Sunday, July 11th 2010, 4:00 AM
The food was a godsend, but his intentions were in doubt.
Parishioners at a Bronx church gladly grabbed free bags of fruit, rice and noodles from embattled Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Saturday, but the skeptical crowd saw the handouts as a cheap ploy to curry favor at the ballot.
"I'd never refuse free food," said Agnes Shawn, 80, a member of St. Brendan's Church. "I may not vote for him, but I'm happy to have the food."
About 60 people lined up for the giveaway. Espada, who faces civil and criminal probes, made a brief appearance to say, "God bless."
The scandal-scarred lawmaker has organized a handful of events outside the church in recent months to promote healthy eating. But St. Brendan's parishioners say it has led to a holy war with the pastor, the Rev. George Stewart.
Sally McCrohan, 62, said the priest warned his flock in sermons all week that Espada is using the church to campaign for his September primary.
"To me, he was out there trying to buy votes. Hopefully, come September, the truth will come out," McCrohan said. "Father Stewart's been saying it at all the Masses."
Stewart declined to comment Saturday.
Espada did not return calls for comment. Investigators are looking into whether Espada's Bronx-based nonprofit bilked taxpayers out of $14 million. Democratic leaders are also trying to oust him from the party.