Originally appeared in Michael Bongiorno’s column in Our Town
The federal indictment of Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence and Aaron Troodler, former executive of the Ramapo Local Development Corporation (“RLDC”) and a former assistant town attorney, is the just the tip of a very cold and dark corruption iceberg. This corruption iceberg has been sinking the Town of Ramapo for the past 20 years and threatens to take the much of the rest of Rockland County with it.
Essentially, St. Lawrence and Troodler, with the help of enablers and incompetents, are charged in a federal indictment with selling $150 million in municipal bonds based on fabricated and inflated town financial documents. Most of the alleged fraud centered on St .Lawrence’s efforts to build a baseball stadium after town taxpayers rejected an initial bond proposal. According to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, “The Ramapo and RLDC bonds were built on a foundation of fraud,” adding that St. Lawrence and Troodler “did an end run around the voters and ensured no public funds would be used. They lied.”
Apparently they lied to the extent that the Ramapo taxpayers, who were told by St. Lawrence not one dime of public money would be used to build the stadium, are now on the financial hook, according to the state comptroller, for up to $60 million! Along the way, thousands of municipal bond investors were also defrauded.
Meanwhile, at public meetings St. Lawrence acts as if he was given a parking ticket and clearly has no intention of doing the honorable thing by resigning. However, the corruption and incompetence goes far beyond St. Lawrence.
The chief enablers of the fraud appear to be Town Attorney Michael Klein and deputy financial director Nate Oberman, both of whom face related civil charges filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). They also should resign, but won’t.
What about the other town board members? At a minimum, they were asleep at the switch and did not fulfill their fiduciary duty to protect the taxpayers’ money and spend it wisely. How could they not know the books were cooked? The leaders of Preserve Ramapo have been shouting for years that the stadium was a fraud and a boondoggle, yet the board members blithely voted St. Lawrence everything he wanted. They should also all resign if for no other reason than they are too stupid to properly serve the public interest.
The bigger issue is what is the source of this alleged corruption? How did this all happen? It all goes back to the warped electoral process in Ramapo that turns democracy on its head.
In the normal election process, if an elected official sought to build a stadium after the voters overwhelmingly voted down a bond resolution to fund the construction of that stadium, he would be promptly voted out of office. Not in Ramapo, where the ultra-religious bloc vote virtually guarantees election regardless of the poor character, dishonesty or incompetence of the person receiving that vote.
St. Lawrence knew that he would be re-elected with the bloc vote no matter how he built his stadium. He could ignore the other voters, and he did. He could deceive the other voters, and he did, by falsely claiming no taxpayer money would go towards construction of the stadium. He did it knowing he had the support of the bloc vote leadership, which controls the mindless vote, and the sycophants in town government appointed to their positions, or assisted into elected office, by St. Lawrence.
Not that the ultra-religious community cared about the stadium; they didn’t. What they cared about were all the other things St. Lawrence did for them — the downzoning, variances, nonprofit funding and excessive pandering – directly and through his intermediaries. If the other taxpayers get zapped for millions, if the quality of life for people outside their community deteriorates, if a school district is destroyed, if Ramapo is ghettoized with monstrous multi-family homes replacing former single-family homes – none of that mattered to the bloc vote leadership as long as they could build what they want, violate building and fire codes with virtual impunity, and access public funds whenever possible.
The electoral process is Ramapo is so warped that a convicted felon, Samuel Tress, was elected to the town board with the support of St. Lawrence, the bloc vote, and the Democratic machine that supports St. Lawrence (no reformers need apply). Shortly after taking office, Tress was charged with another felony for voting, as a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, to back a zoning change on a multifamily house in which he held a financial stake. (Remember that St. Lawrence, with the approval of the bloc-vote leadership, has packed the town boards with lemmings that will do what St. Lawrence and the bloc want them to do.)
There is a bottom line: regardless of the outcome of St. Lawrence’s case, the damage done to Ramapo is continuing and irreversible. The taxpayers are still on the hook for a stadium that cannot finance itself. Huge, multi-family residences are being built in every nook and cranny of the town with no concern for the stress that overdevelopment is putting on resources and services – water, sewers, roads, police, fire, schools, medical care, etc. What sane person would now buy Ramapo town bonds? Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come as St. Lawrence’s indictment will do nothing to slow down the destruction of residents’ quality of life.
Worst of all, even if St. Lawrence is removed from office, there will be another bloc-vote puppet to take his place. In politics, demographics is destiny, and the demographics in Ramapo decidedly favor the insular ultra-Orthodox community.
The writer, Michael Bongiorno, is the former District Attorney for Rockland County