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A Bushwick nonprofit that gets $1 million in taxpayer dollars to provide services for seniors is instead renting out its first floor to Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s political clubhouse — and giving back some of that money in “consulting fees” to the embattled lawmaker.
Brooklyn Queens Family Respite — a subsidiary of the Lopez-affiliated Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, itself the subject of three city and federal investigations — has managed a respite center for disabled seniors on Decatur Street in Queens for 13 years while also owning and collecting rent from two other buildings on Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick.
The subsidiary’s mission is to provide support to the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council for the “promotion of respite services” and to “own and operate buildings used to provide these services.”
But one of those buildings has served primarily as the headquarters for Lopez’s political activities since the nonprofit purchased it in 1997.
Lopez’s Bushwick United Democratic Club rents the windowless first floor from the nonprofit, which plasters the Wyckoff Avenue windows with posters of its favored candidates — Lopez and unsuccessful Attorney General wannabe Kathleen Rice were this year’s hyped candidates.
The club has paid $23,805 for rent over the last 10 years — paying an estimated $200 a month for the Wyckoff Avenue space — but it has not registered with state or city agencies as a political action committee. As such, its financial documents are not public.
Political reformers such as New Kings Democrats founder Matt Cowherd think that’s a problem.
“It’s no surprise that Vito runs his political club the same way he runs the Brooklyn Democratic Party: with zero transparency,” said Cowherd.
In 1998, Lopez collected $57,600 in consulting fees from a Ridgewood Bushwick subsidiary called Community Property Management, the managing agent of several of the nonprofit’s buildings including the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen Housing on Himrod Street, an assisted living center for senior citizens. It is unclear what the money was for.
Tax attorney Tracy Bolotnik of Hurwitz Associates called the relationship between Lopez and the senior services nonprofit “problematic.”
“If there is this person calling the shots for the nonprofit or used his influence to ensure he would have nice real estate for his political work, that becomes problematic,” said Bolotnik.
Such criticism of Lopez and the nonprofit arms of his political empire are certainly not new. In the last month, the Bushwick lawmaker has made headlines for his involvement with the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, which is the subject of three investigations.
The nonprofit has had its funding frozen pending the outcome of a state investigation into alleged fraud — but the city and state recently released $135 million in funding in new home care contracts for Medicaid recipients by Ridgewood Bushwick.
The Department of Investigation has already found evidence that Ridgewood Bushwick did not provide some services for which it was paid.
The connections between the Family Respite subsidiary and Lopez are deeper than a landlord-tenant relationship.
The Brooklyn Queens Family Respite’s board consists of two high-ranking and high paid Ridgewood Bushwick executives — Christiana Fisher and Marie Elena Zullo — and the nonprofit shares its chief financial officer with Ridgewood Bushwick.
Zullo wears two hats: She’s not only the president of Family Respite, but also the assistant executive director at Ridgewood Bushwick, where she earned $219,258 in 2009.
Fisher, who is also Lopez’s campaign treasurer, earned $685,975 in 2009 as Ridgewood Bushwick’s executive director. She’s Family Respite’s only other board member.
This year, Brooklyn Queens Family Respite received $1 million in government grants, plus reported $94,800 in rental payments from its buildings. But payments from Lopez’s political club are not accounted for in the group’s tax filings.
Calls made to the nonprofit’s tax preparers, Koch Associates, were not returned for comment.
©2010 Community Newspaper Group
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