Michael Grimm’s sick, final con: Using Staten Island voters on his way out the door

His resignation shows he was lying to voters all along -- to bargain a lighter sentence. Inside his shady last ploy

Published December 30, 2014 1:37PM (EST)

Michael Grimm             (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Michael Grimm (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

It will take some time, specifically until the announcement of his criminal sentence, to fully appreciate the snow job Michael Grimm just pulled on Staten Island voters. But we already know plenty enough to call it a criminal’s virtuoso parting heist.

Grimm, you’ll recall, ran for reelection last month as a two-term GOP incumbent in socially conservative Staten Island, with a 20-count indictment on his back. The charges, largely misunderstood by the voters (and media, for that matter), essentially amounted to this: He ran a restaurant some years back, and in an effort to skirt payroll taxes, paid workers under the table and submitted a fake payroll to the feds. He was then caught lying about it when a “real” payroll was discovered by prosecutors in his computer records.

This last part is important because it tells you what Grimm knew: he had lied to federal officers (a crime that never gets ignored), and they had the goods on him. In other words, he was very likely going to prison – and he knew it.

Hand it to the former congressman, though; he was a pretty good actor during this campaign. For all of 2014, he strutted across his district conveying the confidence of an artful blackjack dealer. Sure there were charges against him, he said, but they were trumped up, he was the victim of a liberal witch hunt, his political opponents were after him precisely because he was such an awesome Republican. You get the idea.

Of course, we now know all this to be nothing but a crock of bad cologne. Not just because of the details of the case just mentioned – but because of the guilty plea Grimm copped to in recent days (mere weeks after the campaign ended), and the resignation he just tendered around midnight as Monday bled into Tuesday.

The congressman was clearly never going to serve out his term, nor would he take his case to trial, as he had assured voters.

But he had a very good reason to convince voters otherwise.

If you’re headed to prison but want to cop a deal with the feds, you need a chip you can bargain in exchange for a lighter sentence. And for a politician, there are few chips more valuable than a seat you can resign. If Grimm lost his race last November, he’d have been a disgraced former congressman with no seat to give up and, likely, real prison time. If he won, he’d have the golden House seat to drop in exchange for – he hoped – leniency.

As Jeff Smith, a former state senator who served under a year for obstruction of justice, told me in a column on this topic in October,  “When I was charged, my initial strategy was to get a plea deal where I could resign, in exchange for no prison sentence. Having an elected office to use as a bargaining chip in negotiations is clearly better than the alternative.”

And so, Grimm ran like the dickens for reelection to get that bargaining chip. No local candidate forum was too small, no ribbon-cutting was too insignificant.

And it worked. With the help of a GOP wave, a personal connection to his district and an incompetent Democratic opponent -- whose most memorable debate answer was the inability to name a book he’d read -- Grimm cruised to a double-digit landslide.

Which means that, unbeknownst to them, Staten Island voters were legal accomplices in Grimm’s strategy to spend less time in prison. He may have told them he was innocent of the charges (which he now admits is false), that he would take his case to trial (which he did not do), and that he intended to serve his term (which he did not) -- but it all ended up being a lie to help his personal legal situation.

It’s a bizarre commentary on our justice system that a felonious politician’s popularity, or ability to win a political race, could actually help shave time off his prison sentence. But this is the gamble Grimm is making, and there’s plenty of precedent suggesting it could work.

Still, we won’t know the full outcome until his sentence is handed down, an announcement recently scheduled for June. Grimm’s crime (while he pled to one count, the other 19 will likely be dropped) could fetch up to three years in prison; his team is said to be seeking probation.

Meanwhile, though the voters of Staten Island were used by the congressman, they may ultimately end up better off this way. Rather than wind up with the criminal or the Democratic buffoon he defeated, they’ll now have a fresh new slate of candidates from which to choose, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo will call a special election to fill the seat. Potential candidates include D.A. Dan Donovan, a Republican, Assemblyman Mike Cusick and former Rep. Michael McMahon, both Democrats.

Assuming none is under federal investigation, and all have read in recent years, that’s already a step up from last month’s choice.

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

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