For the second time in less than six months, the conduct of a Republican candidate for elective office is once again raising troubling questions about the party’s commitment to norms of democratic politics. Several months ago, fears that the incendiary rhetoric coming from Trump administration would foment violence in the electoral arena were realized when Greg Gianforte, a wealthy businessman running for a Congressional seat that was up for grabs in Montana, attacked Guardian news reporter Ben Jacobs after being asked embarrassing questions related to his support for the Republican proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Now, news outlets in Westchester County are reporting that another GOP hopeful may have literally struck again. Only this time, the target of the disputed attack was an elected official from the Democratic Party.
According to published reports, Steven “Butch” Thomas, a GOP candidate in an upcoming city council race in the city of Mount Vernon, NY, was accused of physically assaulting Councilman Andre Wallace outside a popular eatery where an affair boosting his campaign was being held. Details remain sketchy, with dueling accounts circulating in the press, what is known is that an exchange of words ended with the councilman suffering a contusion to the head, causing internal bleeding to his ear.
If the allegations of an assault against a sitting official weren’t enough, still more troubling is how officials within the city’s executive branch have responded to the accusation.
Like Gianforte, “Butch” Thomas is an up-and-coming, tech-savvy entrepreneur who is a favorite son of city’s ruling political faction. More than that, the GOP candidate is the older brother of the city’s sitting Democratic Mayor, Richard Thomas. According to some accounts, the Mayor was present to witness the assault, along with an officer from the MVPD who was assigned to his security detail.
Contrary to what might be expected, the councilman says the officer refused to arrest the mayor’s brother, once the incident was over, despite witnessing something that prompted him to tackle the councilman.
The Mayor’s indifference to an assault on a fellow elected official comes as no surprise to observers of the local political scene. Elected to office in November 2015, following an earlier upset victory over incumbent Mayor Ernie Davis in the Democratic primary, Mayor Richard Thomas has been dogged by accusations of ethical violations, big and small, from the moment he was sworn into much fanfare as the city’s youngest Mayor.
Within the chambers of the city council, Wallace has been an inveterate critic. Just three months into the new administration, he earned the permanent ire of the mayor and his diehard supporters after convening a special hearing, in March of 2016, to investigate the circumstances surrounding a bid the city accepted to raze a local building, which was plagued by irregularities.
When confronted with these allegations, Thomas and his supporters have sought to dismiss the investigation and the endless stream of negative press he’s received for other alleged improprieties as much ado about nothing. Instead, the polished, handsome millennial Mayor with the NYU pedigree has sought to portray himself as a long-awaited wunderkind who’ll finally turn around the fortunes of the struggling, Black-majority city.
Located just a stone’s throw from Manhattan, Mount Vernon has real estate developers up and down the east coast salivating at the profits that could be made if permitted to constructed high-priced residential units to well-to-do professionals who can’t afford pricey digs in New York City. Powerful forces inside and outside the county have reinforced the image of the mayor as a latter-day incarnation of Ron Brown, or Vernon Jordan, figures who combined a concern with civil rights with mainstream models of economic development. BET featured the mayor in a recent televised town hall focusing civic activism among the post-civil rights generation. Even Jesse Jackson, the aging icon of the civil rights movement, also invited the young CEO to give an address to his annual Blacks on Wall Street confab.
Despite the carefully crafted image of the mayor presented to the national media, in his zeal to remake the city at home Thomas has adopted an autocratic style of governing that has alienated his institutional partners, making it impossible to put the original controversy to rest, and strike the comprises that are part and parcel of the art of democratic politics. At the root of these troubles is the Mayor’s relationship to the main financial backer of his campaign, Joseph Spiezio, a deep-pocketed businessman who Thomas appointed to the position of deputy police commissioner.
Owner of numerous business holdings across the country that engage in garbage hauling, real estate development, and commercial finance, Spiezio is an especially eager booster for the revitalization of Mount Vernon. However, even a cursory look the publicly accessible paper trail of Spiezio’s business dealings leaves little doubt that the current deputy police commissioner is the city’s worst nightmare: a sharpie who’s eager to finance the campaigns of local Black politicians in the hopes of making good on his investment once they’re elected to office.
Taken together, these documents paint a portrait of a man who has no qualms at all about bending the rules to make another buck, no matter what the cost to the actual residents.
For example, in 2014, a judge with the New York State Division of Tax Appeals sided with the state in a dispute over whether several LLCs managed by Spiezio had improperly claimed tax credits designed to encourage investment in economically struggling neighborhoods in the nearby city of Yonkers under the Empire Zones program. From 2006-2008 Spiezio claimed tax credits totaling $261,697 dollars. A judge later determined found most of this deduction was improper, just another attempt by an unscrupulous businessman to game the system.
Other court records only reinforce this unflattering portrait.
Fervently anti-union, Spiezio, the owner of a private equity firm, Pinnacle Equity Group, was once described as a “vulture capitalist” in an NLRB opinion that found one of his garbage-hauling firms guilty of union-busting. Private equity firms like Pinnacle were profiled in a recent special report published in the pages of the New York Times, which warned that these firms have recently begun to look beyond the private sector for new opportunities to turn a profit.
Their new target? Municipal contracts and other assets under the control of local politicians whose campaigns they’ve financed. “Sophisticated political maneuvering — including winning government contracts, shaping public policy and deploying former public officials to press their case — is central to this growth,” the report notes.
Like so many other vulture capitalists across the nation, companies under Spiezio’s leadership have shown a willingness to peck away at the finances of other black-majority municipalities where he’s already set up shop. According to an expose in the Miami Herald which detailed Spiezio’s involvement in the municipal affairs of Opa-Locka, Florida, the city’s current deputy police commissioner paid a $5,000 monthly lobbying fee to secure a garbage hauling contract worth over $2 million a year. The money went into the pocket of local power broker who the city manager characterized as the “head of shadow government.” Before it was all over, the city was in a financial crisis that threatened to send it into state receivership.
Given this record, appointing Spiezio to a top spot in the police department, of all places, was tantamount to installing him as the head of his very own shadow government in Mt. Vernon. Word of the appointment of the ethically challenged businessman immediately raised the cackles in activist circles throughout the city.
One obvious concern: possible conflicts of interest.
Mount Vernon’s Police Department is charged with investigating the business dealings of anyone wishing to receive a permit to haul garbage in the city. Spiezio’s firm, R & S Waste, had begun to haul garbage in the city shortly before Thomas clinched his upset victory.
Concerns about possible conflicts of interest were realized shortly after Spiezio was appointed to the position in the MVPD. In late December of last year, one of Spiezio’s trucks were involved in a car accident that was never subject to a police investigation—even though the driver of the truck was captured on video fleeing the scene. A far more serious concern driving opposition to Spiezio’s appointment are provisions within the city charter and New State Public Officers law that reserves such positions for actual city residents—which Spiezio has never been, even though he’s boasted to the media of the numerous properties he owns in the city.
Almost from the moment councilman Wallace and Mayor Thomas were sworn into office in January of 2016, Spiezio’s eligibility to serve in City Hall has been a point of contention between the legislative and executive branches. For the most part, that battle was confined to the corridors of city hall and the courtrooms in White Plains, where a lawsuit over the residency issue is still pending. Gradually, though, the battle began to spill over into the city’s streets. Spiezio and Wallace got into an ugly shouting match at a construction site after the councilman spotted an unlicensed truck own by the wealthy magnate illegally hauling garbage in the city, and called the Mount Vernon Police Department to report it. Incensed, Spiezio, a hulking white man who stands over 6 feet tall and weighs at least 250 pounds, was not only heard on tape unloosing a tirade of homophobic slurs at the Councilman, a Black man who’s far smaller. He also heard threatening to beat the city councilman “beyond recognition.”
Made only weeks after dozens of partygoers at the Pulse nightclub in Miami were cut down by a mass-shooter who targeted the LBTGQ community, the shocking verbal attack prompted an outpouring of calls for Spiezio to be removed for conduct unbecoming of a government official. Such rhetoric was sure to encourage violence, community leaders fretted. But instead of stripping Spiezio of his position, Mayor Thomas and Spiezio began using city resources and personnel to wage a Machiavellian campaign against the councilman. The best-known instance was a widely publicized court battle in which the Mayor sought to have the State courts invalidate a municipal contract that was awarded to the Councilman’s firm before he had ever entered office.
By the Mayor’s telling, the suit was necessary because Wallace’s firm had failed to fulfill a contract which it had been awarded by the city and Department of Homeland Security to build the city a new emergency operations center. However, local televised news reports that aired during the height of the battle suggested that the Mayor had contrived the charges. A statement released by the Department of Homeland Security, quoted in a local televised report on the dispute, said there was no evidence to support the Mayor’s claim that the work was defective.
If these politically-motivated lawsuits against Councilman Wallace weren’t enough, the Thomas administration also began to use tactics reminiscent of FBI’s infamous director J. Edgar Hoover. After being made aware of the fact that Wallace and the City Council President attempted to retrieve the personal effects of a high-ranking employee from an office after “official” business hours, for example, Mayor Thomas actually ordered police officers to go to City Hall and arrest both councilmen for trespassing.
Since then, Thomas and Spiezio have continued to use the city’s police to target and harass critics of the administration.
In yet another instance which occurred late last year, uniformed members of the Mount Vernon PD visited the offices of the NYS Department of Labor in White Plains and Manhattan to pressure investigators with the state agency to handover for evidence that the Mayor said would show the Councilman had violated federal labor laws during the construction of the disputed emergency operation center. A violation of long-accepted strictures against interference in an ongoing police investigation, the highly unusual move drew a sharp rebuke from the agency. And just months ago, the MVPD undertook a failed effort to force a decorated detective on the force as a way to punish a relative who was a vocal critic of the administration.
Given the Spiezio-Thomas machine’s no-holds-barred approach to politics, many feared it was just a matter of time before one of his supporters would be emboldened to attack figures who have been deemed as enemies of progress by City Hall.
If Wallace’s claims are indeed true, those fears just became reality.
In public statements about the fracas, Butch Thomas has contended that Councilman Wallace spat in his face, but he denied claims that he slugged him.
Only a full, impartial investigation of what could well be the second assault a Republican nominee has made while on the campaign trail will deter future GOP candidates from following their example.
However, given the stranglehold the Thomas administration has over the machinery of government, there’s little likelihood that the Mayor’s brother will be investigated for what was an assault, not just a single official, but the entire legislative branch of the city government.
Like his brother Richard, Butch Thomas is also a protégé of Spiezio, and has worked for years out of the New Rochelle office where magnate’s sprawling business operations are headquartered. Spiezio will no doubt to use his position in the MVPD to block such an investigation from being carried out. Indeed, many suspect Spiezio has obstructed justice by interfering with other investigations of the goings-on in the executive branch.
Local media outlets have been sounding warnings about the Spiezio-Thomas machine for months now. The county’s paper of record, the LOHUD, assigned a team their crack, investigative reporters to take a closer look at the political chaos that has wracked the city since Thomas was inaugurated. Their findings prompted the paper to issue a stunning editorial that bluntly declared, “Mount Vernon Falters as Leadership Fails.” “Thomas often acts as if he is allowed to cut corners because he is pursuing a greater good. He avoids transparency, clumsily deflects reasonable questions about ethics and repeatedly lashes out at (real and perceived) enemies. This is a self-defeating approach to creating a supposedly new Mount Vernon” the editorial noted. It further urged him to “put an end to the saga of Joseph Spiezio, the developer/hauler whose mysterious presence in Thomas’ administration has undermined the mayor since Day One. Spiezio’s continued presence will likely destroy Thomas’ mayoralty,” it warned.
In addition to these news report, activists have entreated Westchester’s political officialdom to do something to stop the city from spiraling further out of control. Since Republican Rob Astorino is facing his fiercest challenge to date in this November’s contest for the County Executive’s seat, perhaps the embarrassment that one of Westchester’s own Republicans stands accused assaulting a sitting elected official will prompt him to launch a full-scale investigation into what happened to the councilman.
Without some sort of outside intervention, the Thomas-Spiezio machine may well end up destroying their enemies, and the city as a whole, before it’s all over.
Just look at Opa-Locka.
 In the Matter of the Petitions of Joseph Spiezio, III, Jacqueline Spiezio, Joseph Spiezio, IV, and Lianna Spiezio. https://www.dta.ny.gov/pdf/decisions/824755.dec.pdf
 Rogan Brothers Sanitation, Inc., and R & S Waste Service…and International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 813. https://www.scribd.com/doc/316678863/Rogan-Brothers-Sanitation-Inc-And-R-S-Waste-Services-LLC
 Ben Protess, Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Rachel Abrams. “How Private Equity Found Power and Profit in State Capitols,” The New York Times, July 14, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/15/business/dealbook/private-equity-influence-fortress-investment-group.html
 Jay Weaver, Michael Sallah and Katie Lepri. “Opa-Locka’s ‘Shadow Forces Moves Millions in City Contracts,” Miami Herald, March 27, 2016. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/miami-gardens/article68516272.html
 AJ Woodson. “Abuse of Power—MVPD Covers Up A Hit-and-Run by Deputy Police Commissioner Spiezio’s R & S Carting,” Black Westchester, December 22, 2016. http://www.blackwestchester.com/mvpd-coverup-hitnrun-by-spiezio/
 Journal News Editiorial Board. “Thomas Must Remove Speizio,” LOHUD, April 26, 2017 http://www.lohud.com/story/opinion/editorials/2017/04/26/thomas-must-remove-spiezio-editorial/100697718/