Sunday, September 19, 2010
Assemblyman Vito Lopez
Pedro Espada Es Terminado.
Press Focuses on Vito Lopez,
Poverty Boss, County Leader,
State Assembly Housing Chair
By Henry J. Stern
September 20, 2010
FIRST OF A SERIES
With Pedro Espada defeated for re-election, the new target of reform in New York City is Vito Lopez, the Democratic county leader of Brooklyn who doubles as chair of the Assembly Housing Committee.
Over the last week, the Daily News, New York Post, and The Brooklyn Paper have published a flurry of articles about Vito Lopez, his political tactics, and his nonprofit empire, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council.
The first articles in the News and the Post focused on an internal Department of Investigation report on the Ridgewood Bushwick organization, which Joseph Goldstein and David Seifman of the Post describe as the "sprawling social service agency funded with $75 million in taxpayer money that has long served as Assemblyman Lopezs power base", since he founded the organization in 1973.
According to the News' Erin Durkin and Adam Lisberg, DOI found that Ridgewood Bushwick and its affiliates submitted "at least $340,000 in fraudulent or fishy claims submitted to the city". The Post tabulated that "the city disallowed $304,549 in claimed costs, including $193,892 for events and trips for which there were no attendance lists."
The false claims against the city were just the tip of the iceberg in DOIs investigation. Earlier in the week, on September 12, the Post published an article entitled "WEALTH OF FRIENDS" by Joseph Goldstein, Isabel Vincent and Christina Carrega, which revealed that Christiana Fisher, the executive director of Ridgewood Bushwick and Lopez's campaign treasurer, "pulled down $659,591 in 'base compensation' over a 12-month period in 2008 and 2009 for working only 17.5 hours a week at Ridgewood Bushwick", according to tax filings. Fisher's salary, "an eye-popping 182 percent more than the $234,234 she made just two years earlier," shocked the nonprofit expert who the Post interviewed.
Angela Battaglia, Lopez's longtime girlfriend and Ridgewood Bushwick's housing director, received "$329,910 in 'compensation' over the same period -- 73 percent more than the $190,609 she made two years earlier." Morevoer, both Battaglia's brother, Jack Battaglia, and Christiana's sister, Pam Fisher, were elevated to the bench by Lopez, who controls judicial appointments in Brooklyn.
In sharp contrast to Fisher and Battaglia's robust salaries was the $25 that The Daily News reported Friday that 86-year Carmen Orlando was paid for each meeting she attended as a board member of Ridgewood Bushwick for 17 years. Orlando, a retiree with no business training, was one of several elderly members of Ridgewood Bushwick's nine-member board that the DOI report found had practically no knowledge of the organization and its finances. The News quoted the reports finding that "Two board members who are not fluent in English indicated having a limited ability to understand everything being discussed at the meetings... However, both told DOI that they recalled always voting 'yes' whenever a vote was taken."
For his part, Lopez defends Ridgewood Bushwick, but claims to be similarly in the dark about the group's operations. Lopez no longer has any official role in the organization he founded, though Aaron Short, in his article in the The Brooklyn Paper entitled VITO'S 'MONEY HONEYS' GET BIG SALARIES SUBSIDIZED BY YOU, points out that the Assemblyman has "funneled $380,000 in member items" to Ridgewood Bushwick since 2009.
Lopez's own words may ultimately betray his claims that he is disconnected from Ridgewood Bushwick. Yesterday, in an exclusive cover story in the New York Post with the headline DON VITO and the sub-head B'KLN PARTY BIG THREATENS LITTLE OLD LADIES FOR VOTES, the Post published excerpts from a hidden tape recording of the Assemblyman made in 2005 and obtained by the paper from an unnamed source. On the tape, Lopez, who was not yet County Leader, tells a group of eight elderly women that they must support his then-pick for civil court judge, Richard Velasquez, a former lawyer for Ridgewood Bushwick, so that he can prove his political might and keep bringing in money to pay for the taxpayer-funded trips he sponsors with Ridgewood Bushwick. Lopez's quote on the cover of the Post reads: "The only thing I have thats worth something is politics. Thats how I get the money."
Tonight, the executive committee of the Kings County Democratic Party will vote on whether to re-elect Lopez as County Leader. The spate of negative articles is highly unlikely to affect his re-election. His power is likely to be curbed only by law enforcement; he doth bestride Brooklyn like a colossus.
And with all the nepotism, cronyism and favoritism that Lopez engages in as a matter of course, it has yet to be demonstrated that any of these acts constitute crimes for which he can be prosecuted. Rule 5: "Where there's smoke, there's fire" probably applies here, and there are certainly clouds of thick smoke. But under the law, the existence of fire must be proven and not merely surmised.