Seems like politicians are having a problem staying out of trouble these days. The latest one to “bite the dust” did so in grand fashion, not failing to live up to the hypocrisy that makes for scintillating newspaper headlines. Who was this person? None other than United States Congressman, Michael Grimm. To use a cliché, Mr. Grimm’s “naughtiness” earned him a stocking full of coal from Santa this Christmas.
Amid a drumbeat of calls for his resignation, Rep. Michael Grimm pleaded guilty to aiding and assisting in the preparation of a false tax return on December 23, 2014. The ink on the signature at the bottom of Mr. Grimm’s plea agreement wasn’t even dry before the embattled Congressman vowed to hold onto his Staten Island congressional seat.
Wearing a dark blue suit for his appearance before a Brooklyn federal court judge, the Republican copped out to one count of under-reporting income from a chic NYC restaurant he once co-owned and paying workers off the books.
“While operating a restaurant, we underestimated the gross receipts and used some of the money to pay employees off the books and some other expenses,” Grimm told Judge Pamela Chen after pleading guilty to cheating on his 2009 taxes.
“By under-reporting those receipts, those tax returns were false,” he admitted.
Grimm also admitted to underreporting $ 900,000 in restaurant gross receipts, lowering payroll taxes through “off-the-book” payments, and lying during a 2013 deposition.
Smelling blood in the water, Democratic politicians immediately took aim at the freshly minted felon and demanded that he step down.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi lambasted Grimm for not “admitting the truth” until after his landslide reelection in November’s midterms and urged House Speaker John Boehner to insist that “Grimm resign immediately.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called Grimm a “stain on the institution” of Congress.
However, in a show of defiance, the former FBI agent thumbed his nose at politicians and pundits by repeatedly pointing out that Staten Islanders voted him back into Congress just last month:
“Everything we’re talking about here happened before I was in Congress and for the past four years I’ve been a very effective, strong member of Congress that has served the people of Staten Island very well, and I think the proof of that is the will of the people,” Grimm told reporters.
“As of right now I’m still in a capacity to serve and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
What does Grimm face when he appears before Judge Pamela Chen for sentencing on June 8? A prison term of up to three years. He is hoping to skirt jail time by convincing Judge Chen that he deserves probation. If successful, that would give Grimm a glimmer of hope at holding onto his Congressional seat.
By the terms of his guilty plea, Grimm also agreed to pay restitution to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, and the New York State Insurance Fund (NYSIF). In total, Grimm’s conduct caused federal and New York State tax and NYSIF premium losses between $80,000 and $200,000.
During his plea hearing, Grimm entered into what is called a “factual basis” or “stipulation of facts,” in which he acknowledged the scope of his criminal conduct. As part of that stipulation of facts, Grimm admitted that:
• From 2007 through 2009, he was a member in Healthalicious, a restaurant located in Manhattan. During that time period, he oversaw the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, which included the reporting and distribution of the restaurant’s payroll.
• He under-reported the true amount that Healthalicious earned, using a portion of those unreported receipts to pay the restaurant’s workers “off the books” in cash. He was well aware of the fact that the restaurant employed undocumented immigrants who were not authorized to work in the U.S.
• In total, he hid over $900,000 in Healthalicious’ gross receipts from the accountant who prepared and filed the restaurant’s tax returns. That accountant used the false information provided by Grimm to prepare and file false federal and state tax returns for Healthalicious.
• He also failed to report the “off the books” cash wages he was paying to Healthalicious workers, which resulted in the restaurant paying lower federal and state payroll taxes. Some Healthalicious employees received at least half of their wages in cash, while other workers were paid entirely in cash. Grimm tracked these payments in electronic spreadsheets, but failed to provide accurate information about the restaurant’s payroll to the payroll processing companies employed by the restaurant. As a result, less than half of the wages Healthalicious actually paid its employees was reported to the IRS and the NYS Tax Department.
• Additionally, Grimm under-reported Healthalicious’ payroll to the New York State Insurance Fund (“NYSIF”), lowering the monthly workers’ compensation premium the restaurant paid to NYSIF.
• As part of his scheme, Grimm caused numerous false documents to be filed with federal and state tax authorities between 2007 and 2010, including: (1) Form 941 Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Returns for Healthalicious; (2) Form 1065 U.S. Return of Partnership Income tax returns for Healthalicious; (3) Forms W-2 reported annual wages of Healthalicious employees; (4) his Form 1040 U.S. Individual Income Tax Returns and Form IT-201 Resident Income Tax Returns; and (5) New York State Form ST-100 Quarterly Sales and Use Tax Returns.
Last but not least was Grimm’s candid admission that he lied under oath during a 2013 deposition. While a Member of Congress in January 2013, Grimm was a defendant in a civil lawsuit relating to unfair labor practices at Healthalicious, brought by a former employee. As the lawsuit was pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Grimm was deposed under oath by the attorney of that employee.
As part of the stipulation of facts, Grimm admitted to testifying during the deposition to things that, at the time, he knew to be false. Specifically, he testified during the deposition that Healthalicious employees had not been paid in cash, when he knew that restaurant employees had in fact been paid “off the books” in cash.
Another thing Grimm said during the deposition that he knew to be false was that he used a Yahoo account to which he no longer had access. As part of the stipulation of facts, Grimm admitted that, at the time of the deposition, he in fact had access to a second email account which he used for Healthalicious-related business and which contained many emails related to the restaurant.
If the ex-Marine is forced out, a special election — which could cost up to $1 million — must be held between 70 and 80 days from the date Gov. Cuomo announces one, according to state election rules.
Among the names floated as potential successors are Assemblyman Michael Cusick and former Rep. Michael McMahon for the Democrats and state Sen. Andrew Lanza, District Attorney Daniel Donovan, and Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis for the GOP.
Despite facing a federal indictment, Grimm coasted to a third-term victory over Democratic challenger Domenic Recchia in last November’s election. Grimm initially vowed to fight the charges after his arrest – but sheepishly accepted responsibility on Tuesday:
“Let me be very clear — it was wrong,” he said. “If you do something wrong, you can never fully get past it until you accept full responsibility for it and that’s what I’m doing.”
“Although this was a little restaurant, I made some big mistakes.”
Grimm called the case against him a political “witch hunt” after his indictment, and suggested Tuesday that now his enemies were poised to pounce on his guilty plea:
“I know some are going to use this for political purposes like they did for the past three years,” he said.
While Democratic leaders threw one grenade after another against Grimm, he did receive some local support. “He made the right choice,” John Antoniello, Staten Island Republican Party Chairman, told The Post. “He had to plead guilty. He’s done an excellent job for his constituents over the last few years. I think people still think he’s doing a good thing for them. I’m happy that this is behind him.”
For those who may be wondering, there’s nothing in the Constitution or law that automatically disqualifies Grimm from office as a result of his felony conviction. The Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan and independent group that advises Congress on legal matters, explained why in a report published in May:
“Members of Congress do not automatically forfeit their offices upon conviction of a crime that constitutes a felony. No express constitutional disability or “disqualification” from Congress exists for the conviction of a crime, other than under the Fourteenth Amendment for certain treasonous conduct by someone who has taken an oath of office to support the Constitution.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any consequences. House rules instruct their members not to vote in committee or on the floor once they have been convicted of a felony. That rule, though, is advisory and doesn’t apply if the same individual subsequently gets re-elected, according to CRS.
Convicted felons could also be stripped of committee chairmanships, or ranking member status, or be punished with resolutions of reprimand or censure.
The House can expel a member with a two-thirds vote, the most severe sanction and one historically reserved for conduct involving “either disloyalty to the United States or the violation of a criminal law involving the abuse of one’s official position, such as bribery,” says CRS.
What say you? Should a convicted felon be allowed to remain in office and serve his constituents? Should he continue to receive all of the gold-plated benefits that necessarily accompany public service, namely a Congressional paycheck, health care benefits, and a Congressional pension? Weigh in!