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20/03/2011 | A Senator’s Shadow Family

Michael Barone

EVEN in a city that celebrates unbridled ostentation, the sprawling estate at 139 Bassett Avenue in the seaside enclave of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, seems to redefine conspicuous consumption.


The front yard is a gaudy stab at Versailles, with four-foot obelisks at each corner of the driveway, intricately tiled fountains and a series of steel sculptures that depict dolphins mid-dive, children at play and birds in flight. The 7,000-square-foot home, whose aesthetic is cruise-ship-meets-mob-mansion, has five terraces, a curved-glass elevator and an arcade room outfitted with gumball machines. On the second floor, there is what the residents call their “ice cream room,” furnished with an old-fashioned counter and soda fountain.

Creating this eclectic palace was a huge mess. There were bitter legal disputes with contractors. Neighbors filed numerous complaints with the city’s Buildings Department questioning whether there were proper permits. At one point, a police officer moonlighting as a steeplejack fell and injured his spine when the flagpole he had been hired to fix cracked. The house is owned by two never-married middle-aged brothers, Drs. Michael S. and Gerard I. Turano, gynecologists whose 39-foot yacht, Special Delivery, is often docked out back. They live there with their mother, Dorothy, 73, a Brooklyn native who manages the local community board.

But the person who oversaw the construction — and browbeat the contractors — is State Senator Carl Kruger, an Albany power broker and Democratic moneyman whose official residence is at his sister’s, two miles away.

The tangled ties among Mr. Kruger, the doctors and their mother — long a topic of gossip and speculation in the insular neighborhood and nearby political precincts — were thrust into view this month when the senator and the older Turano brother were among eight men charged in what the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York described as “a broad-based bribery racket.”

For more than 25 years, Mr. Kruger and the Turanos of Mill Basin have forged the most unconventional of domestic arrangements — at once public and opaque, widely whispered about and poorly understood.

The Turanos are variously described by friends, neighbors and colleagues as the senator’s social acquaintances, lovers or surrogate relatives.

In 2002, Michael Turano testified that Mr. Kruger was his “best friend.” Benjamin Brafman, Mr. Kruger’s lawyer, says the senator “often describes the Turanos as his family,” though in depositions Mr. Kruger has understated how long he has known them and how frequently he visited their home.

(A process server testified that he saw Mr. Kruger at the Bassett Avenue home, on several occasions, “in his pajamas coming out of a bedroom.”)

Investigators, who tapped the senator’s cellphone for months, have both muddied and clarified the situation, suggesting that Mr. Kruger, 61, had his most intimate relationship with Michael, 49, picking him up at the office and fielding phone calls from him throughout the day. “Kruger spoke with Michael Turano,” court records say, “in a manner that revealed that they relied on and supported one another.”

But when asked whether Mr. Kruger was a close friend of her son, Ms. Turano, through the security intercom at her front door, said: “He was my friend. That’s why I don’t understand about this. Whatever comes out is going to be so wrong.”

In the days since the criminal complaint was filed on March 10, the four central characters in this drama have declined to talk extensively to reporters. But interviews with two dozen people who know them, along with previously undisclosed court and city records, reveal a strange symbiosis. Mr. Kruger vaulted the Turanos into his spheres of power and influence, prosecutors say, landing Dorothy a plum job and, later, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into her sons’ bank accounts to finance a $200,000 Bentley and pay down a $1.2 million mortgage.

The Turanos, in turn, provided the senator companionship, and prosecutors say the brothers helped conceal his growing payoffs from lobbyists and corporations.

Mr. Brafman denied any wrongdoing but did not dispute the unusually close ties. “Despite the tenor of the complaint,” the lawyer said, “I think we will ultimately be able to establish beyond question that the Kruger-Turano relationship is a close family relationship, not a part of a criminal conspiracy.”

Like many classic New York tales, the story of Mr. Kruger and his shadow family involves love, money, conflict and real estate.

It is a story of an internecine political world of favor-trading and access-peddling.

It is a story of an obscure waterfront expanse of garish mansions and decadent cars, a pocket of wealth unreachable by buses and subways and unseen by most city residents.

And, now, it is a story of unwanted attention.

TO hear 76-year-old Michael P. Turano tell it, Carl Kruger took his family. “Until he came into the picture,” said Mr. Turano, whose marriage to Dorothy ended in 1985, “we were a very happy family.”

Michael Turano of Bensonhurst and Dorothy A. Bianchini of Flatbush met at a church social in 1956. He worked at a bakery, she at an insurance company. They both liked to dance.

They lived modestly: His car was in such a sad state that he had to borrow his in-laws’ 1947 Buick to drive to Miami for their honeymoon, in 1957.

Their sons, born two years apart, had little need for friends because they had each other. “They were soul mates,” their father said in an interview from his home in Florida, where he moved a decade ago. “Ninety-five percent of the time, they were together.”

The brothers went to South Shore High School: Michael, class of 1979, was executive council chairman, and Gerard was president of the class of 1981. “They really were what you would call ‘Mr. South Shore,’ ” said Michael Ingram, a former English teacher at the school. “They were wonderful students; they were very, very active in school activities; they participated in everything.”

“Dottie,” Mr. Ingram added, “was a supermom” — PTA president, a volunteer school aide. “She got all sorts of wonderful things done for the school.”

Friends of Ms. Turano, though, detected an unfulfilled craving for a career. Her liberation came through local politics — and Mr. Kruger, a young up-and-comer who was not much to look at but possessed the currency that mattered most in that sphere: connections.

He was a protégé of Anthony J. Genovesi, the gruff assemblyman who presided over the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, which groomed generations of elected officials. By 1985, Mr. Kruger had won a coveted post as chairman of Community Board 18 in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, making him much sought after for people trying to do business in the area. He had also already been indicted on state corruption charges, in 1980, but he was acquitted at trial, represented then as now by Mr. Brafman.

According to her former husband, a retired accountant, Ms. Turano soon began to devote much of her free time to the Jefferson club — and to Mr. Kruger. He became a regular dinner companion, inviting the entire Turano clan out to local restaurants and regaling the family with tales of his political triumphs.

Around that time, the brothers attended the City College of New York, where both were part of a prestigious program, Sophie Davis, that puts high-achieving local students on a fast track to medical school. When Michael graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in 1986, the father said, Mr. Kruger threw him a party that was written up in The Canarsie Courier.

Mr. Kruger’s longtime lawyer, Mr. Brafman, said, “The Turano marriage was broken for more than 10 years before Mr. Kruger even met the family.”

But the estranged former husband points to the senator. “I could see the writing on the wall,” he said. “He was cultivating my wife and two kids as his family-to-be.”

Mr. Turano recalled telling Dorothy, “You quit the club — or I quit you.”

WHEREVER Mr. Kruger popped up, Dorothy Turano seemed to follow: fund-raisers, news conferences, community meetings.

In 1989, Mr. Kruger, still chairman of the community board, tapped her as its district manager, a full-time job with generous benefits that she still holds, now with a salary of about $109,000, among the highest for that job at community boards across the city.

Technically, Ms. Turano was a bureaucrat, an intermediary among politicians, city agencies, civic associations and local residents.

But she turned the bit part into a major role, telling board members she viewed herself as on a par with elected officials. She socialized with real estate developers, attended high-profile events like the installation of Timothy M. Dolan as archbishop in 2009 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and always managed to finagle a spot in photo-ops (often next to Mr. Kruger).

“It’s amazing that a district manager influences things the way that she does,” said Charles Barron, a longtime City Council member from the area. “It’s not like somebody like her should be wielding any big-time power.”

In the early 1990s, Ms. Turano helped Mr. Kruger commission a new headquarters for the board, with an arched roof and a high-end audio system; the building’s costs eventually escalated to an eye-popping $7 million in city money. In 2002, Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, presented her with a proclamation declaring Sept. 14 “Happy Birthday Dorothy Turano Day.”

Constituents and politicians routinely took their complaints or proposals directly to her, bypassing board members, who increasingly deferred to Ms. Turano anyway. “She gets things done,” said Tom Hernandez, who joined the board in 2007.

Mr. Kruger, meanwhile, ascended to the State Senate in 1994, selected by the Brooklyn Democratic machine as its favored candidate in a special election. Once in the Republican-controlled Senate, the loyal Democratic foot soldier turned dealmaker, offering his vote on social issues that played well with the conservative Orthodox Jews in his district and cementing his position back home with vigorous constituent service.

In political circles, Ms. Turano referred to Mr. Kruger as her partner, but the pair remained something of a riddle to those around them. Ms. Turano’s ex-husband described the relationship as “motherly” rather than romantic.

Frank R. Seddio, a former assemblyman and surrogate judge who was Community Board 18’s chairman and a previous district manager, said they were a couple, but then he stopped and said, “I don’t know if you can call them a couple.”

Since the early 1990s, Mr. Kruger had all but lived at the Turano childhood home, a modest brick two-family on Glenwood Road in Canarsie, parking his dark Cadillac in front at all hours. Beyond the frequent visits by a state senator, neighbors found the arrangement peculiar.

“I couldn’t understand it,” said Rosemarie Campanile, who lived across the street for years. “They were both prominent physicians. Why live with your mother?”

The brothers run a joint practice, with offices in Manhattan at New York Downtown Hospital, and in southeast Brooklyn opposite Beth Israel Medical Center. Their business cards bear the motto “Two Doctors, One Commitment,” and say, “Practice limited to gynecology,” though they used to do obstetrics as well.

Like many ob/gyns, the brothers have faced their share of malpractice lawsuits: at least seven between them in the past 14 years.

Gerard, 47, has won both cases against him, and Michael prevailed at trial in a case that involved surgical intervention.

But Michael also settled a case, involving a baby who ended up with brain damage and cerebral palsy, for $1.1 million in 2005; and another, regarding an abnormal Pap smear, for an undisclosed sum. He also paid a $150,000 judgment in a 2004 case in which he administered Pitocin, a labor-inducing drug, to a woman having strong contractions.

It was in 1995 that the brothers bought the home on Bassett Avenue in southeast Brooklyn, for $995,000: they took out an $800,000 mortgage and embarked on a $565,000 renovation that was expected to take six months.

They sold the old row house on Glenwood Road, for $240,000, to Eric Bascombe, a city bus driver. But they did not leave for two years, sparking another nasty legal fight.

Mr. Bascombe had signed an agreement, which he said he had not fully understood, that allowed the Turanos — and their forever guest, Senator Kruger — to remain as renters. Livid, Mr. Bascombe eventually took to staging loud protests on the sidewalk, calling the Turanos “liars” and demanding that they vacate the property. Mr. Bascombe said the disagreement had escalated into shouting matches with Mr. Kruger, who served as the point man for the family; Mr. Bascombe reported two of the confrontations to the police.

“He’s the boss; he takes care of his family,” Mr. Bascombe said. “That’s how he operates.”

In 1998, the Turanos moved out and paid Mr. Bascombe $12,000. A handwritten settlement drawn up by lawyers declared that “both sides agree not to harass each other and to live in peace.”

BEFORE the Turanos touched the house on Bassett, the F.B.I. had already been there. The bureau had taken a keen interest in a previous owner, Anthony Casso, a mob boss in the Luchese crime family.

It was Mr. Casso who originally conceived of the giant complex, only to order the execution-style murder in 1991 of the architect who designed it, for fear that the man, Anthony Fava, could become a witness against him. F.B.I. agents stormed the house looking for evidence, punching holes in the walls as they searched for hidden bodies.

When they took it over, the Turanos went far beyond patching the holes. Documents show they requested a special snow-melting device for the driveway, steam systems in the bathrooms on the second and third floors, and custom-decorated walls with Baltic birch plywood. The budget for granite alone was $50,000.

Next to the house, they seized a stretch of city-owned waterfront and walled it off as a patio, with two Samurai sculptures flanking a multitiered fountain. Neighbors have complained to the city about the unusual use of city land, but Robert F. Katzberg, a lawyer for the younger Michael Turano, said the family leased the land “at fair market value.”

As the costs swelled to $1.4 million, the family sued the contractor, Mike Mermelshtayn, for $8 million; he countersued, seeking $130,000 in expenses and fees. Though Mr. Kruger was not named as a party in that suit — which, like the flagpole case, has been settled — depositions highlight his outsize role. It is Mr. Kruger whom Mr. Mermelshtayn begged, in a letter, to keep the dispute out of court. “We never had a problem communicating with each other,” he wrote. “Whenever you called, I was there for you. Whenever you called, I responded.”

Dr. Michael Turano testified that Mr. Kruger oversaw the work “every day.” Mr. Kruger, however, repeatedly eluded efforts to depose him in this case and in the one involving the man who fell from the flagpole.

Twice, lawyers say, he canceled, claiming urgent work in Albany — once, via fax on Senate stationery 90 minutes before — only to appear on television or in the newspaper at events in Brooklyn on the same day.

As the cost and scope of the renovations mounted, the Turano brothers borrowed heavily, taking out a second mortgage, of $400,000, and arranging for a home equity loan of $500,000, records show. By 2002, payments topped $8,500 a month.

PROSECUTORS say Mr. Kruger had already begun to orchestrate the bribery scheme, turning the everyday routines of Albany into a business in which he took payments from lobbyists to advocate for their clients. And, the authorities charge, it became a family affair.

Dr. Michael Turano, according to the criminal complaint, set up two front companies and bank accounts to stow away the sudden influx of cash — eventually, more than $1 million. One, in which Gerard was also involved, was called Bassett Brokerage, after the address of the family home. It was fitting: much of the money, said an F.B.I. agent in the complaint, was funneled to the bulging mortgages and the black Bentley Arnage parked in its garage. 

In a telephone conversation recorded in November, prosecutors say, Michael Turano seemed to grow anxious when a $15,000 payoff did not show up as expected. “I got the mail,” he told Mr. Kruger. “Nothing.”

In another taped conversation, Mr. Kruger appears annoyed that Gerard Turano was trying to distance himself from the operation. “I made life easier for the two of you and he is going to be the beneficiary of my work,” Mr. Kruger said, according to the criminal complaint. “No, it was supposed to be that we were going to all share in the benefits of it.”

From her perch at the community board, prosecutors suggest, Dorothy might have played her own small part. After rejecting plans for a retail development at a vacant site in 2004, she and the board approved a similar proposal in March 2007. Within a few weeks, a developer involved in the proposal began sending checks totaling $472,500 to Michael’s bank accounts.

On Wednesday, less than a week after the criminal charges were unveiled, Dorothy Turano arrived promptly at 8 p.m. for the scheduled monthly meeting of the community board, dressed in fuchsia blazer and matching lipstick. She politely waded through the crowd of journalists waiting in vain to talk to her, then hugged board members and blew a kiss to a police officer.

At her place on the dais, board members had placed a vase of daffodils and a single red rose, with a heart-shaped balloon that said, “We love you.”

Upon learning of the charges, Ms. Turano’s ex-husband called her for what he said was the first time in two decades. She was at the community board office. Mr. Kruger was there.

Mr. Turano told her that he needed to make sense of what had happened to his family. After all these years, he asked, “this is what you produced?”

Recalling the fraught exchange, he said, “She cried quite a bit.”


Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Confessore, Anemona Hartocollis, Javier C. Hernandez and William K. Rashbaum.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 19, 2011

A earlier version of this article contained a photo caption that misspelled the surname of the family that owns a house in Mill Basin, Brooklyn. It is Turano, not Torano.

NY Times (Estados Unidos)


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