The Journal News by Noreen O'Donnell - January 9, 2010
A decade ago, Majed Samarneh approached a woman he knew from church to run for Yonkers City Council. A Democratic district leader, he thought it was time for an Arab-American to represent the area. "By bad luck to me I found her," Samarneh said Friday. "Her" was Sandy Annabi, who became the first Arab-American to win public office in Yonkers and who this week was indicted on public corruption charges. Annabi, 39, and two others — former Yonkers Republican Chairman Zehy Jereis and politically connected lawyer Anthony Mangone — are charged in an extortion and bribery scheme. All three deny the charges. "If she's found guilty, she has to pay for her mistake," Samarneh said. "I'm sorry for what happened," he said. "If they have the proof, and that's true, that's very bad. I don't know what to say." And if she is found not guilty, he said, "We're happy for her." Annabi's win in 2001, a month after the World Trade Center attacks, was held up as proof of the growing political influence of the Arab-American community. She downplayed her ethnicity in comments after her victory, but she nonetheless was a source of pride for a group that was increasingly facing hostility. Now that pride is turning to embarrassment. "In terms of the Arab community, it is a setback," said Haifa Bint-Kadi, an artist who lives in downtown Yonkers. "In the times that we're living, it's upsetting because for the most part Arabs are American citizens who are trying really hard to battle against profiling and stereotypes, and so it makes it a little bit harder. It doesn't make it impossible but it makes it a little bit harder." Annabi served on City Council until last year, when term limits forced her out. In November, she lost a close race for a seat on the Westchester County Board of Legislators. "We hold her up as a banner to Arab contributions in the community of Yonkers," Bint-Kadi said. Samarneh noted that she was born and raised in the United States, not in the Middle East. "She is more American than Arab," he said. Annabi and Jereis are both part of the city's Jordanian community, whose families were among a wave of Arab immigrants who moved to the area in the past century, finding success as doctors, lawyers and other professionals, opening stores and real estate businesses. According to the latest census figures, about 3,400 people or 1.7 percent of Yonkers' population identified their ancestry as Arab.
In the federal charges made public Wednesday, Annabi is accused of accepting more than $166,000 in exchange for dropping her opposition to two real estate developments: the $630 million Ridge Hill project by Forest City Ratner and the development of two abandoned city schools for housing by Franco Milio. Jereis, who served as GOP chairman between 2003 and 2007 and to whom Annabi has said she is related, is alleged to have gotten a $60,000 consulting job from Forest City Ratner in exchange for Annabi's deciding vote for the Ridge Hill project. He is accused of passing bribes to her, money spent on everything from co-op apartments to payments on a Mercedes-Benz automobile. Mangone demanded a bribe from Milio for Annabi's vote on the development of the schools, a project called Longfellow, according to prosecutors, and received $10,000 for himself. Both men once worked for former state Sen. Nick Spano, and both have pleaded guilty in the past to politically connected charges. On Friday, some people in the Arab community declined to publicly criticize Annabi and Jereis. Others did not return phone calls. Still others said they were surprised at the charges brought against Annabi, though no one said the same of Jereis. "She was doing a wonderful job here in our district," said Joseph Nader, a World War II veteran who is retired from the Yonkers police force. "She was doing an excellent job as a council representative. I am surprised. I am truly, totally surprised. I really am ... It's got me in the gut. "All I could say to you, it's a damn shame that a flower has to be nipped in the bud," he said. Yet her family is no stranger to scandal; nearly 25 years ago her parents were convicted in a conspiracy to distribute heroin imported from the Middle East. Bint-Kadi said she hoped the charges against Annabi would not overshadow the achievements of Arab-Americans nor discourage young people interested in politics from seeking office. "As an Arab-American who does a lot of volunteer work and does a lot of public service, I think it just encourages us to make sure our public profile is what it needs to be. "It's hard to talk," she said. "I think a lot of us are just still reeling. We're just reeling. It's just shocking, and (we're) in shock and not really sure what to make of it. Everybody gets their day in court, so I'm waiting to see what's going to happen." Annabi appeared so sincere, she was approachable as a councilwoman, she seemed to have integrity, Bint-Kadi said. "This is very damaging not to just the Arab community but to the community in general," she said. Is Samarneh searching for other Arab-Americans to run for City Council? "I think that that's a bad image for the Arab-American community over here," he said of the charges. "Now, with that image, I think we have to be quiet for a while." email@example.com