This article was originally published by The CITY on Nov. 29
It’s not the site of the old Hotel Metropole on W. 43rd St. where Herman “Beansie” Rosenthal was gunned down in 1912 by Leftie Louie and Gyp the Blood for squealing to the newspapers about a corrupt ring of city cops led by the most corrupt cop of all, Charles Becker.
It’s not the section of Van Cortlandt Park near the Mosholu Golf Course where Vivian Gordon was found fatally strangled in 1931 shortly after speaking to an anti-corruption commission about police misconduct in a probe that would ultimately end the brief but ostentatious career of Mayor Jimmy Walker.
But the two-story rustbucket barge currently floating in the East River at the desolate, far west end of 44th Drive in Long Island City ranks right up there in terms of key locales in New York City’s long and colorful history of political scandal.
And it can be yours for a mere $15,000.
The barge is owned by the City of New York, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) is auctioning it off to the highest bidder. It once housed the iconic Water’s Edge, a fancy restaurant where a key moment unfolded in the pay-to-play scandal that shadowed Mayor Bill de Blasio through most of his time at City Hall.
Four years after that scandal exploded into the headlines, Water’s Edge is now Auction #3130394, advertised on the website publicsurplus.com as “Vessel — Barge Free and Clear of Title.” DCAS posted that bids should start at $15,000, and they warned that the winner “must provide a plan to remove the barge safely within 15 days of purchase.”
As for its condition? “POOR” was all DCAS could say.
That’s an understatement.
On a visit last week, THE CITY found the barge pocked with rust at the waterline, its beige paint peeling bow to stern. Only two letters — G and E — remained of the Water’s Edge entry sign, and the navy blue canopy leading to the entrance was torn and frayed. A padlocked chain link fence surrounded the site where a sign still warned drivers: “Open Restaurant — No Standing.” Once-silver scalloped drapery still hanging inside floor-to-ceiling windows had faded to a flat shade of gunmetal gray.
That’s a far cry from the days when Water’s Edge promoted its breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, its top-of-the-line menu featuring grilled steak and herb-crusted lamb, and its high-class image as a go-to site for memorable events. It hosted hundreds of weddings, birthdays and going-away parties — and also political fundraisers.
That includes two money-raising events hosted by Water’s Edge’s then-owner, Harendra Singh in honor of then first-time Democratic candidate for mayor, Bill de Blasio.
The events took place at Water’s Edge on March 2, 2011 when de Blasio was still public advocate, and on Oct. 10, 2013, shortly after he beat former city Comptroller Bill Thompson in a runoff and before he went on to win City Hall in the general election.
According to the invoices, the events were personally handled by “H” — Singh’s nickname — and featured a “limited top shelf” open bar (only Absolut vodka, no Grey Goose), an Italian food station featuring rigatoni with vodka or alfredo sauce, their featured leg of lamb, and roast turkey with assorted Tuscan bread.
All the money was to be handled by “H.” All the donations were to be handled by “H.”
The New Yorkers for de Blasio political committee paid not a dime for either of these events until 2015, when the city Campaign Finance Board began auditing the campaign. The campaign then, for the first time, requested invoices and wrote a check for $2,613.01. Until that moment, the events were essentially an illegal free gift from Singh to de Blasio that the mayor’s campaign had failed to disclose to the public as required, and would likely never have been revealed had the CFB not come sniffing around.
In the mayoral race and for other political causes de Blasio supported, Singh also gathered donations for de Blasio — collecting checks from multiple sources and handing them to the mayor’s campaign in a bundle to demonstrate the scope of his support for de Blasio.
In doing this, however, Singh claims he twice discussed making illegal donations with de Blasio — once when he was as a candidate and once when he was mayor.
In the first case, de Blasio asked him to raise contributions for a political ally, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn). In a second — when he was mayor — de Blasio asked him to gather as many maximum donations as he could for state Senate candidates favored by the mayor. At the time, de Blasio had launched a behind-the-scenes effort to swing the Senate from GOP to Democratic control.
In both conversations, Singh later said, he explained to the mayor that he would need to personally reimburse supporters for these checks. Appearing to mistakenly invoke city campaign contribution limits, Singh said that if they were to be the maximum allowed ($4,950 per donor), he would have to turn them into illegal pass-through or “straw” donations to get around campaign contribution limits.
“He spoke to me regarding contributing towards the New York state senatorial campaign,” Singh said. “I inform him that it’s very hard to raise $4,950 from someone else. Only way I can do that — and I believe we had reached our limit — so only way I can do that is have somebody else, you know, write the check and I’ll have refunded them.”
Singh made it clear de Blasio knew what he was talking about doing was illegal. The mayor did not reel back in horror, or exclaim about how illegal and wrong such an arrangement would be. According to Singh, “He said, ‘You know, do whatever you got to do, but I don’t want to know.”
Bribing the Mayor
According to Singh, this financial support for the mayor was strictly about getting something in return. At the time, he was locked in a dispute over hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent the mayor’s administration claimed he owed on the Water’s Edge barge lease.
DCAS was threatening to terminate the lease because Singh had failed to pay for renovations to the pier where the barge was docked, which the agency said were required by his lease. Explaining that he felt the campaign donations and free fundraising were bribes to the mayor in “exchange for help, you know, at Water’s Edge, getting the lease extended and getting the pier issue resolved. If we had gotten this lease extended, this would have been a $20, $25 million value to our company.”
In fact, de Blasio did personally intervene in the Water’s Edge lease dispute, instructing one of his top aides, Emma Wolfe, to step in. Wolfe held multiple meetings between DCAS officials and Singh’s representatives, including one in which Singh personally met with Wolfe inside City Hall. But before the matter could be resolved, the U.S. Department of Justice showed up with subpoenas in hand.
Prosecutors in the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office had been investigating allegations that Singh was bribing Long Island politicians to get public contracts. He was arrested in September 2015 on the Long Island bribery scheme, and soon after began cooperating with the federal government, informing them of his interactions with de Blasio.
By then de Blasio was also under investigation by the Manhattan U.S. attorney and Manhattan district attorney for multiple allegations that the mayor was personally soliciting donations to his political causes from individuals who had pending matters before City Hall.
Ultimately the mayor faced no criminal charges, but the Manhattan U.S. attorney noted that his investigation had determined de Blasio had ordered his staff to intervene on behalf of certain donors, while the Manhattan district attorney found the mayor’s state Senate fundraising operation violated the spirit of campaign finance laws.
Additionally, the city Department of Investigation would later conclude that de Blasio had violated the city’s ethics code by directly soliciting contributions from individuals doing business with City Hall. Also, evidence emerged that detailed the mayor’s personal solicitation of donations from several real estate developers and their lobbyists.
In 2016, Singh pleaded guilty to several bribery counts, including to a scheme to provide campaign contributions “in exchange for official actions from an official in the City of New York for the benefit of Mr. Singh’s restaurant.”
The former mayor, however, consistently denied any personal error and was never charged with criminal wrongdoing regarding his interactions with Singh.
In 2019 Singh testified at length in the Long Island bribery trial, which is where he detailed de Blasio’s interactions for the first time. He was originally set to be sentenced in 2017, but the date was repeatedly postponed. As of this week he has yet to be sentenced. Prosecutors in the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office declined to discuss the reason for the delay.
DCAS formally evicted Water’s Edge and retained possession of the barge in 2020, and on Nov. 3 put the beat-up craft on the auction block. The final day to bid is Dec. 13.
As of Monday, no bidders had emerged.
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