Ex-Rep. Grimm eyeing Congress comeback after tax fraud plea

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28: U.S. Representative Michael Grimm (R-NY, 11th District) leaves a press conference he spoke at after leaving Brooklyn Federal Court where he was indicted on 20 counts on April 28, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Grimm's indictments include wire fraud, mail fraud, conspiring to defraud the United States, impeding the Internal Revenue Service, hiring and employing unauthorized aliens, and health care fraud. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Andrew Burton, Getty Images

He came to Congress with the law-and-order image of a former FBI agent and left as an admitted tax evader headed for prison. His tenure was shadowed by a campaign fundraising investigation and punctuated by a threat to hurl a reporter off a Capitol balcony.

But former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm says voters want him back in Washington, and he's hinting that he's going for his old job.

Grimm has said he's weighing a bid and has a campaign-style rally scheduled Sunday. If he runs, he'd seek to unseat fellow Republican Dan Donovan, a former prosecutor who won the Staten Island-based district after Grimm resigned in 2015.

In a country with a long history of political comebacks, Grimm isn't following the humble script of asking for second chances. He's all but challenging anyone to stop him.

"I'm gonna win," Grimm, 47, recently told Fox News. "When I go out and I shake these hands, and people hug me, and they tell me in my ear, 'You have no idea how many people are behind you,' I just know it."

A Marine and Gulf War veteran, Grimm has long styled himself as a scrappy fighter for New York City's "forgotten borough."

The thrice-elected congressman says his prosecution and eight-month prison term were politically driven and unfair. He casts himself as a political warrior ready to defend President Donald Trump's agenda against congressional Republicans with a "weak spine." And he counts the support of Staten Island political patriarch Guy Molinari, a Republican former congressman and borough president.

But Grimm would face an incumbent with a long history in Staten Island politics, including 12 years as district attorney (his office didn't prosecute Grimm).

Donovan has the backing of the local and state Republican parties and a $300,000 campaign war chest; Grimm's old campaign coffer has $52,000 but bears $420,000 in legal debt, according to the latest filings in July. Both camps claim that the other candidate is too liberal.

"We're not really worried about a challenge from a felon," Donovan campaign spokeswoman Jessica Proud says. "The voters won't be duped by him again."

A half-dozen Democrats have signaled plans to run in the swing district encompassing Staten Island and a bit of Brooklyn.

Grimm was an attorney and former undercover FBI agent on Mafia and Wall Street investigations before he unseated Democratic Rep. Michael McMahon in 2010.

In Congress, Grimm played a visible role in securing $60 billion in disaster relief after 2012′s Superstorm Sandy, and he co-wrote a 2014 law that rolled back federal flood insurance rate hikes.

But he also faced an FBI probe into unproven allegations that he solicited and accepted illegal campaign contributions from followers of an influential Israeli rabbi. Some said they'd contributed tens of thousands of dollars more than legally allowed, sometimes by funneling money through straw donors.

A top Grimm fundraiser pleaded guilty in a related visa fraud case. A woman romantically linked to Grimm eventually pleaded guilty to lining up straw donors but insisted the congressman was unaware.

Grimm denied knowledge of any improprieties. And when a New York cable news station reporter broached the investigation during an interview about the 2014 State of the Union address, the congressman threatened him on camera.

"You ever do that to me again, I'll throw you off this (expletive) balcony," Grimm said. "You're not man enough. I'll break you in half. Like a boy."

Grimm initially said he'd felt the reporter was disrespectful but later apologized, explaining that "as a Staten Islander, sometimes I get my Italian up."

Grimm was never charged with any campaign-related offenses. But prosecutors said the inquiry exposed that Grimm, while running a Manhattan health food restaurant before taking office, hid more than $1 million in sales and wages, partly through off-the-books cash payments to workers in the country illegally.

Declaring the case "a political witch hunt," Grimm was re-elected in 2014, then pleaded guilty within two months.

Grimm says what he did was wrong but commonplace and would have been handled with a civil fine instead of a criminal prosecution if not for his political stature.

There have been some similar prosecutions, though prison time isn't common. In arguing for it, prosecutors noted that Grimm was a lawyer and a former FBI agent.

American voters have occasionally put convicted politicians back in office since 1798, when Rep. Matthew Lyon, of Vermont, was re-elected while in jail on a conviction of violating the now-long-gone Sedition Act , which restricted criticism of the government.

More recent examples include Washington Mayor Marion Barry, a Democrat who went to prison on a 1990 crack cocaine conviction, then won a city council seat and the mayoralty again. Republican-turned-independent Mayor Buddy Cianci, of Providence, Rhode Island, resigned in 1984 after pleading no contest to attacking a man with a fireplace log and was re-elected in 1990 — and then convicted in a sweeping corruption case in 2002.

In the letters pages of the local Staten Island Advance, some writers say they've had enough of Grimm, but others argue he was unjustly brought down. Political experts, too, are split on Grimm's chances.

"Being convicted of tax fraud and running is like saying you're going to send someone who was convicted of cheating the taxpayers to go spend the taxpayers' money," says Susan del Percio, a Republican campaign veteran. She worked on Grimm's 2010 run and has never worked for Donovan.

But Iona College political science professor Jeanne Zaino thinks Grimm's fight from the right could resonate with Republican primary voters.

"There is so much discontent in the base, I think something like this — depending on how Donovan gets painted — can happen," she said.