Saturday, November 1, 2008

Maria Baez

Baez Silent Amid Sea of Controversy

NORWOOD NEWS, July 10, 2008

In her penultimate year as a member of the New York City Council, Maria Baez has found herself the subject of media scrutiny. News stories regarding poor attendance at Council meetings, enormous cell phone bills and a check to a non-existent organization, have left Baez with a tarnished public image.

With over a dozen phone calls throughout May and June, and even a list of questions both faxed and hand-delivered to her office, the Norwood News sought Baez’s side of the story. But the councilwoman and her press secretary, Chris Riley, refused interview requests. Baez, 50, who has been a fixture of the Bronx Democratic Party for nearly three decades, serving as chief of staff for then-Council Member Jose Rivera before her election to City Council, would only state through a spokesman that her “constituents know what she has done for the community.”

Baez who represents District 14, which includes parts of Kingsbridge Heights, Fordham, Morris Heights, and Mount Hope, began getting negative press earlier this year with a New York Times report on the attendance records of City Council members. She was highlighted as the member with the single worst record. The leader of the Council’s Bronx delegation and chair of the State and Federal Legislation Committee, Baez was marked present at only 66.1 percent of all Council meetings from 2004 through 2007.

As her tenure as council member draws closer to its end — all members who were elected in 2001 are barred by term limits from running again in 2009 — Baez has become less likely to attend Council meetings. For the first quarter of the current calendar year, Baez’s attendance dropped to about 50 percent, according to records obtained by the Norwood News through a Freedom of Information Law request from the City Council.

Through April 15, Baez was absent from 26 out of 53 Council meetings, with just one absence listed as officially “excused.”

In another recent news report, the Daily News found Baez atop the Council’s list of big spenders.

For the 2007 fiscal year, Baez’s office racked up cell phone expenses of $17,765. Meanwhile, Bronx Council Member Joel Rivera, who is the Council’s majority leader and has a larger staff, had a cell phone tab of $10,501 for the same period.

The New York Post reported in late April that Baez withdrew $668.35 from “Baez for the Future,” her reelection campaign, to pay for gasoline during the second half of 2007 even though she hasn’t needed to campaign since 2005, when she was elected for her second, and final, term as a Council member.

The Post’s David Seifman also reported that, in 2005, when Baez had no Democratic primary opponent (winning the primary is tantamount to winning the election in Baez’s overwhelmingly Democratic district), her campaign managed to chug through 1,100 gallons of gas. Baez’s office didn’t comment for the News and Times articles.

Member item controversy

Since the City Council’s “slush fund” scandal erupted earlier this year when it was discovered that some Council money was going to nonexistent organizations, discretionary funding — better known as member items — is drawing intense scrutiny.

The same New York Post article that detailed Baez’s gas expenses, revealed that she had allocated $7,500 of her budget for this year for a group called the 2401 Davidson Ave. Tenants Association, which was disbanded four years ago, a year before Baez moved out of the building. Her old apartment currently belongs to Nilda Velazquez, treasurer of “Friends of Maria Baez,” and current Baez staff member. “Friends of Maria Baez” lists its address as Apt. 1 of 2401 Davidson Ave., although there is no such address.

When questioned by the Post about the allocation, Baez responded, but did not offer an explanation, saying only that she earmarks money for “good organizations,” and that she “will not allow anyone to assassinate [her] character as a Latina woman.”

The payment to 2401 Davidson Ave. Tenants Association was halted as part of the City Council’s new and improved vetting process, during which Council auditors verify the authenticity of organizations that money is earmarked for.

Baez’s publicity issues date back to before this year, in July, 2007, when allegations surfaced that Baez’s daughter, Carmen, who oversees the Bronx Marriage Bureau’s office, was closing up shop 45 minutes early every day. A New York Times report on the flap included allegations that the elder Baez regularly picked up her daughter early from work, while dejected couples met an unexpectedly shuttered altar.

In December of last year, a City Council bill sponsored by Baez and co-sponsored by Joel Rivera, prompted protests outside Baez’s Mount Hope office. The bill, an alternative to the Tenant Protection Act, which had majority support in the Council, drew accusations that Baez and Rivera were capitulating to New York’s powerful landlord lobby. Both Baez and Rivera eventually withdrew support for the legislation and supported the Tenant Protection Act.

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