Councilmen Defend Funding a Vito Lopez Nonprofit

Rafael Espinal, David Greenfield and Steve Levin directed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council

Vito Lopez. (Art by Brian Taylor)
Vito Lopez. (Art by Brian Taylor)

Three Brooklyn councilmen once tied to disgraced Kings County Democratic Party chairman and ex-Assemblyman Vito Lopez designated more than $440,000 in the 2015 budget for the controversial nonprofit Mr. Lopez founded, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council.

Councilman Rafael Espinal showered the organization with $98,125 of his discretionary funding–also known as member items–and personally sponsored an additional $60,000 allocation. Mr. Espinal also co-sponsored another $275,000 earmark for the group with Councilman David Greenfield funded through the “speaker’s list” pot of money controlled by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Councilman Steve Levin conferred an additional $7,000 on Ridgewood Bushwick.

A 2010 Department of Investigations probe found that the organization had received funding for services it did not provide, and that it had falsified documents to make it appear the programs were in place. The investigation also found that seven of the group’s nine board members lacked expertise at running a nonprofit and basic knowledge of how Ridgewood Bushwick operated.

“The majority of Board members could not identify Ridgewood Bushwick’s Controller or remember receiving any financial reports,” the investigation report read. “Two of the Board members could not identify the Executive Director of the organization.”

Salaries for administrators at the group–many linked to Mr. Lopez–have often hit six figures. Ridgewood Bushwick’s former director, Christiana Fisher, pled guilty in 2012 to submitting fraudulent paperwork to a grand jury explaining why her yearly pay rate had leaped from $235,135 to $659,591.

All three councilmen once had close ties to Mr. Lopez. Mr. Espinal, a former member of the Assembly, won his state legislature seat with strong support from Mr. Lopez and the Democratic Party establishment under his control. He is also a former chief of staff to Mr. Lopez’s longtime ally former Councilman Erik Dilan, who held the council seat before Mr. Espinal.

Mr. Greenfield won a Democratic primary for his seat in 2010 with strong ground support from Mr. Lopez’s operation.

Mr. Levin is a former employee of Ridgewood Bushwick, and became Mr. Lopez’s chief-of-staff in 2006. He won a crowded race for his seat in 2009 after Mr. Lopez coordinated the support of a crucial Williamsburg Hasidic sect.

Mr. Espinal defended his allocation of money, which is intended to go toward legal assistance for tenants and programs for youth and the elderly, and claimed it had nothing to do with his past relationship with Mr. Lopez. The pol also pointed to the city’s decision to hand Ridgewood Bushwick a $3.6 million contract for a new senior center as proof that the organization has cleaned up its act.

“They provide a large amount of services in my district,” said Mr. Espinal. “They have received money from the city, I take this as a sign they have been cleared.”

Mr. Levin’s office also stood up for his funding for the organization, which is supposed to go toward transportation for seniors to an annual picnic.

“This might be the only opportunity they get to get out of the city all summer,” said spokesman Matt Ojala. “It’s something we’re proud to fund.”

Mr. Greenfield did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Councilmen Defend Funding a Vito Lopez Nonprofit