects and employs some of the most corrupt figures in New York City. Is that the type of administration he’s going to run?”
Rob Ryan, a spokesman for Catsimatidis’ campaign, said Tabone had been terminated as of Tuesday morning and reiterated that the campaign had been cooperating with the investigation fully since it was first made aware of it.
Even before Tuesday’s news, another battle of the GOP leadership was expected between the Ragusa wing and the Ognibene wing. Ulrich said the indictments show there is a need for new leadership in the party.
“I believe that now is the time and I’m calling on the state Repulicans to bring peace and unity back to the Queens GOP,” he said.
Ulrich suggested former Rep. Bob Turner, the only Republican elected at the federal level in Queens in more than 30 years, for chairman. Turner served in the House of Representatives after being elected to replace former Rep. Anthony Weiner in 2011, but left office last year after losing a primary race for the U.S. Senate and seeing his district folded into neighboring ones during redistricting. Turner’s Breezy Point home was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, but he has been living in Kew Gardens and is rebuilding his home in the Rockaways.
“I think [Turner] can bring people together and restore some trust and confidence,” Ulrich said. “I think this is his opportunity to heal the wounds. But right now we have a party that even I have a hard time believing in.”
He added that he believes Turner would be interested in assuming the leadership.
Turner was seen as a compromise candidate during the 2011 battle, but said at the time he did not want the job. Turner could not be reached for comment this week.
Tabone letter threatened suit
The deputy chairman of the Queens Republican Party, Vince Tabone, arrested Tuesday for being part of a scheme aimed at bribing officials in an attempt to get state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) the GOP line for mayor, threatened a city councilman on the opposite side of an intraparty feud with legal action for alleging he was corrupt in an article published in the Queens Chronicle last fall.
In a letter obtained by the Queens Chronicle sent from Tabone to Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) shortly after the article was published in September, Tabone asked Ulrich to retract his statement accusing him of corruption “on the advice of counsel.”
He said the claim was “a bald faced derogatory statement” and said he would “proceed most effectively and will avail myself of every legal remedy at my disposal if I do not receive a written retraction and apology.”
The letter was also sent to Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan).
Ulrich never retracted his comments and stood by his accusations as recently as Tuesday, only hours after Tabone was arrested.
— Domenick Rafter