Monserrate’s Political Life Ends with an Earful, Tears and Jail Time

Hiram Monserrate leaves court in lower Manhattan after being sentenced to two years in prison. (Photo by Javier Castaño via Queens Latino)

Former New York State Senator Hiram Monserrate cried in Federal Court in Manhattan this week, where he was sentenced to two years in prison and three years probation. Monserrate, 45, will also have to pay $79,434 in fines.

Judge Colleen McMahon allowed Monserrate to speak before she sentenced him on Dec 11. “I don’t have any excuses and I’m asking my community, family and friends to forgive me. I’m very sorry,” Monserrate said, holding back tears. “I apologize for the emotion, if I was alone on this earth, I probably wouldn’t be this emotional.” He dried his tears with a napkin, his lawyer passed him a glass of water, and the judge told him to take a deep breath.

It was 2:41 p.m. and courtroom 14C was silent. Nobody moved. It was Monserrate’s last effort before hearing his sentence. The former senator and councilman wore a black suit and red tie. He had gained weight, and when he crossed his arms over the desk, it seemed that the sleeves of his jacket would burst at the seams.

In May this year, Monserrate pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and conspiracy, stealing approximately $100,000 from a non-profit organization – the Latino Initiative for Better Resources and Empowerment (LIBRE) – to fund his failed campaign for the New York State Senate in 2006. At the time, Monserrate had channeled around $300,000 in City Council discretionary funds to LIBRE.

The name of Javier Cárdenas, LIBRE’s executive director in 2006, who also pleaded guilty to participating in the appropriation of public funds, did not come up in court, but he has to pay about $15,000 in restitution to the U.S. government.

At 2:15 p.m., the rays of the lukewarm sun filtered through the courtroom windows and illuminated the face of Karla Giraldo, the woman whose face was cut by Monserrate. She has no visible scars. The defendant’s lawyer, James E. Neuman, asked Judge McMahon to disregard the incident related to Giraldo, Monserrate’s former girlfriend, as she weighed his client’s sentence. McMahon replied that Giraldo’s injury had nothing to do with the proceedings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent S. Wible, who was representing the government, laughed a lot and didn’t say much against the defendant. He limited himself to presenting a few details of the case and said, “Monserrate deceived the community.”

But Neuman tried unsuccessfully to defend Monserrate. He said his client did not act out of greed, but for political reasons. “Monserrate joined the army at age 17 and the New York Police Academy at 20. Then he became a politician and was elected councilman, and after that, state senator. He helped the community, the homeless, students, and poor families. His sister has cancer, he has a 16-year-old autistic son, and now he is being publicly humiliated. I want you to sentence him to community service with the Salvation Army,” said Neuman.

However, Judge McMahon didn’t swallow the story and at 2:45 p.m. she began to sentence Monserrate with these words:

“You are a two-faced man. You have helped people and that’s why they root for you. But you have committed a crime. Using other people’s money for your own purposes is way down in the lowest circle of hell. And you didn’t appropriate that money for political reasons, such as building a school, but to get re-elected. You didn’t use [the money] to buy a Cadillac or go on vacation, but you used it for yourself.

“Who said you’re the only politician who can serve the community? You exaggerate your importance as a politician,” she continued. “I also won’t allow you to pay for your crime with community service because you have taken advantage of the community. The people in the community don’t trust you. The lesson they should learn is that anytime and every time an elected officials is caught reaching into the public till, they will go to prison. That is how things will be done in this court until politicians stop appropriating public funds.

What you did was to allow your ambition to override your judgment, your conscience and what you knew to be right.  You plead eloquently for your family — especially your mother and your son — and I grieve for them. But I say to you what judges have said from time immemorial: You should have thought about them before you did it. And now you must pay the price.”

It was 2:58 p.m. when the judge told Monserrate to stand up so she could sentence him. Monserrate didn’t have any other choice but to accept the two-year jail term because he had signed an agreement to not appeal the judge’s decision if she didn’t sentence him to more than 27 months in prison. He will have to return to court on March 11 to find out which prison he will serve in.

“The sentence is just,” said Manuel Monserrate, the former senator’s father. “We were ready; only God knows our fate.”

But former police officer Anthony Miranda, who was sitting in the first row in the courtroom, said, “The sentence was unreasonable…the judge could have treated him better.”

Miguel López, who’s been at Monserrate’s side for years, was also present. “The judge has sent a message to politicians. We warned Monserrate, because the people who came to LIBRE over the past few years weren’t trustworthy,” said López, who is president of COPOLA, the Committee of Latin American Political Parties in the United States.

Giraldo and Monserrate embraced in the courtroom. Giraldo wept more than Monserrate and did not want to give comments. They paused together for a few moments near the window to take in the sunshine that fell over Manhattan, and especially over the Empire State Building.

For Alirio Orduña of the NYPD Cadet Corps, “the judge didn’t let Queens politicians bribe her, especially the three that sent her letters urging her to give Monserrate a harsh sentence, and she ignored his record and the letters that us from the community sent her.”

Outside the court building, Marta Flores said she believes in rehabilitation and that “Monserrate can be the leader that talks to our politicians about the things they shouldn’t do.”

Fleeing the flashing cameras of journalists, Monserrate got into a car with his attorneys. Before he left, however, he said in both English and Spanish: “From a very early age, I learned when you commit sins, you must atone for the sins,” Monserrate said. “I took responsibility and this is part of the atonement.”

And so Monserrate’s political aspirations met their death: his dreams of becoming mayor or taking over Congressman Joseph Crowley’s seat. And that forgotten article titled “The Mysterious Politician of Queens,” the first written about Monserrate as a politician, even before he was elected to the City Council in 2002, became a page swept away by a political storm.

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