Tangled Dealings Link Quinn, Lopez and His Brooklyn Machine
Thursday, August 29, 2013
So much of what happens at the City Council occurs under the radar that few noticed when Speaker Christine Quinn started her second term in January 2010 with appointments that boosted the power of Vito Lopez, a synonym for scandal. Lopez ruled Brooklyn politics as its Democratic Party boss, chaired the state Assembly’s influential Housing Committee for years, and had long been collecting city and state funding for Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a huge social service empire that doubled as his very potent political base.
While Lopez had long been a Quinn ally, the speaker was taking the relationship to a new level. Having passed on a planned mayoral candidacy after backing the term limits extension that allowed Michael Bloomberg to run again, Quinn was already laser-focused on her next mayoral opportunity in 2013. As several Council members told WNYC, she was also quite willing to use the array of powers available to a speaker to solidify a Lopez alliance. Lopez not only could be expected to decide what candidate got the Brooklyn Democratic endorsement in 2013, he had the power to deliver blocs of actual votes, unlike county leaders elsewhere in the city.
The powers Quinn would exploit on Lopez’s behalf are little appreciated by the mayor-obsessed media and public. The speaker is the second most powerful official in city government, the only formidable check and balance in the charter. The $70 billion budget must be approved by the Council, allowing it alone to alter the fiscal priorities of the mayor’s side of City Hall. In a city where lucrative real estate projects are a political lifeline, the Council has final say on the development deals the mayor proposes, a power that Quinn has used as speaker to win friends and influence donations.
Quinn told WNYC that while she would have liked to get the support of the Democratic Party organizations in Brooklyn and other boroughs, she never cut deals with Lopez or other county leaders in exchange for their support of her mayoral candidacy. "Look, obviously in politics people want things, and sometimes they happen and sometimes they don’t," she said. "But this kind of belief that there were all of these commitments made, all these promises made, before I got the support of county organizations or individual members is just not accurate."
Moreover, she said, she cut off all dealings with Lopez when it became apparent that he had sexually harassed women who worked for him. "I think everyone who worked with Vito Lopez was shocked and stunned by his disgusting behavior," she said. "I had no idea he was that kind of a person, none."
Still, Quinn used her powers as speaker to benefit Lopez until he was disgraced. This story is a chronology of how she played the insider game with one of New York’s ultimate insiders, and perhaps a window into the kind of mayor she might be.
COUNCIL POSTS, AND POWER, FOR BROOKLYN
The biggest jolt in 2010 was the naming of a new Finance Committee chair. Quinn and her predecessor, Gifford Miller, had given this prize to Queens the previous eight years, a reward for the linchpin role that the 16 Queens Council votes had played in their elections to the speakership by a majority of the 51-member Council. The ironclad control that the Queens party leadership exercised over its Council delegation’s votes for speaker had allowed it to dominate Miller and then Quinn’s committee appointments, and Queens had nine committees, including Land Use and Finance, the pillars of Council power. Chairs aren’t free agents, and the speaker would ultimately call the big questions, but their powers are considerable, and a magnet for contributions.
Quinn appointed Dominick Recchia as Finance Committee chair. Besides the powers, Recchia also got the $18,000 salary bonus that went with the job, a surprisingly important prize to Council members whose base pay is $112,500. Recchia, who did not respond to requests for comment, represents Coney Island, but he was so obeisant to Lopez that he was, at that very moment, using $2 million of his limited discretionary funds to subsidize Ridgewood Bushwick, as far away from his district as a buck could fly.
Quinn told WNYC that she appointed Recchia because she considered him “the closest of friends” and “enjoyed spending time with him,” adding that there was "nothing having any relationship to politics" in his selection.
Quinn also gave the newest Lopez protégé and council member, his ex-Assembly chief of staff Steve Levin, the chairmanship of the planning subcommittee of the Land Use Committee, a more influential post than Levin’s Brooklyn Heights predecessor David Yassky, an unreliable Lopez vote, had ever held in the Council. Letitia James of Fort Greene got Sanitation, and Darlene Mealy, who Quinn and Lopez had teamed up to flip on the term limits vote, got the Contracts Committee, plus a $10,000 bonus. When another close Lopez ally, David Greenfield, won a special election in March 2010 to fill a vacant Council seat, Quinn named him chair of a subcommittee high on Lopez’s list of priorities, overseeing senior center contracts.
“Brooklyn’s clout was pretty strong,” Levin acknowledged.
Finally, Quinn acquiesced in the five-year reappointment of Angela Battaglia - the housing director at Ridgewood Bushwick and Lopez’s longtime girlfriend - to the City Planning Commission. Initially installed at the commission in the dying days of the Giuliani administration (Lopez endorsed Giuliani, a Republican), Battaglia was a prime emblem of Lopez’s citywide influence. But Mayor Bloomberg had delayed her re-appointment without explanation for nearly a year. When he finally acted, Quinn wound up going to a Council hearing to vote for Battaglia personally, hugging her there, and the reappointment went through.
When Quinn was first elected speaker in 2006, she’d made modest moves to embrace Lopez. He had been late to join her team, pushing his own candidate at first. But he’d also undermined Quinn’s top opponent, Brooklyn Councilman Bill DeBlasio, blocking votes in his own county for a member who might’ve won. When Quinn was ultimately elected speaker, Lopez was invited as a special guest to the Council vote and was seated in the front row, wearing a red sweater, with two other leaders who’d made it happen, Joe Crowley of Queens and Jose Rivera of the Bronx. The most important appointment Lopez got then was the naming of his closest ally in the Council, Erik Dilan, to chair the Housing Committee, a perfect complement to Lopez’s control of the Assembly committee with the same jurisdiction.
COUNCIL MONEY FOR A LOPEZ BASTION
It was also in 2010 that Quinn suddenly made Lopez a favorite in the fine-print sections of the city budget she controls, where the Council lists what are called discretionary funds.
These grants to favored community organizations had threatened to derail her in 2008, when dubious accounting practices that included listing fictitious recipients of “slush” funding were discovered on Council budget lines. Quinn is still dogged in the mayoral campaign by that scandal, which resulted in the criminal convictions of three council members and two staff members of a fourth.
Quinn correctly points out that Ridgewood Bushwick “never got a penny” of discretionary funds from her personal allocation. Rather, Quinn’s support came indirectly, through a section of the Council expense budget she controls called Schedule C. In addition to individual council members’ earmarks, Schedule C includes a separate listing of grants “attributed to the City Council.” According to Rachael Fauss, the Citizens Union Foundation’s research and policy manager, and the author of the organization’s comprehensive report on City Council discretionary funding, “ ‘attributed to CC’ means the speaker’s list of funds.” The speaker distributes them, Fauss said, “with the input of individual members,” but Quinn makes the ultimate decision.
In 2009, Ridgewood Bushwick received a total of $903,589 from Schedule C. While individual Council members like Dilan previously accounted for much of the group’s funding, an unprecedented $650,000 that year came from the generalized “CC” category - up from $150,000 the year before. Prior to 2008, Ridgewood Bushwick’s “CC” allocation had been minimal. Not only were these increasing “CC” grants a Quinn-blessed boon to Ridgewood Bushwick, they freed Lopez allies like Dilan to use more of their individual funding to boost other groups that were part of the broader Lopez network.
Citizens Union found that by June 2011, the three council members that got the most in individual discretionary allocations were Recchia, Dian and Lew Fidler, all Brooklyn council members with longstanding and deep ties to Lopez. They combined for $43 million in a single year, more than Quinn herself and many times more than the majority of council members.
One council member close to Lopez who asked not to be identified told WNYC: “Vito is the only county leader who actually sends the Council a list of what he wants.” When Quinn complied, she told the council member: “He should be happy.”
DEALMAKING IN WILLIAMSBURG
But cash and committee chairs weren’t the only currency in Quinn’s campaign for Lopez’s support. She also steered a Lopez-backed rezoning project through the Council: the redevelopment of the Broadway Triangle in downtown Williamsburg, where thousands of members of an Orthodox Jewish sect, the Satmar, live. The plan for an 1,800-unit housing development was critical to Lopez - mostly because it was the foundation of his political alliance with the Satmar, whose bloc voting make them an electoral chip coveted by public officials. Ridgewood Bushwick was also the formal partner of the Satmar organization that had been selected by the city to sponsor and run the development, which was being built largely on city-owned land. That made Lopez a major stakeholder.
However, the project was a racial minefield. Critics were objecting that the Satmar sponsors were rigging the project terms to make sure that their community got the new apartments at the expense of the surrounding black and Latino population,; the mechanisms included limiting a preference for residents to neighborhoods the Satmar dominated and requiring large apartments best suited to their big families. Ironically Lopez himself once vigorously opposed the project as a boon to the Satmar, but he’d switched sides.
It is rare for a project backed by the local Council member (in this case, Yassky) and the speaker to attract much opposition on the floor. But 14 members voted against or abstained on the Triangle rezoning, 10 of them members of minority groups. The last battle Quinn wanted in December 2009—on the eve of her own re-election in a majority nonwhite legislature—was a racially charged bill, but that’s what Broadway Triangle gave her. Councilwoman Diana Reyna, a former Lopez ally who split with him on the project, cried in the chambers when it passed, and the triumphant Satmar cheered.
Quinn told WNYC that she was simply standing by Yassky, the local council member, in backing the measure before the Council. She said that she recalled the dispute being not about whether the development plans favored the Satmar, or even the land use matter that the Council voted on, but rather "a request for proposal process about choosing the developer."
Two days after the vote, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Emily Goodman granted a temporary restraining order delaying the project for further court review. When the lawyers filing the anti-Triangle papers went to Goodman’s chambers to seek her signature on the injunction, she was reading a scandal story about Ridgewood Bushwick. There would be plenty of them before Goodman issued her final ruling in 2012 - and they would be a factor in the decision.
STANDING BY AS LOPEZ'S PROBLEMS MOUNT
For Lopez, 2010 was the worst year of scandal in a career that had been assailed in a front-page New York Times expose as far back as 1993. The troubles started with the April bust of a Ridgewood Bushwick staffer on falsifying records charges, followed by damning spring audits from the city’s youth agency, culminating in a July Department of Investigation report accusing the organization of “fraudulent activities.” By September, news stories revealed that the nonprofit was paying its executive director, Christina Fisher, who doubled as Lopez’s campaign treasurer, an astonishing $782,000, and Battaglia another $352,000.
The tabloids did banner covers on Ridgewood Bushwick, the Bloomberg and Paterson administration froze contracts with the agency, the State Comptroller and Attorney General announced probes, and The Times reported that three different federal investigations were underway. The FBI interviewed Lopez; subpoenas hit the headlines. Despite the clamor, Ridgewood Bushwick got its largest capital budget allotment from the Council of $1.8 million that June, and Quinn approved $300,000 of the “CC” discretionary funds for the group.
In March 2011, the Council approved the appointment of Lopez’s lawyer, Frank Carone, to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission; Quinn said simply that his name was put forward by the Brooklyn delegation. Carone is counsel to the Brooklyn Democratic Party, a member of the Ridgewood Bushwick board and the law partner of the man who ended up succeeding Lopez as party boss, Frank Seddio. He’d even represented the Ridgewood Bushwick employee who pled guilty in the false records case a couple of months earlier.
A second damning Department of Investigation report came out that November, prompting Fisher to resign weeks later - on the same day in January 2012 that Judge Goodman issued her decision on the Broadway Triangle project. The judge’s decision took particular aim at Ridgewood Bushwick, citing the investigations and concluding that it would be “a poor use of resources” for the city to support Ridgewood Bushwick’s involvement in the project. She said she “couldn’t ascertain the nature of Ridgewood Bushwick, whom it represents, or what its interests in the area” were, since it had nothing to do with Williamsburg.
Even more embarrassing to the project backers, Goodman found that the project “perpetuated segregation” and was “part of parcel of intentional discriminatory actions.” Bloomberg apparently had flinched; an affidavit filed by the city in the case alluded to the Bloomberg administration’s willingness to offer, when the project came up for Council approval, to allow Community Board 3 minorities to be included in the preference zone. But the affidavit said “discussions with the Council” led to the decision to retain boundaries that favored the Satmar.
Goodman’s restraining order is still in place, though another judge is re-considering it now.
Lopez and Battaglia were guests at Quinn’s wedding in May 2012. That June, nearly two-thirds of Ridgewood Bushwick’s $1 million pot of city funding was funneled through the “CC” allocation. It was only when the state ethics commission issued a preliminary report about Lopez’s sexual harassment of two of his legislative aides, censuring him and stripping him of the Housing Committee chairmanship, that Quinn broke with him. In August 2012, she joined a legion of public officials calling on Lopez to resign from the Assembly and the Brooklyn Democratic Party chairmanship. He quit the party but stayed in the Assembly, and now is running for a City Council seat.
Quinn told WNYC that she moved against city funding of Ridgewood Bushwick before others in City Hall. "As it relates to Ridgewood Bushwick, as soon as there was information that indicated those contracts should be frozen, they were frozen," she said. "And I think the Council may have frozen contracts even before the mayor."
In fact, city records indicate that in July 2010 and in November 2011, temporary freezes were imposed on city funding of Ridgewood Bushwick at the direction of the mayor’s office, pursuant to the Department of Investigation probes. And when corrective action plans were put in place, funding resumed.
The ethics commission didn’t issue its final, X-rated report until this past May. It multiplied the number of harassment victims, establishing that Lopez had forced his hand all the way up between a staffer’s legs in a restaurant and offered another a trip to Russia if she would sleep with him there. This time, Quinn was quick to declare Lopez’s conduct “nauseating.” She also spoke by eliminating Ridgewood Bushwick’s “CC” funding entirely in June, though it still received grants from individual members.
Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. told WNYC that the agency had been “Lopez’s power base for years” and that the Council had needed to “cut off the head of this” but was “unwilling to do it.”
Quinn says it is mistaken to suggest that she ignored problems or did favors over her years as speaker to curry the support of Lopez and other political bosses. "The position of any other elected official or political organization was not and is not the paramount deciding factor for me on any of the issues we've talked about or any of the issues that will come before me in the future," she said.
In any event, her longstanding allegiance to Lopez could not deliver the reward she sought. With Lopez defrocked as Brooklyn’s Democratic boss, Bill Thompson, a son of the once vaunted Brooklyn machine, won its backing in next month’s mayoral primary.
Research contributed by Ben Shanahan, Zach Bergson, Calin Brown and John Santore