We were blacklisted for not paying politician $250K bribe
By Aaron Short, Isabel Vincent and Melissa Klein
February 7, 2016 | 5:56am
Malisa Rivera (l) and Marion Moses say state Sen. James Sanders demanded a cut of taxpayer funds meant for their urban-farming nonprofit. Photo: Ellis Kaplan
A couple who run a small urban farm said powerful Queens lawmaker James Sanders
offered them $1.7 million in taxpayer money to fund their operation — then demanded a $250,000 kickback.
Marion Moses and Malisa Rivera
said they refused Sanders, then a city councilman, during a 2012 sit-down. Sanders, now a state senator running for Congress, became irate, and the couple believe their charity has been blacklisted by government officials ever since, they told The Post.
Three weeks ago, Moses filed a civilian crime report with the office of Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara. Sources said the feds were already investigating Sanders for steering City Council discretionary funds to other nonprofits.
, a former Sanders staffer, told The Post that he met with the FBI last month in connection with that probe.
According to Rivera and Moses — former chefs looking to fund their community garden and agriculture program for kids — Sanders summoned them to his Far Rockaway office on Sept. 25, 2012, fresh off his victory over Sen. Shirley Huntley in a Senate Democratic primary. He said he wanted to discuss government grants.
The couple walked in to find Donovan Richards, then Sanders’ chief of staff, and an aide, Michael Lopes. Richards is now a city councilman.
Queens state Sen. James Sanders
Photo: Ellis Kaplan
Sanders greeted them and allegedly said he had some money for them — $1.7 million.
Moses made what turned out to be a prescient joke: “How much do you want? Do you want that in check or cash?”
They were then ushered into a wood-paneled conference room, where the lawmaker, wearing a dark blue suit, sat at the head of a table, with Lopes nearby.
The meeting began, they said, with a long discussion of “aquaculture.” The couple’s group, Culinary Kids, Culinary Arts Initiatives, was running a small operation to farm fish in tanks. The nonprofit is a shoestring entity and does not hold tax-exempt status from the IRS. Still, Sanders presented a study by Martin Schreibman, a Brooklyn College professor who is an expert on the topic.
“He wanted to see if we really knew, were educated and could pull off” expanding the operation, Moses recalled. “After we spoke about aquaculture, he said, ‘I want to see how big you are thinking.’ ”
He then ordered Lopes out of the room. Lopes told The Post he doesn’t remember the meeting.
Sanders again told the pair that he could provide $1.7 million, the couple alleged.
He praised their good works in the community, where they had turned an empty lot on 31st Street into a farm and ran a market. He told them they needed money to build a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse and buy trucks and a backhoe, to bring produce back and forth from the farmers market.
“He was talking about possibilities of doing something on a larger scale,” Moses said.
Sanders allegedly suggested partnering with another community group, the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corp., which Sanders had funded with almost $300,000 in city grants over four years.
Moses said he mentioned capital funding from the city, discretionary grants, and money from Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. Sanders promised to make the project happen “come hell or high water.”
Then Sanders allegedly said, “Yeah, I’ll take that cash — two hundred fifty-thousand dollars. You know, a quarter.”
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.”
A stunned Moses asked what would happen when the IRS looked at Culinary Kids’ books.
“He would not answer me. He didn’t say anything. I asked him two times. And he started talking to my wife instead,” Moses said.
Moses said he attempted to leave and that Sanders put his hand on his shoulder and told him, “Brother, you don’t understand what I’m trying to do.”
“I said, ‘I understand exactly what you’re trying to do!’ and I shoved his hand off my shoulder,” Moses *recalled.
Sanders became incensed.
“He . . . blew his stack, said, ‘I’m going to work with another organization, the Rockaway Youth Task Force.’ He was mad and pissed off. He was raising his tone. His body language changed. It was like night and day,” Moses said.
The 2¹/₂-hour meeting obviously over, Moses and Rivera walked out of the office as fast as they could.
In the complaint filed Jan. 18 with the US attorney and signed under penalty of perjury, Moses wrote: “Sen. James Sanders approached me and my wife and demanded a pay-to-play situation for him to help our nonprofit organization with his member item funding. We said no and we’ve been blacklisted by him and Councilman Donovan Richards.”
The US attorney is already busy probing Sanders’ funding of southeastern Queens nonprofits, according to sources and Sanders’ former driver, Duvalle.
Duvalle told The Post last week that the FBI grilled him last month specifically about the Margert Community Corp., an affordable-housing provider that Sanders funneled nearly $1 million to over six years.
Photo: Angel Chevrestt
“That’s where he had his money. Whenever anyone needed money, he said, ‘Get it from Margert,’ ” Duvalle, who retired in 2014, told The Post.
It wasn’t the first time such allegations have swirled around Sanders, who served on the City Council from 2002 until taking his Senate seat in January 2013.
Rivera said that in 2010, Culinary Kids asked Sanders for $5,000 in funding. Instead, he offered them $58,000, but only if the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corp. managed the money as a fiscal conduit. The chefs were reluctant but tentatively agreed when state agricultural officials encouraged them to work within the system.
But in a follow-up meeting a week later, Rockaway Development CEO Kevin Alexander told them the RDRC needed to withhold $38,000 of the funds and would give it to them “incrementally,” Moses and Rivera claimed.
The couple rejected the arrangement and never received the money. Alexander told The Post that he didn’t remember details of the meeting and doesn’t know why the funding fell apart.
Sanders instead showered $3.1 million in member items on other charities between 2008 and 2013. Sanders’s successor, Richards, has doled out $6.3 million to city groups since.
Sanders denied the culinary couple’s claims “in the highest of fashion” and called Margert a “fine, outstanding organization.”
“The thing is ludicrous,” Sanders told The Post. “It is absolutely preposterous, and I’m speaking to lawyers about countersuits for anybody who is going to defame us in such a fashion.”
Moses and Rivera have struggled to grow Culinary Kids since refusing the alleged kickback. They blame Sanders for delaying their dreams.
“He should be incarcerated. He needs time away to reflect and learn the error of his ways,” Rivera said. “And other politicians should know they can’t do this to anybody, especially a small grassroots organization.”
“If we don’t put our foot down, he can do this to somebody else,” Moses added. “If you get caught with the hand in the cookie jar, then off with your head.”