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New Pay-To-Play Allegations Surface In Queens GOP’s Raging Civil War

April 26, 2013 · By Celeste Katz · NY Daily News

Queens isn’t free of pay-to-play politics — even in the wake of a federal corruption case that implicated three local officials — warns a top leader of the borough’s Republican Party.

Katherine James, a party vice chair, this week wrote state Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox that “the continued comment to would-be Queens GOP candidates that the GOP endorsement can be theirs in exchange for payment of consultant services must be stopped.”

James, who’s among those highly critical of Queens bossPhil Ragusa in the local party’s ongoing civil war, didn’t name names in her letter. But she charged in interviews with the Daily News that consultant Stephen Graves toldSunny Hahn he could help get her GOP backing in the 20th District City Council race — if she hired him to work on her campaign.

Graves, who got suspended from his job at the city Board of Elections last year* amid reported allegations he tried to solicit a payment from a firm competing to provide new ballot scanners, said he did nothing of the kind.

As with all things related to the Queens GOP, the story gets more complicated.

Hahn told the News that after she let the party know she wanted its backing in a potential challengeto incumbent Councilman Peter Koo, Graves got in touch with her last week.

According to party Executive Director Robert Hornak, Graves went on leave from his position as the Queens GOP’s first vice chairman during the 2012 investigation, but did not formally resign until earlier this year. Graves provided the News with a copy of his resignation letter dated Feb. 11. Ragusa said Graves quit perhaps a month ago; Hornak could not immediately provide an exact date late Thursday.

Graves has since been replaced in the party hierarchy, but it was hard to say based on interviews yesterday whether his status (or lack thereof) as a top GOP official was crystal clear when he and Hahn had their talk.

Hahn (pictured) said Graves told her she would need to meet with party leaders to discuss her candidacy.

“He asked me a few questions, including how much money I could raise [to run] or if I would consider hiring county [GOP] people like himself… Initially, I said, ‘I guess I can,’ but when I hung up, I felt uneasy,” Hahn recalled.

“If [the] endorsement is attached to some kind of condition or expectation, I cannot accept… I wanted to make sure I will not do anything unethical,” Hahn said, adding that her campaign manager told her never to speak to Graves again because of the negative attention he’d attracted in the past.

So Hahn called Graves back, telling him, “I cannot promise anything, including the amount of money I can raise or [that I will] hire anyone…

“He said, ‘No, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t suggest any conditions, so you have to do whatever has to be done, and that’s it. Good enough. You will be hearing from the county.’”

This past Tuesday, Hahn sat with Queens GOP leaders to discuss an endorsement. Hornak said a formal decision hasn’t been issued — but so far, no other Republican candidate is actively seeking the nod.

Graves (pictured via Facebook) said he did tell Hahn he would be interested in having his firm produce her campaign lit, but said he never gave her the impression that he could deliver Ragusa’s endorsement.

“In fact, [I] made it very clear that whether she hired me or not has nothing to do with what Phil decides,” Graves said. “Abundantly, categorically said it has nothing to do with that… The chairman, frankly, endorses whoever the hell he wants.”

Pointing to federal allegations that three Queens officials — state Sen. Malcolm Smith, City Councilman Dan Halloran and former borough GOP Vice Chairman Vince Tabone — plotted to rig the Republican primary for mayor, Graves added, “Even if the best of times, [that’s] not something I would do, but in this kind of time, come on…

“I may be not a genius,” the former congressional hopeful deadpanned, “but I’m not an idiot.”

Graves did, however, say he pointedly advised Hahn she could harm or even destroy any hope of an endorsement by contracting with anyone tied to the party faction trying to overthrow Ragusa.

James called Hahn, who ran for state Assembly last year, “as honest and straight as they come,” and said her distinct impression was Graves had offered a quid pro quo: Consulting gig for party influence.

Hahn couched the proposition as a little more “vague.”

It was, she said, stronger than a mere “suggestion” that she could benefit from hiring Graves, but he “didn’t demand” she give him work or explicitly say she needed to bring him aboard to score party points.

Hahn said her manager, whom she declined to identify on the record, floated reporting the incident to the district attorney.

“I said, ‘Don’t overblow this. Don’t overreact,’” Hahn said.

Hahn also said she did not herself approach investigators about her talk with Graves; James would not immediately confirm or deny she had done so. More broadly, James said the entire situation suggests Ragusa has his “head in the sand” and really needs to make way for new leadership.

Ragusa said James has been upset with him since he used his power as chairman to remove her from her own longtime Board of Elections job.

He also noted authorities said a year ago that various agencies had looked at the matter andreported to the BOE they’d found no grounds to formally accuse Graves of wrongdoing.

“The FBI didn’t bring charges, didn’t indict him, and then for some reason, somebody brought it up a few months ago — or maybe it was before that,” Ragusa said. “They referred it to the district attorney, and I know that the DA wrote a letter [saying] there was nothing there.”

In any case, Ragusa told the News he felt the organization was and is better off without Graves, who “cannot speak for the Queens County Republican Party. I can tell you that right now.”

Neither the FBI or the state GOP had an immediate formal comment on the issue.

Alluding to the GOP’s better than six-to-one disenrollment advantage among city voters, Ragusa added, “We’re not the Democratic Party, that if we’re selling the Democratic line, you’re going to win automatically. What are we selling? Nothing! We’re happy when someone comes in and says ‘I’ll carry your line.’”

Ironically, Koo, the councilman Hahn has filed papers with the city Campaign Finance Board to challenge, got elected as a Republican – but last year jumped ship for the Democratic Party.

Koo’s defection provided more ammo for the faction that says Ragusa must go.

Ragusa — who, as I’ve reported, has been both the subject of a concerted ouster effort and the recipient of countering public support from loyalists – said with gallows humor that he’s not budging from the chairmanship for now, “unless they shoot me.”

“The [party reorganization] comes up in October,” he said, “and if they vote me out — good luck and goodbye.”

Update: Board of Elections spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez specified in a statement Friday afternoon that Graves was “suspended without pay pending a hearing at the Board and before the hearing he resigned. He was replaced shortly after by John Bougiamas. He forfeited the time he had accrued at the Board and we referred it to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.”

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