Velella release may be illegal
By Dan Janison, Newsday, October 18, 2004
A city probation panel flouted the law at least three times in the course of releasing Guy Velella and his two co-defendants -- violations that could send the three back to jail, the City Council reported Monday.
"There were obviously a lot of irregularities in the handling of this case," Speaker Gifford Miller said after council probers released the information in a public hearing at City Hall. "It shouldn't have taken this hearing to establish that."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited a continuing probe by his investigation commissioner.
Last week, he ousted all four Local Conditional Release Commission members and the commission's $135,000-a-year executive director, deeming the controversial release poor judgment.
The council said in a brief report:
On Aug. 6, the commission convened for the first time in more than two years to take up applications for release by the three then serving time on Rikers Island for bribery.
Ex-members told the council they voted to release Manuel Gonzalez while rejecting co-defendants Velella and Hector Del Toro.
Chairman Raul Russi, who convened the meeting, reportedly recused himself from voting on the Gonzalez release, saying he knew him. If that's true, only two members voted, short of the three required by law.
Only two members met Sept. 22 to reconsider Velella and Del Toro. A third was phoned later and persuaded by Russi to vote yes, with Russi warning that Velella might otherwise commit suicide.
State law requires a vote by those "physically present," and a recent court ruling voided a town board's phoned-in vote.
The panel may have sprung Velella and Del Toro two weeks earlier than permitted by state correction law, which mandates a 60-day wait before a rejected release can be reconsidered.
There was no public notice of either meeting and no minutes taken. Open-meeting laws require both.
Last week, the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services chaired by Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn) readied subpoenas to force ex-panel members to testify.
It backed off as Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau warned such appearances could hinder criminal probes.
Without appearing publicly, two ex-members privately answered queries from council staff. Committee member David Yassky (D-Brooklyn) said he'd still push to get commission records.
Meanwhile, who might move in court to re-incarcerate Velella and the others remains unknown.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
October 13, 2004
Head of Panel in Velella Case Is Replaced
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER, NY TIMESLINK
Moving to quell a growing embarrassment for his administration, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg accepted the resignation yesterday of a mayoral appointee whose panel released the former State Senator Guy J. Velella from prison 3 months into his 12-month prison sentence.
The move followed days of growing questions into how a little-known panel came to free Mr. Velella and reflected a swift change in strategy for Mr. Bloomberg, who two weeks ago brushed off the release as a puzzling turn of legal events made by a commission that he had never heard of.
But as questions persisted about the early release of an influential politician, the mayor found himself increasingly on the defensive over the obscure board, known as the Local Conditional Release Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor's office.
Last week, Mr. Bloomberg assigned his Department of Investigation to look into the matter, saying that after it did, he would meet with the commission's chairman, Raul Russi, to decide Mr. Russi's fate. But Mr. Bloomberg met with Mr. Russi yesterday before the inquiry ended and then announced that he had quit.
"In light of the commission's decision to grant the early release of former State Senator Guy Velella," Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement, "Chairman Russi has decided that it was in the best interests of the City of New York to have new leadership at the commission."
Mr. Russi had said last week he was prepared to accept any decision by Mr. Bloomberg.
Daniel Richman, a professor at Fordham Law School, will replace him. Mr. Russi will still remain on the city's Board of Correction, to which Mr. Bloomberg appointed him in March.
Mr. Velella, a longtime political power in the Bronx and close ally of Rudolph W. Giuliani, had been serving 12 months in prison on charges of conspiracy to accept bribes. Numerous politicians, including former Mayor Edward I. Koch, had appealed to the panel to grant Mr. Velella early release, and it did in late September.
The panel has extraordinary powers to release nonviolent offenders before their terms expire and before they are even up for parole. Such panels were created by the State Legislature a decade ago to help reduce prison overcrowding, but state lawmakers have called in recent months for them to be dissolved. Indeed, Mr. Bloomberg said yesterday, "I think this commission has outlived its useful purpose and I would support legislation abolishing it."
After Mr. Velella's release, Mr. Russi repeatedly told reporters that the panel's decision to free the former senator was not based on pressure from Mr. Velella's many friends and allies around the state who wrote letters on his behalf, but rather on his view that Mr. Velella had become sad and pathetic in jail and had suffered enough. In a written statement, Mr. Russi maintained that position yesterday.
"After a 34-year career in the criminal justice system," he said, referring to his work in police and corrections jobs, "I was, and remain, convinced that Velella was absolutely no risk to the community, but was in fact a broken man who had disgraced himself and brought about the end of a distinguished career as a public servant in a most ignominious way. His was a compassionate release having nothing to do with politics."
According to Mr. Russi's account, Mr. Velella made repeated and increasingly desperate calls to staff members of the board from a jail pay phone, begging to be released. His first request was denied, but as his calls continued, the board voted to let him go. After his release from Rikers Island on Sept. 28, Mr. Velella was driven from the jail by the president of the correction officers' union, who took him to a Bronx restaurant where he met his family.
Mr. Bloomberg has privately told aides that he was puzzled by the board's decision to release Mr. Velella, and he sought early on to distance himself from it. His first response was to say that his administration played no role in the matter, and that he had never heard of the board, even though he had made two appointments to it.
On the advice of his appointments committee, Mr. Bloomberg appointed Jeanne Hammock, a member who abstained during the voting on Mr. Velella's application, and Irene Prager. Mr. Russi and another member, Amy Ianora, were appointed by the previous mayor, Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Bloomberg hinted that he would likely fire all the commissioners.
Those who have questioned whether Mr. Velella's release could be rescinded have focused on a section of the state law that says that inmates whose initial applications are denied, as Mr. Velella's was, cannot reapply for two months. Mr. Velella was released after a second review of his case by the panel, just a month after the initial review. Charles Stillman, a lawyer for Mr. Velella, declined to discuss the application process except to say, "We are satisfied that Guy Velella's release was done in a lawful way by a responsible agency of government."
Mr. Bloomberg has had remarkably few resignations from his administration, which started in 2002, and has only once before fired appointees: two members of his Panel for Educational Policy, who would not agree with his plan to end social promotion in the third grade.
The only other resignation that occurred under a cloud was that of William J. Fraser, who resigned as commissioner of the Department of Correction in 2002 amid reports of corruption among his deputies and his admission that he paid subordinates to help put a liner in his above-ground swimming pool.
VELELLA-RELEASE EXEC QUITS AFTER MIKE MEET
By FREDRIC U. DICKER, NY POST, October 13, 2004
October 13, 2004 -- ALBANY - The head of the panel that granted former state Sen. Guy Velella's controversial early release from jail abruptly resigned yesterday after a surprise closed-door meeting with Mayor Bloomberg.
Raul Russi, chairman of the little-known Local Conditional Release Commission and a onetime city probation commissioner, claimed he was quitting because the "furor surrounding" Velella's release had "impaired" his ability to lead the panel.
But the Post learned that Russi faced dismissal by Bloomberg - who for weeks had claimed he didn't want Russi to quit - from his unpaid post as the result of an on going Department of Investigation probe of Velella's release.
In addition, the two other members of the four-member commission who supported Velella's release may also be dismissed, it was learned.
Russi defiantly insisted in a statement that Velella, a onetime political power broker and the former Bronx Republican chairman, deserved his rare, one-in-a-thousand, early release from Rikers Island.
"I was, and remain, convinced that Velella was absolutely no risk to the community but was in fact a broken man who had disgraced himself and brought about the end of a distinguished career as a public servant in a most ignominious way," said Russi.
"His was a compassionate release having nothing to do with politics," Russi continued.
Russi, who received appeals for Velella's release from some of the city's and state's most influential figures, also said he was "gratified" that Bloomberg was allowing him to remain a member of the city's policy-making Board of Corrections.
For his part, Bloomberg said Russi had resigned "in light of the commission's decision to grant the early release of former Sen. Velella."
While Bloomberg praised Russi's service to the city, he also pointedly noted that DOI had not yet completed its investigation and stressed that "to date" he's not aware of any "illegal conduct" by Russi or the commission.
Sources said the DOI investigation, which Bloomberg suggested earlier this week could be completed this week, will not be completed until next week, at the earliest.
Bloomberg named Fordham University Law professor Daniel Richman, who once worked with DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District, to replace Russi on the panel.
Richman could not be reached for comment but issued a statement saying that he looked forward to working with Gill Hearn "as DOI continues its review of the commission."
The Post disclosed Monday that Russi and the commission may have violated the state Open Meeting Law and the state Correction Law in its handling of Velella's release.
State law requires advance public notice for commission meetings but an official check yesterday of the City Record, the city's official journal, found no record that the Local Conditional Release Commission provided notice that a vote on Velella's release would be taken. Russi has refused to publicly answer questions about Velella's release.
Additional reporting by David Seifman, Kenneth Lovett, and Stephanie Gaskell