POLITICS
01/07/2015 04:22 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Donors To Michael Grimm, The Convicted Former Congressman, Regret Nothing

WASHINGTON -- There are sound investments. There are risky investments. And then there are investments in individuals facing public disgrace and possible prison time.

Nearly 200 people made that last sort of investment in 2014. They're the folks who gave itemized donations (i.e., donations in the aggregate of more than $200) to then-Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) even after he had been indicted on charges of tax fraud. They helped the Staten Island congressman sustain a bid for re-election even as the rest of the political world ran far away and legal threats engulfed his political future. And though he won, they watched as he turned around less than two months later, pleaded guilty to the charges and resigned from his seat.

Having gone through a high-profile political jilting, these people might reasonably feel aggrieved, misled or just desirous of a refund. But in interviews this past week, none of those reached by The Huffington Post expressed animus toward Grimm for taking their donations to gain another term and then abruptly leaving office.

"I have no such feelings of that," said Steve Schleider, president of Metropolitan Valuation Services. "Personally my feeling is that I didn't know how it was going to shake out. But it is better to have a special election now than give up the race at that point."

Schleider said he didn't want to just abandon the race to the Democratic candidate, former New York City Council member Domenic Recchia, so he decided to help Grimm roll the dice. He donated $1,000 to Grimm's campaign on Sept. 29. When Grimm won handily, 55 to 42 percent, Schleider felt vindicated in his investment. The guilty plea shortly thereafter and the resignation after that hasn't changed his thinking, he said.

Other Grimm donors showed a similar absence of regret about the money they gave to a potentially jail-bound congressman. Their sadness, instead, was that he would no longer be roaming the halls of Congress.

"It is hard," said Edward Schloeman, president of Fidelis Services Group, who donated $150 to Grimm on Sept. 17. "I like Mike because he was a Marine and a personal friend, and it's hard for me to have any comment. The country has lost a great congressman because of something that was done a long time ago. And it's difficult. It is a real difficult situation."

There wasn't much surprise, Schloeman said, that Grimm ultimately decided to leave office after pleading guilty to the charges. The temptation to fight is real. But so too are the reputational and financial costs that it entails.

"I just hope we would all take into consideration his war record and what he did for our country fighting organized crime," said Schloeman. "We have forgiven murderers, for Christ's sake."

Grimm's record as a Gulf War vet and a former FBI agent had previously made him an ideal Republican candidate from one of New York City's few Republican-leaning congressional districts. He won his first election in 2010, after having transitioned from a law enforcement career to a stint in business and finance. It was a close contest even in an overwhelmingly Republican year, defined at times by attacks on Grimm's stewardship of the restaurants he owned.

The investigation of Grimm began as an inquiry into potentially illegal campaign contributions in that first run for office. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York dug into allegations that Grimm’s campaign was funded in part by straw donors -- i.e., those who donate money from other people in their own name to evade contribution limits. An Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn and, separately, Grimm’s former girlfriend Diana Durand were targeted. Durand pleaded guilty to illegal use of straw donors, but declined to testify against Grimm.

The investigation then turned to those restaurants, specifically Healthalicious, which was run by Grimm from 2007 to 2010. On April 28, 2014, the U.S. Attorney's Office handed up a 20-count indictment over Grimm’s operation of the business, alleging everything from tax fraud to perjury to hiring undocumented immigrants.

Grimm vigorously denied the charges, saying that he was "entitled to [his] day in court just like anyone else."

The indictment, however, froze Grimm’s campaign funding streams. Prior to the indictment he had raised $1.8 million for his re-election bid, but the National Republican Congressional Committee dumped him from its fundraising program immediately afterward. His fundraising collapsed, with just $47,382 raised in April and May combined and another $166,567 for the remaining five-plus months before the election.

Those who donated after the indictment weren't all personal pals or true believers. Some of the post-indictment money came from people outside the district but with legislative interests before the congressman. Doyle Webb, a real estate agent in Knoxville, Tennessee, who gave $1,000 to Grimm’s campaign, said he was simply giving to a candidate who he thought could aid the realty business.

"You try to help people out that might do good for your industry," Webb said. "You don't know what might be going on."

Many other donors during the final weeks were individuals from Staten Island who weren't dissuaded by the ethical clouds hanging over Grimm because, they said, he had been a great ally.

"He was the only guy who would come out if we had trouble with an entity. He is the type of guy you could call and he would call you back," said Vaughn Bellocchio, owner of The Polishing Pad in Staten Island, who also described Grimm as "an absolute gentleman" who tried to move mountains to help his constituents. "We've dealt with other people in office; we'd get an aide on the phone. They wouldn't do anything. Michael Grimm would physically come."

Bellocchio didn't think twice when he decided to make a $1,500 donation on Sept. 18, even though doubts surrounded the congressman's political future. Grimm had helped push back against a Port Authority project that was affecting Bellocchio's business, taking the time to talk Bellocchio through the issues on the phone and even going out to the site to see the disruption and debris.

"He was completely in my corner and I didn't believe the charges. I never confronted him face to face even though I met him several times," said Bellocchio, who added that he was a little devastated by Grimm's resignation "for selfish reasons."

"I took it at face value what he was saying," Bellocchio explained, "that he deserved his day in court."

But Grimm decided not to exercise that right. A month and a half after defiantly telling his supporters on election night, "You had my back when I needed you the most, and I will never forget it," he pleaded guilty to one count of felony tax evasion. Days later, under pressure from House Republican leaders, he announced he would resign his seat to await sentencing. The congressman officially resigned on Monday with more than $400,000 in debt from his final campaign.

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