Chef Moses and Chef Melisa at their Arverne farm earlier this year after the farm tent was vandalized. The two have charged that State Senator James Sanders Jr. promised them public money, but demanded a large kickback for himself.
State Senator James Sanders Jr, who is running for the House of Representatives, at a recent community march. Sanders has denied the charges to the New York Post and has threatened to sue the two who charged him. He has also demanded a polygraph to prove his innocence and a polygraph for Moses and Rivera to prove that they lied in their report to law enforcement agencies.
Chef Moses speaks to police from the 101 Precinct who responded after his farm was vandalized. Moses alleges that the vandalism was done by members of youth group backed by Sanders and City Councilman Donovan Richards, who was the chief of staff for Sanders at the time the kickback scheme was proposed. The group told both onrockaway.com and the Post that they have been blackballed by the two politicians in favor of the youth group.
In August of 2015, onrockaway.com reported that State Senator James Sanders Jr. had told his staff to get their affairs in order because he was under investigation by unnamed law enforcement agencies and may soon be charged. The memo sent by Sanders to his staff did not delineate the charges or name the law enforcement agency involved.
In January of 2016, Marian Moses, also known as Chef Moses; his wife, Melisa Rivera, also known as Chef Melisa, and Theresa Racine, an Arverne activist, in a long interview told onrockaway.com that their group, Culinary Kids, was being blackballed by both City Councilman Donovan Richards and State Senator James Sanders in favor of a local youth group the two legislators were supporting, the Rockaway Youth Task Force.
The three told stories of requested kickbacks, a nighttime visit by Sanders to their Arverne farm site, where he navigated by flashlight and “flirted with Racine,” telling her with a wink and a laugh that “For money, I will do anything for you.”
Of the group’s fight for a spit of Arverne land with the RYTF, Sanders allegedly told them, “We have to find a way to avoid losing, and the question is, how do we all win?”
Chef Moses said at the time that they had been promised some state and city grants by Sanders, but were told that they would have to work through Kevin Alexander and his Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation, a non-profit development corporation heavily funded by both Richard and Sanders, as well as other local politicians. Alexander reportedly wanted an “excessive” amount of money to administer the grant and the Culinary kids has eventually refused the money.
Now, some of the questions raised by Sanders’ statements to his staff and the interviews that onrockaway.com had with the Moses, Rivera and Racine, may be answered.
Recently, according to an exclusive report in Sunday’s New York Post, the couple told federal prosecutors that Sanders offered them $1.7 million in taxpayer money to fund their operation — then demanded a $250,000 kickback.
The two reportedly told the feds that they refused Sanders, then a city councilman, during a 2012 sit-down. Sanders, who is running for Congress against Gregory Meeks, 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. According to the Post, sources said the feds were already investigating Sanders for steering City Council discretionary funds to other nonprofits, one of them reportedly a Far Rockaway mainstay that has been receiving taxpayer money for decades, first for assisting in winterizing homes and later for homeowner training programs.
Sanders said in a post on his website on Sunday morning that the charges were baseless and that he will demand to take a polygraph test to prove his innocence. He also demanded that Moses and Rivera also take polygraph tests.
There is more to the case than simply statements by the two locals, however.
Mike Duvalle, a former Sanders staffer, who had run for Assembly at one point in time, 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.
Sanders reportedly 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?”
Moses said that Sanders smirked.
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. Richards was apparently dismissed from the meeting.
“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 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.”
According to the complaint, Sanders allegedly said, “Yeah, I’ll take that cash — two hundred fifty-thousand dollars. You know, a quarter.”
“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, according to the Post report.
“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.
“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 to the Post “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.”
Sanders commented on his officials website on Sunday morning.
“State Senator James Sanders Jr. fired back against accusations that he demanded a kickback in order to provide discretionary funds to a money seeking group. He called the story, which ran in today’s New York Post, completely bogus and a blatant attempt to taint his image as he prepares to run for a congressional seat.
“I believe this a politically motivated, slanderous hit piece,” Sanders said. “The truth is being stood on its head. I built my political life as a reformer, one who has worked tirelessly to clean up our community and to be accused of seeking a kickback defies reality. To be accused of such a crime is an attempt to tarnish my history of standing against corruption. We shall have our day in court. The money seeking group will have to answer for their perjury and the puppet masters responsible for using them to smear me will have to answer for their actions.”
Sanders said he is going to Bharara’s office [on Monday], with an attorney present, where he will offer to take a polygraph (lie detector test) to clear his name, but he wants the money seeking group to also take one.
“These specious allegations cannot go unanswered. There are laws afoot and one of them is called perjury,” Sanders said. “We are calling upon U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to enforce the law on perjury, the law on giving a false statement.”
Sanders was quick to point out several holes in the money seeking group’s story. First, it is unlikely that he was even in town on the day of the alleged meeting. Sanders’ chief of staff at the time Donovan Richards, now a City Council Member and an aide Mike Lopes, who were purportedly involved in the discussion have both said they have no recollection of the incident. Several months before, Lopes had already taken another job and by that time and was no longer employed by Sanders.
“Capital money is the hardest money to distribute,” Sanders said. “There are so many restrictions that it would be the most difficult money to do any skullduggery with. Plus the city’s budget had already been finalized on July 1st, months before this meeting was supposed to have happened. There is no way I could have given them any money.”
Sanders went on to explain that he has only had brief conversations with money seeking group regarding their work, but nothing that involved financing. The money seeking group has had run-ins with other non-profits in the community, and allegedly threatened the life of the leader of one of those groups, causing the police to intervene.
“This is a group of dubious distinction,” Sanders said. “This group is not unknown to the police.”
About four months ago, Sanders tried to broker peace between the money seeking group and the non-profit that they were allegedly feuding with, but it went nowhere.
“I said “Is there anything I could do to bring peace between your organizations and they said, ‘There is nothing you can do.’ After that I left because there was no sense in me sitting there, and that was the last interaction I had with them.”
Donovan Richards tweeted, “Proverbs 19:5: A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape.”