Defense witness testifies in Pedro Espada trial
The first defense witness at the fraud trial of former state Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada on Friday unexpectedly compared his operation of the Soundview health clinic to a mob family and said he "yanked" a document revealing a pay raise away from her.
"It was like being in an episode of the 'Sopranos' is the way it felt," said Cynthia Prorok, a government subcontractor in charge of a 2009 site visit to analyze the Bronx nonprofit's performance on behalf of the federal agency that helps fund it.
Espada, 58, and his son, Pedro Gautier Espada, are charged in Brooklyn federal court with stealing more than $600,000 from the financially stressed health network he founded and controlled through lavish personal spending, diverting tenants' rent into their own pockets and other schemes.
Prosecutors called their last witnesses Friday, finishing their case with pictures of more than $10,000 in improvements at Espada's Mamaroneck home that he charged to Soundview. The case is expected to go to the jury next week.
Prorok was called by Espada to contradict a government official who testified last month that Soundview had not reduced Espada's pay to less than a full-time equivalent when he was elected to the Senate. She said the site visit verified that his salary had been reduced by 25 percent.
But on cross-examination she said employees at Soundview were "tense" and "guarded." She testified that Espada became concerned when she began studying a page in his personnel file with pay figures and doing calculations that would reveal his pay had been raised to $328,000 to cancel out the reduction.
"As I started to make the calculation, Mr. Espada retrieved the file rather quickly and caused my calculator to fly under the table," said Prorok, who works for Management Solutions Consulting Group of Lanham, Md. Although Soundview is permitted to set Espada's salary at the level it wishes, she said: "I couldn't believe the Soundview board would do that. I said to Mr. Espada, 'That's kind of slick. Did the board approve this?' He said 'yes.' "
Espada, leaving court, said the "Sopranos" line was "rehearsed" and that "disrespect" for his South Bronx community was a theme of the prosecution.
"The fact is I've been called worse things," he said. "It brings forth a certain ugliness that is the underbelly of this case."