Posted at: 01/15/2013 5:51 PM
Updated at: 01/15/2013 7:36 PM
By: Brett Davidsen
I Team 10 is digging deeper into how two local public officials got lured into what is now a criminal case against a former Monroe County manager accused of taking money from criminals in return for promises to help them get lighter sentences.
Reverend Ronald House is awaiting trial on charges he tried to improperly influence federal judges.
Those two political leaders went to bat for a convicted drug dealer who was facing 10 years to life in prison. Prosecutors say they were duped by House into writing letters to the judge requesting leniency.
When Cornelius Strong was to be sentenced on drug conspiracy charges, he had a couple well-known people advocating for his leniency. Two letters, obtained by I Team 10, were to be presented to the judge on Strong's behalf.
One is from State Senator Joseph Robach, the other from Darryl Porter, Assistant to the Mayor. Prosecutors say neither man knew Strong well, if at all. Now the letters are part of the evidence that exists against Rev. House.
House, an anti-violence community activist and former manager of affirmative action for the county, is facing federal charges of trying to obstruct justice by promising at least three convicted criminals, including Strong, that he could help them gain lighter sentences.
And it apparently came with a price. According to court papers, Strong paid House $5,000 which House called "donations" to his church.
Prosecutors say House then recruited Robach and Porter to write the favorable letters.
"What we have stated is that they were provided information by Mr. House that made up the contents of those letters and that information was not accurate," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Fletcher.
In his letter to the judge, Robach said that Strong was a changed man who "has been speaking at local schools and telling students that drugs are not the way to go..."
Porter echoed that theme in his letter, saying "in spite of his present circumstances, Mr. Strong has been a mentor and role model to the youth of Rochester."
Problem is, none of it was true. According to court documents, Strong confirmed that he had never spoken to any students or at any schools.
"They attribute to one of the informants things that he didn't do and they suggest he should be given leniency in sentencing based upon things that are not true," said Fletcher.
Prosecutors say they believe Robach and Porter were not aware of the truth.
Neither would comment to I-Team 10 about the letters they wrote, citing the ongoing criminal case against House. Both may be called as witnesses if there is a trial.
But you might be asking, is it routine for public officials to write recommendation letters for people they don't really know?
"I would not put my reputation at stake. it's not worth it," said former state assemblyman Joseph Errigo.
He says on rare occasions he wrote letters for constituents he knew who might have been applying to colleges or military academy but says he refused requests that involved trying to influence a judge's decision.
"I think you're treading on the judicial system. You're putting, perhaps, the judge in an embarrassing situation. He may know me and want to help me. But again, I wouldn't put anyone in that position," Errigo said.
The judge considering Strong's sentence was never put in that position either. The recommendation letters were never actually submitted because Strong's attorney turned them over to prosecutors. And Strong is now a cooperating witness in the case against ronald house.
Because some of the federal judges and prosecutors may be called as witnesses, House's case is being heard by a judge in Buffalo. His attorney has filed motion papers requesting the case be moved to Rochester.