A couple who run an educational community garden in Far Rockaway say that prominent Queens politician James Sanders tried to offer them $1.7 million in taxpayer money in return for a quarter-million-dollar kickback. Marion Moses and Malisa Rivera made the bombshell claim to New York Post reporters, saying that Sanders, now a state senator running for Congress, proposed the scheme at a meeting in 2012 back when he was councilman, and that they've been passed over for government funding ever since they refused to participate.
"He should be incarcerated. He needs time away to reflect and learn the error of his ways," Rivera told the tabloid. "And other politicians should know they can’t do this to anybody, especially a small grassroots organization."
Moses said he filed a report with the U.S. Attorney's Office last month, and the Post reports that the office's head Preet Bharara was already investigating Sanders for his funding of nonprofits while a councilman. The alleged shakedown occurred shortly after Sanders won a state Senate Democratic primary against incumbent Shirley Huntley for the district covering the South Side of Jamaica, South Ozone Park, and part of Far Rockaway. The couple says that after a long technical discussion of fish farming and their vision for expansion, Sanders ordered his aide out of the room and said he could get them $1.7 million for a greenhouse, trucks, and a backhoe to use at their Rockaway plot, and said they should partner with Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corp., to which he had directed hundreds of thousands in city grants.
He allegedly said he'd back the project "come hell or high water," and later, "Yeah, I’ll take that cash—two hundred fifty-thousand dollars. You know, a quarter."
The Post described the scene:
The couple looked confused, so Sanders demonstrated with his fingers.
"He put his fingers up, two fingers on his right hand, then five fingers with his left hand, then he moved his fingers with that hand into a zero,” Moses recalled. “He wanted a quarter of a million dollars."
Moses and Rivera say they stormed out not long after, and that they have been blackballed from city and state grants by Sanders and his former aide Donovan Richards, now a councilman, since then, even as the two doled out millions to other nonprofits.
Sanders denied the claims "in the highest fashion," saying, "The thing is ludicrous. It's absolutely preposterous and I’m speaking to lawyers about countersuits for anybody who is going to defame us in such a fashion."
Sanders served on the Council from 2002 to 2012 and took office as state senator in 2013. The Post previously reported that in his campaigns, he spent tens of thousands more than he'd fund-raised, and he has previously acknowledged being underwater on a mortgage that he said was a case of predatory lending.
In 2013, Sanders, who is African American, insinuated that a series of investigations into and indictments of black politicians were a racist "conspiracy" by law enforcement officials, and organized a debate on the subject dubbed "Attack on Black Leaders: Corruption or Conspiracy?" The recent convictions of white power brokers Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver notwithstanding, there has been a lot of talk—and evidence—of corruption in Sanders's stomping ground of southeastern Queens.
Federal investigators reportedly took an interest in Sanders back in 2013. He told the Observer that his "house is in order, so people can look to their heart’s content." Huntley, his predecessor in the Senate, was later convicted of embezzling from a taxpayer-backed charity she oversaw and served nearly a year in prison. Sanders recently threw his hat into an upcoming race against nine-term Congressman Gregory Meeks, who has also been accused of various types of corruption, though never charged with a crime.
Sanders was one of several councilmen who funneled about $30,000 to a nonprofit called Young Leaders Institute in 2011 and 2012. The money was meant to cover after-school programs, but the nonprofit's director Van Holmes, who also got taxpayer money through Huntley, pleaded guilty the following year to embezzling more than $85,000 from the group.
Huntley's chief of staff Ruben Wills went on to win a Jamaica, Queens Council seat only to be indicted for allegedly embezzling $11,500 in campaign money and directing taxpayer money to a nonprofit he controlled. His codefendant has pleaded guilty. His case is still pending.