BY BENJAMIN LESSER, ROBERT GEARTY and GREG B. SMITH
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS
Monday, May 5th 2008
The City Council has secretly moved millions of taxpayer dollars to unregistered charities through ghost groups that often have ties to the lawmakers themselves, a Daily News investigation has found.
This latest budgetary sleight of hand allows the Council to get around the city's requirement that nonprofits receiving public funds must be registered charities.
For years, the so-called "fiscal conduits" haven't been listed in public records even though they were paid fees with taxpayer funds to handle the distributions.
Three fiscal conduits listed on an internal 2007 Council budget document do not show up on the list of discretionary funds released to the public that year. The three - Graybeards Ltd., East New York Kidspower and Grace Gravesend - were used to move money to the smaller groups.
The Peninsula Performing Art Conservatory got $3,500 through Graybeards. Peninsula has filed federal tax returns and maintains a Web site, but the contact number listed on the site has been disconnected, and e-mail sent to the organization was not returned.
Misuse of City Council funds is the focus of a growing probe by the city Department of Investigation and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia.
Two Council aides have been charged with embezzling $145,000 from a nonprofit organization that got Council funds, and The News has documented four Council members giving money to nonprofits where relatives work or sit on boards.
Speaker Christine Quinn has admitted the Council would park funds in fictitious groups for distribution to real nonprofits later.
And it was only last year that, for the first time, Quinn began requiring that fiscal conduits be listed publicly. She also capped the fees they collect.
"We agree that we need to strengthen the accountability in the budget process overall, as well as with fiscal conduits," Quinn spokeswoman Maria Alvarado said. The Council is working with city lawyers to "strengthen the rules for the small groups" that get funds through fiscal conduits, she said.
A prime example of a "fiscal conduit" is a nonprofit run by the wife of Councilman Erik Dilan called the North Brooklyn Community Council.
Internal documents obtained by The News show that in fiscal 2005, the North Brooklyn Community Council handed Council funds to other groups. At the time, Jose Luna, the brother of one of Dilan's then-Council staffers, Jannitza Luna, served on North Brooklyn's board of directors. In January 2005, Jannitza Luna became its executive director.
By 2006 Luna was given the power "to sign contracts and amendments to contracts and to review claims" for North Brooklyn. Last year, she married Dilan. Starting with the year Luna began running North Brooklyn, Dilan began sponsoring Council funds for the group. In the public record, he pumped $187,000 in member items into the group.
Secretly, he added an additional $134,000 through "program enhancements," records show. One $47,000 addendum was for "operating costs, travel, awards and trophies." The program enhancements don't show up in public budget documents.
All told, Dilan personally steered $320,000 in taxpayer dollars into his wife's group from 2005 through this spring.
In fiscal 2005, instructed by the Council, the city Department of Youth and Community Development moved $2,500 through North Brooklyn into something called Brooklyn Youth Choice Organization Corp. Brooklyn Youth Choice is not a registered charity with the state, and there's no record of it filing tax forms as a nonprofit.
A spokesman for the group said the Department of Youth and Community Development set up the fiscal conduit arrangement. A department spokesman declined to comment.
North Brooklyn is hardly the only fiscal conduit.
Eileen Reilly, director at Maspeth Town Hall, a community center that serves as fiscal conduit for organizations in Queens, said the pass-through groups are usually small and without status as tax-exempt nonprofits.
"Some of them don't have the people to do the work or to understand the program requirements," Reilly said. To justify payments, she said, the groups provide her with invoices. The city does not audit the groups' books.
This fiscal year, Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez (D-Brooklyn) used the United Senior Citizens Center of Sunset Park as a fiscal conduit, funneling $269,000 through it to other groups.
The center's director, Grisel Amador, said Gonzalez "provided a list of organizations in the community" that were to receive the funds. She refused to release the list, and Gonzalez refused to answer questions.
The Mayor's Pot (UPDATE)
September 24th, 2008 from The Wonkster of The Gotham Gazette
Since the Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office he has doled out approximately $19.7 million in discretionary funding, according to a memo released today by the administration.
In the memo, Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler details who received discretionary funding from the administration, including past and present council members. After the jump, there is a list of members and how much he or she received from the administration since fiscal year 2003.
This year, the mayor did not hand out any discretionary funding.
According to the memo, the administration is working with the Department of Investigation to ensure none of the funds were misappropriated.
So far, the memo says, about 1,600 groups have applied to qualify for discretionary funds for this year’s budget, which includes a more strenuous vetting process than pre-council slush fund scandal. Of those, 1,000 have completed the process to date.
Here is who got what of the mayor’s money:
Councilmember Simcha Felder: $5.7 million
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz: $2.6 million
Former Councilmember Madeline Provenzano: $2.17 million
Councilmember Domenic Recchia: $2.15 million
Former Councilmember Andrew Lanza: $1.68 milion
Councilmember Peter Vallone: $1.6 million
Councilmember Jimmy Oddo: $1.37 million
Former Councilmember Dennis Gallagher: $642,499
Councilmember Maria Baez: $410,000
Former Councilmember Yvette Clarke: $375,000
Councilmember Bill de Blasio: $351,000
Councilmember James Sanders: $318,000
Councilmember Helen Sears: $311,000
Councilmember Vincent Ignizio: $250,000
Former Councilmember Martin Golden: $205,000
Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan: $150,000
Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo: $117,500
Councilmember Leroy Comrie: $80,000
Councilmember Letitia James: $75,000
Councilmember Sara Gonzalez: $55,000
Councilmember Bill Perkins: $35,000
Councilmember Joe Addabbo: $20,000
Councilmember Kendall Stewart: $20,000
Councilmember Diana Reyna: $20,000
Councilmember Al Vann: $20,000
Councilmember Jimmy Vacca: $20,000
Councilmember Miguel Martinez: $15,000
Councilmember Annabel Palma: $6,500
Pork handouts offered to pressure council members to OK congestion plan
by Juan Gonzalez, Daily News, Wednesday, April 2nd 2008
No one could recall such a naked combination of arm-twisting and pork-barrel handouts to pressure City Council members to approve the huge tax increase known as congestion pricing.
"City Hall offered more in goodies this week to get this tax passed than the federal government is giving us to do it," said Brooklyn Councilman Lewis Fidler, a leading opponent of the plan that passed by a 30-to-20 vote.
Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens, for instance, got a last-minute promise from City Hall for major changes she'd been seeking to the huge 125th St. redevelopment plan.
Her colleague, Sara Gonzalez, got a promise of a new ferry line for her district in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Councilman Domenic Recchia of Gravesend was offered a new ferry line for his constituents from Coney Island to Manhattan.
Up in the Bronx, a major retail redevelopment project at the Kingsbridge Armory that had been stalled for a year suddenly moved forward in the past few weeks.
Joel Rivera, the Council majority leader from the Bronx, had opposed the mayor's plan until Monday. Rivera suddenly switched his position the day of the vote. He joined six other members of the Bronx delegation to deliver near-unanimous support for the mayor's $8-a-day tax on cars coming into the central business district on weekdays.
On Staten Island, Councilman Michael McMahon, who claimed he was leaning against congestion pricing, stunned most insiders by flipping at the last moment.
"You wouldn't believe the pressure," said one supporter of congestion pricing who asked not to be identified. "Some of my colleagues in Council suddenly got religion on Monday after opposing this thing for weeks."
Others talked of the mayor suggesting in private meetings that he might hold fund-raisers for certain term-limited Council members running for new posts next year.
Everyone, of course, denies any direct relation between their vote and the specific "enhancements" for their districts, or any offers of political support.
"The 125th St. negotiations with the local members of the Council are a normal part of the ULURP [uniform land use review process] process," Bloomberg spokesman John Gallagher said.
As for the new ferry routes, Gallagher said the mayor and Council Speaker Christine Quinn are "working with the Council on a five-borough ferry plan."
Throughout all of this frenzied lobbying the past few months for congestion pricing, Quinn has acted like a slavish deputy sheriff to the mayor.
In case you think this was all part of the give-and-take of the democratic process, consider the following: A few months ago, the mayor's plan was so unpopular it looked unlikely to even be voted out of committee.
Five of the seven committee members, including Rivera and McMahon, were poised to vote against it. So what did Quinn do? She slipped two supporters of congestion pricing onto the committee.
Now the fight moves to Albany, where the Senate and the new governor just rejected Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's commendable plan to tax millionaires.
Our billionaire mayor who keeps creating congestion with huge new skyscraper condos for the affluent will now demand that Albany force the middle class to pay the freight for reducing congestion.
City Council members get $277G for little extras, on top of $112G salary
BY BENJAMIN LESSER and KATHLEEN LUCADAMO
DAILY NEWS, Tuesday, May 27th 2008
City Council members are taking cabs, buying MetroCards, hiring photographers and paying pricey consultants on the taxpayers' dime, the Daily News has learned.
Lawmakers spent $7,364 on MetroCards last fiscal year, $11,234 on photographers, $254,480 on consultants and $17,502 on travel, which includes black cars, E-ZPasses and cabs, documents show.
The perks are allowed under funding each member receives for staffing and other office matters. They have wide latitude on how to spend the funds, and it's one of the few areas not being reduced in the upcoming year.
Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez (D-Brooklyn) topped the charts with $41,923 in consulting fees, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Law. Half went to her communications director, Michael Schweinsburg, and $11,000 went to Promotional Strategies, a Queens-based campaign consulting agency. Gonzalez defended her spending, noting, "I'm very careful."
Gonzalez was hardly alone in her consultant spending spree.
Councilman Alan Gerson (D-Manhattan) dished out $32,833 to consultants, including youth services director David Feiner.
Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Queens) gave $30,997 in consulting fees to civic leaders who serve as community liaisons. "We don't have staff to work day and night," she said.
Each Council member received $277,336 for staff and office expenses last year. Committee leaders got an additional $40,000. Each earns a base of $112,500.
Councilman Larry Seabrook (D-Bronx) shelled out $1,140 on MetroCards. Councilwoman Helen Foster (D-Bronx) followed with a $1,100 tab.
Sears, however, spent the most on local travel - $4,208 - and was trailed by Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Queens), who logged $3,414 in cab fares. Councilman James Gennaro (D-Queens) dished out $1,319 to Masada II Car Limo Service for travel.
Sears defended her spending, saying the cabs are used to get to meetings throughout the day.
Few rules govern where the cash goes and how much is spent.
Councilwoman Letitia James (WFP-Brooklyn) spent $9,300 on maids and exterminators while at least three members spent nothing. Her two-level office with three bathrooms in a Brooklyn brownstone is "a lot to clean," she said.
More startling were the differences in rental payments.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose district includes trendy Chelsea, spent $52,167 for the year, while Gerson, of lower Manhattan, spent nothing. He uses free government offices, his spokesman said.
Councilwoman Jessica Lappin (D-Manhattan) paid about $30,000 for her upper East Side offices, the same as Councilman James Oddo (R-S.I.) paid for his New Dorp digs. "It's a challenge," Lappin said.
The war chest for individual office spending has increased 15% in the past five years.
The revelations come as the Council is under fire for relying on phantom organizations to siphon money to pet projects in various districts.
"Because of the recent Council scandals, they have to make sure all money is being spent appropriately," said Elizabeth Lynam, research director at the Citizens Budget Commission.
"As we've seen, there are practices that have been historic that may not be appropriate."
STORE WON'T FURNISH NUMBER OF RED HOOK STAFFERS
By RICH CALDER, The New York Post, June 23, 2008
Wanna know how many Red Hook residents work at the neighborhood's new IKEA? Fuhgeddabout!
IKEA's biggest selling point four years ago when it convinced officials to approve the controversial superstore was filling most of the 560 new jobs with Red Hook residents.
But even now that the Swedish home-furnishing giant's long-anticipated Brooklyn outlet has opened in a gala attended by CEO Anders Dahlvig, IKEA officials still refuse to divulge how many posts belong to residents from the 'hood.
Even local politicians instrumental in bringing IKEA to Red Hook - including Borough President Marty Markowitz and Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez - say they're being shut out of the data, as is the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
"You'd think Sweden's national security hinges around the dissemination of this information," said Gonzalez spokesman Mike Schweinsburg.
Red Hook Civic Association co-chair John McGettrick ripped IKEA for not revealing the numbers.
Despite the missing data, both Gonzalez and Markowitz say they're satisfied the job pledge is being met, particularly for residents of the neighborhood's housing projects, where the unemployment rate is about 20 percent.
Ray Hall, whose community group, Red Hook Rise, was involved in recruiting workers for the store, estimated that at least 300 of the 560 jobs were filled locally.
Schweinsburg said his office, too, believes that more than half the workers live in the neighborhood.
The Post randomly polled 75 employees on the store's opening day last week, and 21 - or 28 percent - said they lived in Red Hook.
Joseph Roth, an IKEA spokesman, said the company has a policy of not revealing demographic data on employees. He said Red Hook residents had a three-week head start in the job-application process, adding that the firm invested $500,000 in a local job-training program.
Brooklyn Councilwoman Gets COIB Warning (Updated)
by Elizabeth Benjamin, The Daily News, October 6, 2008
While the Council is deliberating on the question of extending its own terms, the Conflicts of Interest Board has issued a public warning to Brooklyn Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez for using her official stationery to seek a reconsideration of an Environmental Control Board violation issued at her home.
The letter reminds Gonzalez that the City Charter forbids public servants from engaging in any business transaction, whether public or private, that is in conflict with the "proper discharge of his or her official duties," which includes using any Council equipment or supplies for a non-city purpose.
"Here, you utilized city letterhead for the non-city purpose of handling a purely personal complaint in violation of Chapter 68," the letter continues.
"Moreover, by implicitly invoking your City Council position through your use of the letterhead, you also violated City Charter 2604(b)(3), which states that 'No public servant shall use or attempt to use his or her position as a public servant to obtain any financial gain, contract, license or privilege or any other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect , or the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant.'"
No enforcement action is being taken. The letter is supposed to serve as a "reminder" for Gonzalez and any other public servant who might be inclined to act in a similar fashion.
No further details about the incident were provided. I left a message at Gonzalez' office, but am not holding out great hope.
UPDATE: I stand corrected. Lois Marbach, a Gonzalez consultant, called to say the whole incident, in which the councilwoman was cited for a garbage can that was overturned by "some kids," was a "big mistake."
According to Marbach, Gonzalez wrote the letter on personal letterhead that was then "inadvertantly" printed on Council stationery.
"She didn't mention her role or her job," Marbach said, adding that the councilwoman was writing - from her house, not her office - to say she found her citation excessive and believes there are bigger issues in the district that the Sanitation Department should be addressing.
BRING THESE JOBS BACK DOWNTOWN
Daily News Editorial, Sunday, February 12th 2006
From 1789, when the U.S. Customs Service was established, until 2001 - Sept. 11, 2001, to be specific - downtown Manhattan was home to the New York Customs House, where importers could get their voluminous paperwork processed expeditiously. On 9/11, the Customs House, 6 World Trade Center, was destroyed. The 750 federal employees who worked there did, thankfully, survive. But they have been lost to downtown anyway.
While the city was freshly bleeding, cowardly Customs, led by then-Commissioner Robert Bonner, fled to Newark - history, tradition and concern for a battered Manhattan be damned. Downtown still desperately needs reinvestment - including those 750 jobs and the economic boon they represent. It now has the chance to regain them.
Bonner resigned (good riddance) in November. Last month, President Bush nominated Secret Service Director Ralph Basham to succeed him. This page has been steadfastly arguing for return of the Customs House since it was wrenched from the city in 2001, so we took the opportunity to contact the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, who also had waged a fruitless battle with Bonner on the question.
We reminded Schumer's aides that Basham requires Senate confirmation, which requires that he testify before the Senate Finance Committee, of which Schumer is a member. Such a proceeding seemed the perfect opportunity for Schumer to wrest a commitment from Basham to return the New York Customs House to where it belongs, downtown Manhattan.
Soon enough, the good senator fired off a strong letter to Basham, introducing him to the issue as well as to Schumer's committee membership. No undue pressure there, sir. Just a reminder of how important this issue is to New York City.
It's not just about a continuity of tradition dating to the fledgling years of the Republic, nor is it just about the symbolism of refusing to be driven out by terrorism. It's a very real, very practical matter. Bringing the Customs House, those 750 jobs and the attendant economic activity back to lower Manhattan is critical. All those workers would make very fine tenants for one of the new buildings planned for Ground Zero. (Are you paying attention, Gov. Pataki?)
In a 2002 editorial, we quoted one Marilyn Cohen, a customs broker downtown. Her words are worth repeating. "President Bush stood on the rubble with a fireman and promised to rebuild," she said. "Yet the first thing the federal government does is pull its agency out from downtown. How can the center of commerce for the whole world not have a Customs House?"
Seddio's money trail
The evidence mounts that former Assemblyman Frank Seddio committed wholesale violations of judicial ethics rules when he began throwing money around as the Brooklyn Democratic Party was deciding whether to tap him for a surrogate's judgeship.
Campaign filings indicate he doled out far more money to the machine in his quest for elevation to the bench than previously reported.
The party bosses shoehorned Seddio into a judgeship created in a back-room deal in June by the Legislature and Gov. Pataki. According to judicial ethics rules, Seddio was barred from political activity, including campaign donations, once he was a candidate for the bench. Exactly when that happened is unclear, but on Aug. 10 Crain's New York Business magazine reported "word is spreading" that Seddio "would happily become the nominee." Shortly thereafter, he was generously using his money to win the support of fellow Dems.
Records show Seddio gave $250 to Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez on Aug. 17; $250 to Councilman James Gennaro on Aug. 19; $5,000 and $7,500 to the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club on Aug. 22 and Sept. 1; $5,000 to the judicial campaign of Larry Knipel on Sept. 1; $2,000 to the judicial campaign of Richard Velasquez on Sept. 2 and $2,000 to Councilman Lew Fidler, also a district leader, on Sept. 6.
Fidler and the other district leaders designated Seddio the party's candidate on Sept. 15. Thereafter, as disclosed here last week, Seddio gave a total of $10,000 more to the Jefferson Club, the Assembly campaign of longtime aide Alan Maisel and state Sen. Carl Kruger.
All told, from what's been discoverable, Seddio doled out $32,000 in well-placed donations, not that far off from the perhaps mythical $50,000 that judgeships are commonly believed to cost in Brooklyn. More than ever, this is a case for District Attorney Charles Hynes and the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Don't Believe the Hypa
From Brooklyn Politics by Erik Engquist, May 30, 2005, printed in the Courier-Life newspapers
DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPA: On October 14,2004, at a Borough Hall ceremony marking Hispanic Heritage Month, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitzand Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez honored the Hispanic Young People’s Alternative (HYPA), a Sunset Park non-profit of which Gonzalez was executive director immediately prior to joining the City Council.
It made for a nice show, but in reality HYPA was in disarray, a shell of its former self. Its roster of programs and funding sources had withered to just one—an after-school “beacon” program—and only a few dozen kids were showing up for that each day. The city Department of Youth and Community Development, which wanted it to serve at least 100 kids daily, gave the flagging program a “needs improvement” rating.
We’re told the agency also investigated HYPA board members for their ties to Gonzalez, who allocated public funding to the organization. DYCD contended the board members had a conflict of interest that they needed to resolve.
Well, they resolved it—by abandoning the two-decade-old organization and leaving it to die.
And die it will: DYCD declined to renew HYPA’s contract to run the beacon program, which expires June 30. Since that’s HYPA’s only remaining cash source, as of July 1 the organization will cease to exist. Another non-profit, the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, sponsored by St. Christopher-Ottile Children’s Services, will take over thebeacon program and try to revive it.
When we asked Gonzalez if she accepts any responsibility for HYPA’s demise, she replied emphatically, “Absolutely not”—despite her close ties to the organization and its boardmembers. We’re told no HYPA executive director got hired without the councilwoman’s say-so, which she denies.
Whatever the case, HYPA’s boardmembers couldn’t find or keep a competent person in charge. After Gonzalez left,a close acquaintance of hers got the job, but he quit two summers ago. A woman was hired to replace him, but the board was unsatisfied with her performance and pushed her out in May 2004. A third executive director was hired in September but he quit in December when the board wouldn’t let him fire an employee.
The board had a grant writer who didn’t write any grant applications, sources said. The board also failed to do any fundraising, leaving HYPA totally dependent on the government.
Yet Gonzalez told us, “I know the board did the best it could.”
But the only board member who’s done anything in recent months is Osman David, who spends lonely hours in HYPA’s office (an apartment it rents at 48th Street and 4th Avenue) trying to make sure HYPA’s debts are retired and its 15 or so employees get paid through June.
David told us HYPA used to get funding from the United Way and other sources, but “within a span of about five years, it was all lost and there was no real effort to look for other funding. For the last three years HYPA has been dependent on the beacon program and funding from the councilwoman’s office. You can’t run an organization like that.”
COUNCIL RACE IN HOME STRETCH
by Erik Enquist, as printed in the Courier Life Newspapers, October 28, 2002
It was no surprise that City Council candidate Sara Gonzalez bolted the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats endorsement meeting after her presentation, rather than waiting with competitors Eddie Rodriguez and George Martinez for the result. The real puzzler is why she showed up at all.
Gonzalez, the chairwoman of Community Board 7 in Sunset Park, had no chance to win CBID's endorsement, which went to Rodriguez, as expected. (Rodriguez got 26 votes, Martinez 10, and Gonzalez one.) Gonzalez's earlier appearance at the Independent Neighborhood Democrats endorsement meeting only hurt her, as former CB 7 district manager Gene Moore showed up and revealed that disgraced ex-councilman Angel Rodriguez and Gonzalez colluded to get rid of him. Perhaps she hoped to undo the damage at CBID, where she passed out copies of Moore's letter of resignation, which said he was leaving on his own accord.
But CBID members are far too sophisticated to believe a letter of resignation. No doubt Moore had to write it to get his severance pay. The fact is Councilman Rodriguez, who appointed many CB 7 members and had them install Gonzalez as chairwoman, was preparing to have them vote against renewing Moore's contract. Moore saw the writing on the wall, and quit. Gonzalez's question-and-answer session at CBID was rocky. She said she was pro-choice but opposed Medicaid funding of abortions, which she said "goes a step further." Club members grumbled.
She was asked if she had endorsed a candidate in last year's 39th Council District race. She didn't know which district that was, even though it borders the 38th District in which she's running. Answering a third question, Gonzalez hedged before acknowledging that Assemblyman Vito Lopez-not a favorite of the reform club-was supporting her candidacy. During the club's discussion of whom to endorse, one member commented, "She had no connection to any issue." It was Gonzalez, by the way, whose challenge of former Assemblyman Javier Nieves's petitions led to his removal from the November 5 ballot.
Eddie Rodriguez had a much smoother evening at CBID, making a fairly solid presentation and receiving warm praise from club members, including Assemblyman Jim Brennan and Councilman David Yassky. But there was one bump, so of course we'll focus on that. He was immediately asked about former School District 15 Superintendent Frank DeStefano, who was supported by Rodriguez and other school board members even after the New York Post revealed he'd used district money for lavish lunches, retreats at expensive resorts, and car service to take him to and from work. "This was a man who used school funds as his own cookie jar," a club member told Rodriguez. "We looked into the issue very strenuously," Rodriguez replied. "I'm not happy those things happened…But frankly, we found no wrongdoing."
Because "instructionally, Frank DeStefano did some good work" and principals supported him, Rodriguez felt he should stay. What Rodriguez failed to realize was that a man who so carelessly wasted school money and used it for personal expenses was not morally fit to lead the district. A dark cloud hung over District 15 for a year before Rodriguez and other board members realized DeStefano had to go.
Rodriguez's residency-he recently moved to Sunset Park from his home in Park Slope, which was half a block outside of the council district-did not come up at CBID, though his opponents labeled him a carpetbagger during a televised debate. Rodriguez was instead asked about his acknowledgement in The New York Times that he'd spent an afternoon collecting signatures for Angel Rodriguez (no relation) last year, but he downplayed the matter and the club didn't seem to care. Martinez, though, seemed to think it big news. "That was a new revelation in The New York Times," he declared giddily. "I didn't know that."
But the Times also revealed that Martinez has a new explanation for his decision not to participate in the Campaign Finance Program, which has already given Gonzalez's campaign $35,914 in public funds. Martinez told the newspaper it would be wrong for his campaign to take public money during such a budget crunch. He repeated that to CBID, only to be reminded of his previous explanation-that his lawyer promised him a five-figure legal bill to comply with the program's paperwork. CBID President Susan Loeb, who ran for the same council seat in 1997, told Martinez, "I didn't pay a dime to comply. It's really easy." Martinez said joining the program shouldn't be a litmus test, given that Angel Rodriguez participated and turned out to be a criminal.
A club member later suggested-without any evidence-that Martinez ducked the program to help hide controversial Red Hook developer Greg O'Connell's financial support of Martinez's campaign. Apparently not everyone believed Martinez's assertion that he'd raised $20,000 without a single $1,000 donation. But on the whole, Martinez's youthful enthusiasm and eloquence was positively received, portending future political success for Sunset Park's new Democratic district leader. Whether that success comes as soon as November 5 remains to be seen.
First-Term Members Uneasy About Term-Limits Extension
by Sal Gentile for City HallNo decisions reached at rare freshman caucus; deal said to be in the works
Sal Gentile Two years ago, Sara Gonzalez, a City Council Member from Brooklyn with a relatively low profile, walked into the Council speaker’s office and made a pronouncement.
“I want you all to understand,” she told the staff, “in 2010, I am going to be a senior member of the Council.”
The statement was tongue-in-cheek, but to those in the room, the subtext was clear: Gonzalez, who won a special election in 2002, was waiting for the day her more senior colleagues would be term-limited out of office, so that she would finally gain the clout she had lacked for so long.
But if Mayor Michael Bloomberg is successful in his attempt to revise the city’s term limits law, that day may never come.
In order to gain support for his proposal, the mayor has promised billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder a seat on a Charter Revision Commission in 2010, which Lauder has said he would use to reverse any legislative change in term limits.
That agreement has first-term members like Gonzalez anxious about their political plans, since it would mean that nearly every council member would be out of office in 2014, and first termers would have spent their entire council careers without seniority.
In an attempt to resolve those concerns, Bloomberg has promised first-term members a built-in provision that would grandfather them into any legislative extension of term limits, allowing them to serve three terms even if the law is changed back to two in 2010.
The proviso was crafted after deliberations between the Council and the mayor began to reveal a rift between second-term members and their freshman colleagues, who felt the truce brokered between Lauder and the mayor would undercut the legislation and be inherently unfair to them.
Those members aired their concerns today at a closed-door forum billed as a “freshman caucus” at City Hall, where they debated the legislative and political implications of the bill and asked questions of Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s staff. Eleven of the 17 freshman Council members were present for the discussion.
The members emerged without a consensus on how to move forward, according to those who were there, and none of the undecided freshmen were swayed one way or the other.
The freshmen are important for the political cover they could provide their second-term colleagues. If the bill were to pass entirely on the votes of council members who would otherwise be term-limited out of office, some fear the deal could be seen as self-serving.
Council Member Bill de Blasio, a vocal opponent of the mayor’s proposal, has said he would be “very interested” in what the freshman decide. Other outspoken critics of the bill, such as Council Members Vincent Gentile and Letitia James, also in their first term, believe it lacks protections for council freshman and hope the caucus will consolidate against it.
One of those first-term members, Darlene Mealy, is the latest to stake out a public position on the proposal, which she has said she will vote against.
Mealy said that several first-term members remained uneasy about taking a position after today’s caucus, and were waiting for either side to appeal to them more directly.
“We got no real concrete information, only that the wording will change,” she said of the grandfather provision offered by the mayor and speaker. “There’s just a few that still are undecided. And, we’re talking about deals—the mayor, Lauder, they made deals—and other people, some are waiting for deals.”
The fact that the speaker’s aides are actively working with the mayor, and working to resolve the unease of first-term members, has stirred speculation that Quinn privately supports the bill. The speaker has not publicly taken a position.
“Conversations about this legislation are ongoing,” said Maria Alverado, a spokeswoman for Quinn. “How those concerns are dealt with will be a part of ongoing conversations.”
James, who is skeptical of the mayor’s proposed grandfather provision, said Quinn’s position on the bill was clear.
“The speaker has been silent, but her actions speak otherwise,” James said. “The fact that this bill is being fast-tracked speaks volumes.”
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Brooklyn Councilmembers 9-7 Against Congestion Pricing
Thanks Brownstoner for the Brooklyn breakdown of who did and who didn't vote for congestion pricing in Brooklyn:
For Congestion Pricing:
Simcha Felder, Sara M. Gonzalez, Letitia James, Domenic M. Recchia, Kendall Stewart, Albert Vann, and David Yassky—voted for the plan.
Against Congestion Pricing:
Diana Reyna, Charles Barron, Bill de Blasio, Erik Martin Dilan, Mathieu Eugene, Lewis A. Fidler, Vincent J. Gentile, Darlene Mealy, and Michael C. Nelson
Ikea wrecking ball smashes historic Beard St. buildings
By Jess Wisloski for The Brooklyn Paper, January 8, 2005
Building on Beard Street between Otsego and Dwight streets shown mid-demolition Tuesday. It will make way for an Ikea parking lot.
Red Hook preservationists were shocked this week when cranes on the site of a soon-to-be Ikea furniture store gouged into a complex of Civil War-era buildings on Beard Street, despite ongoing state and federal review of its historic significance.
Holding an impromptu press conference on Dec. 30 to address the demolition, officials with the Municipal Art Society along with area residents were joined by similarly upset representatives from the office of Rep. Nydia Velazquez in front of the five buildings between Dwight and Otsego streets. They blamed Swedish home-furnishings giant Ikea for the ruination.
The demolition equipment, which was poised mid crunch before news crews showed up, rolled away as a crowd gathered, but were back again on Tuesday to complete what had begun.
Meanwhile, the Municipal Art Society, a non-profit organization aimed at preserving cultural and neighborhood character, is speedily gathering their resources trying to figure out how to save what is left of the structures.
“Any federal agency that is going to do work has to engage in a well-defined procedure in determining whether historical buildings will be affected,” said Brian Connelly, who has taken charge of resisting the demolition at the Erie Basin site. He referred to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
“This is not some arcane piece of legislation,” Connelly said. “We’re very disappointed that Ikea has tried to evade this process.”
The preservation group is considering legal action against Ikea.
Ikea spokesmen said the property did not yet belong to the company, which gained city approval last year to build a $70 million, 346,000-square-foot store on the 22-acre former New York Shipyard, between Dwight and Columbia streets along the Erie Basin. The company would also build 1,400 parking spaces, a public esplanade and additional retail space.
Ikea plans to open in 2007.
Hearing Ikea’s claim of not technically owning the property yet, Kent Barwicke, director of the Municipal Art Society, was quick to point out, “You can’t pretend on one hand to be the owner for environmental review, and for federal applications, and not, on the other hand, for demolition.”
The current owners, U.S. Dredging Corporation, which is in contract to sell the property to Ikea, applied for the demolition permits in early December.
Asked to comment on the demolition of the potentially historic buildings, U.S. Dredging executive Michael Gallagher said, “I have nothing to say.”
According to the city departments of Buildings and City Planning, neither agency has jurisdiction in preventing the demolition.
“There is nothing the Department of Buildings can do,” said Kenneth Lazar, a Brooklyn liaison for the Buildings Department. He said the agency “had no reason to reject the [demolition] permit,” which was issued Dec. 7.
Ilyse Fink, a Buildings Department spokeswoman, added, “State and national review is not meaningful,” and explained that for the city to take action the property has to be a city landmark or under consideration by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“Even a [state or federal] landmark can be demolished,” said Fink, adding that it happens quite often.
The Department of City Planning, which signed on as lead governmental agency on Ikea’s city land use application, said through a spokeswoman that although a draft Memorandum of Agreement between the state’s Historic Preservation Officer and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which oversees all port development and waterway activity and must issue permits for Ikea to build on the site — was in the works, it had not yet been finalized.
“Structures were determined in our environmental review to be eligible for the National Historical Registry, and the state’s,” said City Planning spokeswoman Jen Parsons. She said it was her agency’s understanding that historic mitigation was being looked into.
That mitigation, said Cathy Jimenez, a spokeswoman for the state Historic Preservation Officer, never materialized.
“It was determined that, yes, the property was historically significant. We’ve been working with Ikea over the past two or three years to basically preserve the historical characteristics of the buildings,” Jimenez said.
Her department signed on to a Memorandum of Understanding, which then went to the Army Corps of Engineers, but, she added, “it’s up to [the Army Corps] to authorize the permit.”
But Richard Tomer, chief of the Regulatory Branch of the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers, told The Brooklyn Papers that Ikea never received permission to start work.
“Their application is incomplete, meaning they did not get a ‘go ahead’ to work on the project,” Tomer said. He said he was concerned that if the buildings were demolished, “we wouldn’t be able to complete the process.”
Ikea told the Army Corps that the Beard Street building was “an immediate hazard,” said Army Corps spokesman Peter Shugert. In response, the Army Corps requested, in a letter both faxed and sent to Ikea, a cease of work until they could determine whose jurisdiction the issue fell under, as well as evidence of what made the building hazardous.
Shugert added, “It’s about due process; they need to follow due process, and that’s what we’re trying to protect here.”
“That letter [from the Corps] was a product of our efforts to basically enforce Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act,” said Dan Wiley, a spokesman for Congresswoman Velazquez.
“Now the question is enforcement,” he said. “The [Buildings Department] gave the owners the permit, but the permit is for alterations, not an emergency demolition.”
Asked about forging ahead despite the historic concerns, Ikea officials repeated their claim that the building was hazardous, and provided to The Papers a copy of an engineer’s statement, dated Dec. 15, 2004, by a structural engineer named Victor A. Gordon. Though the letter bore a State of New York stamp proving his license, and was typed on letterhead, the phone number for Gordon was disconnected, and a fax number went to a private answering machine. A message left on the answering machine seeking comment was not returned.
Ikea spokesman Jamie Van Bramer told The Papers the engineer conducted the review for Ikea, as an evaluation. He would not respond to charges that Ikea was evading the state and national historical review processes.
Connelly pointed out that the Municipal Art Society had no strong feelings about Ikea itself.
“We are not dogmatically opposed to the Ikea project; the two can coexist,” he said.
But Red Hookers who have opposed Ikea from the get-go used this week’s demolition as an opportunity to reiterate their position.
“An awful lot of people in Red Hook have been deceived by this project,” said John McGettrick, president of the Red Hook Civic Association. “This basically constitutes an end-run around the regulatory process. An illegal end-run.”
Red Hook Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez, on the other hand, who championed the Ikea project, appears to support the demolition.
“She is not going to renege on a commitment she made to the whole of a community,” said her spokesman, Felix Palacios.
“She’s completely convinced that what she did, that whatever needs to be done to bring about this project, needs to be done,” he added. “She’s in complete agreement with bringing Ikea to Brooklyn.”
That did not sit well with McGettrick.
“I am hoping, as more information becomes available, that [Gonzalez] will reconsider,” he said.
Sunset Park Snapshot, New Condo Edition
From The Brownstoner, October 10, 2007
On a stroll down 7th Avenue recently we counted three new, medium-sized condos between 50th and 58th streets that appear to be nearing the home stretch. Banners on each indicate they're being marketed to Chinese buyers, but attempts to dig up more info have been pretty fruitless. We got in touch with the agent at Courtesy Realty who's handling sales for 5008 7th Avenue, the 28-unit development on 58th Street, and he told us the building's about one-third sold out, and the remaining one- and two-bedrooms are starting at $430,000. (A language barrier prevented us from sussing out how big those units are.) Similarly, we weren't able to unearth prices for the 10-unit 5423 7th Avenue, at 55th Street, or the 36-unit 5008 7th Avenue, at 50th Street. Anyone looked into buying at one of these buildings or have more concrete pricing info?
New Development: 5423 Seventh Avenue [Brownstoner]
5805 7th Avenue/58th St. GMAP P*Shark DOB
5423 7th Avenue/55th St. GMAP P*Shark DOB
5008 7th Avenue/50th St. GMAP P*Shark DOB
Surprised there are not more sales at the pre-finish state considering the high demand for housing in that area of Sunset Park. I would find it hard to believe they won't sell out all 3, even in the currently evolving marketplace.
This may be a clue to higher density projects (like these and larger) that may come with the edicts from City Planning during the rezoning plan review stages.
Posted by: Action Jackson at October 10, 2007 6:12 PM
I wish I wasn't such a fiscal conservative...but i've done the math several times over and it seems that the developers of these projects must get their asking prices or they will default on their mortgages/loans. It would only take one or two "buildings" defaulting on loans to undo the entire market. It isn't just a couple of developers taking a bath, it is "in progress" developers walking away mid-project and skipping out on bills to a variety of suppliers and sub-contractors to send more than a trickle through the market - it will be a wave (I would say tsunami, but I can't spell that).
The Asians that are in need of housing cannot support big loans. The previous generation of Asian home buyers did so through extended families - several family households all under one roof sharing the costs. The present generation consists largely of couples emancipated from their families with their own child or two (both infants). Even with both parents working, they will have child care expenses (not just daycare - child rearing costs).
Unless we see a "new" family cooperative movement where non-related families buy a coop/condo together, i think the near future is bleak in sunset park.
Posted by: guest at October 10, 2007 9:19 PM
$430k for a one bedroom in this area?
Posted by: guest at October 11, 2007 9:31 AM
$430,000. That does seem to be the going rate for these kinds of apartments. Other than the too-high price, problem is I don't think they're actually "going." There's a smaller building on 8th between 40th and 41st with sold signs in many windows but the signs have been there for a few months now. Is anyone really buying these? I thinkst not. Moreover, with a one-bedroom Finnish coop (disclosure: I live in one) apartment in good shape going for $200K (cash) or $275K or so (mortgage) I don't get these prices. Even Corcoran for god's sake has the sense to offer renovated 1 bedrooms at a more realistic $350K.
Posted by: guest at October 11, 2007 10:38 AM
That horrific building on 50th Street is literally right around the corner from the residence of local Council Member Sara Gonzalez. If they can do it on her own block without so much as a sigh from her, can we really expect her to do anything to protect the neighborhood from further attack by these developers? God only knows how much money she's received from builders and developers?
Posted by: guest at October 11, 2007 12:08 PM
Sunset Park is getting plagued by horrible chinese construction. What a shame. Plus the R6 zoning is allowing huge buildings where they don't belong. Is there anyway I could get higher resolution photos?
Posted by: guest at October 11, 2007 2:16 PM
These are some real dogs. I'm going to start calling those side-by-side center mullion windows "cheap NYC condo windows" because they seem to have become ubiquitous with crappy condo developments. Something so simple as choosing a better looking window would help these developments immensely.
Posted by: guest at October 11, 2007 11:16 PM
Two things: If the Chinese developers are only selling to Chinese isn't that a human rights violation...what is know as redlining?I think our elected officials need to be aware that there may be a bad situation growing.
Second, it was Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez who got the rezoning study fast tracked by City Planning and has hired the Pratt Institute to educate and inform the community about the rezoning. In addition Ms. Gonzalez got the developer on 42nd street to downsize the building from 10 storeys to 51/2 storeys The comment re: moneys she may have gotten from developers and builders is disgraceful!
Posted by: guest at October 17, 2007 2:11 PM
WHAT IS SARA GONZALEZ HIDING?
New York Real Estate Lawyers' Blog, posted by El Grito, 05/08/2008
A reader sent us a link to a published attack on City Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez -- who is allegedly one of a number of local politicians embroiled in that whole City Council scandal involving millions of dollars in "misdirected" funds.
For some reason, Councilwoman Gonzalez is refusing to account for some $269,000 that were allocated to one of her local "nonprofit" groups.
Calls to the City Council (requesting the information) have been rebuffed.
So much for transparency and good government!
Of course, if the allegations prove true, Councilwoman Gonzalez is in deep sh*t.
Earlier this week, while Council Member Sara Gonzalez was out on a Sunset Park pier with Council Speaker Christine “Oink, Oink” Quinn announcing new ferry service that most Sunset Park residents will never use, (Sara’s gift for voting in favor of congestion pricing) the Daily News was reporting about her refusal to name the recipients of some $269,000 of our hard earned tax dollars that she’s funneled through a local nonprofit.
If she can’t name these groups and offer why they received this money, she should resign immediately.
These last few weeks, Gonzalez, Speaker Quinn and many of their colleagues in the pig pen that is the New York City Council, have fully demonstrated their contempt for their constituents by stashing precious funds with phantom groups and then using these funds to reward friends and cronies who do their bidding.
At a time when there are so many good, legitimate, effective and innovative groups, schools and programs in our neighborhoods that could really put this money to good use, Gonzalez and many of her colleagues are doling this money out as if it were coming out of their own purses or wallets.
It’s shameful, outrageous and despicable. I applaud Civil Rights lawyer, and hopefully our next Public Advocate, Norman Siegel for filing a lawsuit against the New York City Council on behalf of the residents of this city who are outraged by this scandal.
If Sara Gonzalez won’t show us the list (the same way she’s refused to answer a recent Freedom of Information Act request), she needs to leave office now!
More on Sara
"This fiscal year, Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez (D-Brooklyn) used the United Senior Citizens Center of Sunset Park as a fiscal conduit, funneling $269,000 through it to other groups.
The center's director, Grisel Amador, said Gonzalez "provided a list of organizations in the community" that were to receive the funds. She refused to release the list, and Gonzalez refused to answer questions." Daily News, 5/5/08