Sunday, September 19, 2010
Vito Lopez caught on tape browbeating Brooklyn grannies for votes
By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, NY POST, September 19, 2010
Assemblyman Vito Lopez bullied and cajoled eight little old ladies during an arm-twisting session aimed at getting them to back his candidate in a Brooklyn judicial race, a shocking audiotape obtained by The Post reveals.
"I'm not a fool or stupid, all right?" the Democrat railed at the elderly community leaders. "I can't always give and get smacked, give and get smacked . . . I am the political leader."
The May 2005 conversation, captured on a hidden recorder, not only exposes the 69-year-old Lopez's heavy-handed tactics in dealing with his core elderly supporters but also offers a rare glimpse into the backrooms of bare-knuckle Brooklyn politics where Lopez reigns.
"I've been around a long time," Lopez tells the women. "And the only thing that's worth credibility -- the only thing I have that's worth something -- is the politics. That's how I get the money."
RAW AUDIO: LOPEZ THREATENING OLD LADIES FOR VOTES
Lopez called the hourlong meeting at his district office to get the women to support civil court judicial hopeful Richard Velasquez -- once a lawyer for the senior-center nonprofit empire Lopez founded -- in his race against lawyer Marty Needelman. The election was seen as a leadership test for Lopez, who was on the verge of becoming the Democratic Party boss for all of Brooklyn.
He explosively references this power play -- and the competition between Hispanics and Hasidim in the area over housing -- at one point blurting, "If no one respects my leadership, how do I fight the Hasidim?"
The Spanish-speaking women all came from South Williamsburg, where Needelman was popular with Hispanics. Lopez explains he needs Velasquez to win because "I made a pledge to people that the next [judge] would be Hispanic, right? To balance it."
The women aren't swayed, telling Lopez that they like Needelman and that voters don't care about race or, for that matter, the fact that Lopez is "Italiano."
Lopez uses strong-arm tactics, repeatedly mentioning two upcoming taxpayer-funded trips he hosts, suggesting only supporters can go.
"I want to take people on the trip who really don't like me?" he says. "I mean, that's stupid, right? That's what I'm trying to say."
Lopez then hints to one of the women, who had worked as a $225-a-day poll worker, that only Velasquez supporters will get the coveted gigs on Election Day. Poll workers are legally prohibited from trying to influence voters.
"If I put people in the polls to be poll watchers and the candidate that [Lopez's political] club backs is not backed by those people, how can I do that?" he says.
Later, he says, "Either people are with the club or not with the club."
At one point, Lopez suggests that if the votes for Velasquez fall short at PS 19, the polling site nearest the women, he will punish the entire neighborhood.
"Say Richard Velasquez wins, and most people think he will. He wins. But the only place we lose is over here, 19. If you're me, who do you help out? Do you help out the area around here, or do you help the people in Lindsay Park? It changes everything to me," he says.
In October 2005, five months after the meeting, Lopez was anointed Brooklyn's Democratic Party chair, promising to "bring political respectability" and judicial reform.
Velasquez, who had been rated "not approved" by the city Bar Association, was elected to the bench a month later.
But Lopez's efforts to recruit the women did not pay off.
Needelman -- who told The Post that Lopez once considered him "part of the family" but became "obsessed with total control" -- won easily at the PS 19 polls.
Additional reporting by Brad Hamilton and Sarah Ryley
Vito Lopez's tangled ties to shady charity are undeniable
By SARAH RYLEY and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, NY POST, Sept. 19, 2010
Assemblyman Vito Lopez claims he has nothing to do with the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a sprawling social-service cash cow that has received at least $304 million in taxpayer funds over five years and is under investigation for fraud.
But Lopez's ties to the organization he founded as a young social worker in the 1970s still run deep:
* His girlfriend, Angela Battaglia, is the organization's No. 2 official, making $329,910 a year. His campaign treasurer, Christiana Fisher, is its executive director and has a $659,591 salary for working only 17½ hours per week.
* Lopez was personally paid $57,600 as a consultant in a single year by Ridgewood Bushwick.
* Lopez's Bushwick Democratic Club operates out of a grimy building on Wyckoff Avenue owned by one of Ridgewood Bushwick's three dozen subsidiaries, which claims on tax forms to operate the building to provide "respite services" for senior citizens.
* The thousands of constituents of Ridgewood Bushwick and its 2,000 employees form the core of Lopez's political machine in north Brooklyn.
* Former Ridgewood Bushwick employees, including Richard Velasquez and Pam Fisher, have become Brooklyn judges with Lopez's support.
* As an assemblyman, Lopez has steered at least $335,000 in member items to Ridgewood Bushwick since 2009.
* He hosts Ridgewood Bushwick's signature taxpayer-funded events, including its massive seniors picnic in Long Island and its Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
* He allegedly told a political ally who was starting a nonprofit to follow Ridgewood Bushwick's model when selecting a board: "You want a bunch of 80-year-old people and get them together." The Post has revealed that the elderly members of Ridgewood Bushwick's board exercised little oversight of the group.
* Ridgewood Bushwick has built and manages hundreds of units of affordable housing, which Lopez helped fund with city and state subsidies using his influence as chair of the Assembly's Housing Committee.
Friends of Vito Lopez have a leg up when it comes to jobs as judges, even if 'unqualified'
BY Greg B. Smith, DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER , Sunday, September 19th 2010, 4:00 AM
When it comes to landing a job as a judge, friends and cronies of Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez have a leg up - even if they've been rated unqualified, a Daily News review found.
In the last few years, lawyers close to the Brooklyn assemblyman have repeatedly won coveted jobs in various courts.
That includes his daughter, his girlfriend's brother, and employees and relatives of employees of the nonprofit he controls, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, records show.
In some of these cases, voters had no idea the candidate they'd elected had been deemed unworthy of the job by state, city or county judicial screening panels.
Lopez became party boss in 2005 after the conviction of his predecessor, Clarence Norman, on corruption charges - including extorting judicial candidates.
One of the Supreme Court justices then sitting on the bench, Louis Marrero, had just been reelected after the Brooklyn bar had deemed him unqualified.
Lopez, who as party boss has enormous control over who winds up on the ballot, continued this tradition.
Judicial candidates are able to seek the seal of approval from screening panels run by the state, city and borough bar associations. If they don't, their opponents can use this against them, and the Brooklyn bar deems them "not approved" by default.
Voted onto the ballot by local party functionaries called judicial delegates, candidates who win the Democratic line are all but assured victory in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough.
Here's the Lopez lineup in courts stretching from downtown Brooklyn to eastern Long Island:
Pamela Fischer is the sister of Ridgewood Bushwick executive director Christiana Fischer. She had little legal experience when Lopez backed her for Civil Court last year.
The city bar association deemed her "not approved" for failing to demonstrate "the requisite qualifications for the court." The Brooklyn bar ruled her "not approved" because she wouldn't submit to the screening process.
She ran unopposed for the $125,000-a-year job. One voter scribbled in a write-in candidate named, "Someone Qualified."
Richard Velazquez was legal counsel to Ridgewood Bushwick when he ran for Civil Court in 2005 with Lopez's backing. Then in 2008, he decided to go for a better job, Supreme Court justice.
In 2008, the city bar deemed him "not approved," although the Brooklyn bar contradicted that finding and called him "approved." He won what's now a $141,000-a-year job.
Former City Councilman Noach Dear had little legal experience when he ran for Civil Court in 2007 with Lopez's support
Going into the race, Dear found himself "not approved" by the city bar, while his Republican opponent, James McCall, was "approved." No problem. Dear beat out McCall 8,281 to 4,489.
Some judges don't bother with voters. They're appointed by politicians. That's what happened with Lopez's lawyer daughter, Gina Lopez-Summa.
In 2006, then-Gov. George Pataki awarded Lopez-Summa a one-year appointment as a Court of Claims judge on Long Island. She stayed on after her term expired, and Gov. Paterson reappointed her for a nine-year term in April 2008.
Before the plum job was handed to his child, Vito Lopez, a lifelong Democrat, endorsed Republican Pataki.
Jack Battaglia was deemed "approved" by both the city and Brooklyn bars - but he had something else going for him when he ran for Civil Court in 2001 and Supreme Court in 2006.
He's the brother of Angela Battaglia, Lopez's longtime girlfriend and the housing director of Ridgewood Bushwick.
The judge made headlines when he sued the city in 2008, a year after he slipped and fell in the courthouse. As it happened, the case was assigned to another Lopez judge. The case was reassigned to another judge after The News noted the connection.
Sometimes it works the other way: The News found two "not approved" candidates who were endorsed by a rival political group that has taken on Lopez.
Lawyer Devin Cohen was deemed "not qualified" by both the city and Brooklyn bars when he beat Lopez's candidate for Civil Court judge in 2008.
And this year, a judicial panel run by the state's appeals courts found candidate Harriet Thompson "not qualified."
Thompson, a lawyer for tenants and landlords who has been endorsed by reform Democrats, has yet to be rated by the city and Brooklyn bars.
Still, when Election Day arrives in November, it won't really matter: She's the only Democrat running for the job.