In Espada trial, it’s like comparing apples and ... sushi


A bright red apple sat on the defense table in front of former State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. as his attorney Susan Necheles stood before the jury next to a blown-up photo of the fruit.

“There’s something rotten about this case,” Ms. Necheles said.

During her summation last week, Ms. Necheles wrote things like “threats in the middle of the trial” and “threats in this courthouse” in black marker on top of the apple. She argued that during the U.S. Attorney’s exhaustive case against the former state Senator the government threatened witnesses into testifying.

After the end of summations on April 27, a seven-man, five-woman jury headed into deliberations on Monday to decide if the cast against Mr. Espada was, as Ms. Necheles argued, a bruised apple or a giant pile of sushi paid for with taxpayer money.

Mr. Espada stands accused of illegally paying for thousands of dollars in sushi using his Soundview American Express card.

The embezzlement trial began in a Brooklyn federal courthouse on March 14. Mr. Espada and his son are charged with stealing more than $550,000 from the taxpayer funded not-for-profit Soundview Healthcare Network. If convicted, they could both serve 15 years.

During the trial, government’s witness Norma Ortiz, a longtime aide to Mr. Espada, implicated her boss in a variety of illegal acts, including changing invoices and paying for personal items using his Soundview American Express card.

Mr. Espada’s attorney, Ms. Necheles, argues the U.S. Attorney’s Office bullied and threatened witness Norma Ortiz through her lawyers while she was on the stand. Ms. Ortiz, a longtime aide of Mr. Espada’s, was inconsistent in her testimony. She even blamed herself, not Mr. Espada, for pressuring a videographer into changing an invoice from a birthday party to a community event. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office countered in court that it approached Ms. Ortiz’s attorney during the trial to notify her she was in danger of perjuring herself.

Judge Frederick Block decided there was no foul play, but that the jury should take the alleged threats into account when determining the witness’ credibility.

Ms. Ortiz received immunity to testify against Mr. Espada and other former employees and the defense portrayed her as an example of a witness who would say anything because of her immunity deal.

Despite allegations that the prosecution threatened witnesses, the case comes down to a simple question: Were Mr. Espada and his son Pedro Gautier Espada Jr. entitled to spend Soundview money on personal expenses, ranging from small things like dinners to larger things like cars or tuition payments?

The defense argues Mr. Espada’s contract as CEO of the health care network allowed him a per diem for expenses. Ms. Necheles also argues that Mr. Espada was allowed to charge personal expenses on his Soundview American Express card because Soundview owed him thousands of dollars in sick and vacation time, which he never used.

“If you believe you have permission, it’s not theft,” Ms. Necheles said in her closing arguments on April 26.

Ms. Necheles did not dispute the claims that Mr. Espada spent an exorbitant amount of money on food and other personal items, but argued that he was entitled to do so.

The prosecution, however, argued that Mr. Espada and his son knowingly ripped off Soundview through a variety of schemes. Much of the money the government accuses Mr. Espada of looting from Soundview was spent through a janitorial company called the Community Expansion Development Corporation that the duo is accused of using as a slush fund. Mr. Espada founded the private company, but it became a subsidiary of the health care network in 2005. 

Since then, he has written thousands of dollars in CEDC checks for personal items — large and small — that were ultimately paid for by the health care network. 

“[Pedro G. Espada] buys sun tan lotion, shaving gel, a razor, dental floss and has the audacity to made CEDC pay for it and call it an office supply,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Kaminsky said on April 25 in closing arguments.

The jury was still deliberating the case as of press time on Tuesday. The jury may take some time to weed through the thousands of documents and other items entered into evidence.

Pedro Espada Jr., Susan Necheles, Adam Wisnieski, trial, crime, embezzlement, Soundview Healthcare Network