Espada in new ethics tangle (TU) The state’s legislative ethics panel found in its final investigation that ex-state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. put his uncle on the state payroll, which could result in another criminal charge* Espada’s Family Ties(YNN)
By JIMMY VIELKIND, Capitol bureau
Published 11:45 p.m., Monday, December 26, 2011
ALBANY — More trouble for Pedro Espada Jr.: He could face another criminal charge for putting his uncle on the state payroll.
The Legislative Ethics Commission quietly issued a notice alleging the ex-senator violated the law by hiring his uncle, Juan Feliciano Jr., as an $80,000-a-year "special assistant" when he last held office in 2009-10. The notice, published with no announcement on the commission's website Dec. 9, alleges two violations of the state's Public Officers Law, each punishable by a fine of up to $40,000 or, if the commission so votes, referred for prosecution as a criminal misdemeanor.
It's the latest trouble for Espada, who lost a primary last year amid questions of corruption.
The Bronx Democrat is under federal indictment for allegedly embezzling money from the Soundview Health Network, which he founded. State Health Department officials are working to kick Soundview out of the Medicaid program, which would essentially cause it to shut its doors.
Espada also regularly failed to report campaign finance statements to the Board of Elections. Questions abound as to whether he ever lived in the Bronx district he was elected to represent rather than in a separate house in tony Mamaroneck. He lost the 2010 Democratic primary to Sen. Gustavo Rivera.
Espada has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, denouncing the charges as politically motivated. Neither he nor his attorney, Susan Necheles, returned calls seeking comment Monday.
Espada has not pushed for a hearing into the matter, according to Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat who co-chairs the commission.
The notice says Espada lied about whether Feliciano, who was often referred to as "Uncle John" around the Capitol, was actually his uncle. The state Public Officers Law says a legislator may not "participate in any decision to hire, promote, discipline or discharge a relative for any compensated position at, for or within any state agency, public authority or the Legislature." The law defines "relative" as "any person living in the same household as the individual and any person who is a direct descendant of that individual's grandparents or the spouse of such descendant."
A lawsuit filed in April 2010 by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo asserted Feliciano was Espada's blood uncle and also alleged Espada improperly billed personal expenses — including $20,000 in sushi delivered to the Mamaroneck house — to Soundview. The commission then began its investigation, obtaining sworn testimony about Espada's family tree from Victor Feliciano, another uncle. Espada did not respond to inquiries from the commission, the notice says.
This will be the last investigation undertaken by the Legislative Ethics Commission, according to O'Donnell. An ethics bill signed this past summer puts ethics investigations for both the legislative and executive branches in the hands of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. The Legislative Ethics Commission will continue, but its job will be to recommend punishments related to any alleged offenses.
"We had been investigating for a very long time, and we wanted to close that investigation out," O'Donnell said.
The new body, known as JCOPE, was constituted Dec. 12 and met in person for the first time on Dec. 20. Its chairwoman, Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore, said it had a "tremendous amount of work" on its plate.
One task through which the new body could quickly imprint itself on the state's political culture involves previous decisions by the Commission on Public Integrity, which regulated executive branch staffers and lobbyists. Under the new law, JCOPE's 14 commissioners must examine all previous opinions and reject or change them within a year. They will likely examine and clarify exactly what gifts are permissible under the new law.
"It's a very important job," said Karl Sleight, who was an aide to the now-defunct Ethics Commission. "Massive changes in a body of law that has evolved over several decades would probably not be healthy, but there's always room for improvement."
JCOPE had a bumpy start, as questions swirled about some of its commissioners and DiFiore's decision to conduct the majority of the Dec. 20 meeting in private. They were advised there by Barry Ginsberg, executive director of the now-defunct Commission on Public Integrity, which JCOPE supplanted. Ginsberg has resigned.
"You don't give an arsonist your barbecue," he said Dec. 20.
Grandeau filed a formal letter complaint with JCOPE on Friday, asking for an investigation into Ginsberg's recent activities; Grandeau has long sniped at Ginsberg. DiFiore's spokesman, Lucian Chalfen, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reach Vielkind at 454-5081 or firstname.lastname@example.org.