Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the most powerful politician in Brooklyn, has had his share of battles with political opponents throughout his career, but he is facing an even more formidable foe — cancer.
A source confirmed that Lopez has been telling political allies this week that he believes his esophagal cancer has returned after being in remission for several years.
Over the weekend, Lopez met with several South Brooklyn state committee members for breakfast in Bay Ridge urging them to support him for another term as the county’s Democratic Party leader, despite his health concerns and a widening city investigation into the nonprofit he founded.
“His cancer is back terribly,” said Delia Schack, a district leader in south Brooklyn. “I understand he was in the hospital recently.”
Lopez has fought with cancer before — and won.
He was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1993, ridding himself of the disease three years later after doctors from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan saved his life.
His cancer began reappeared in 1997, and he has been receiving periodic testing and treatments ever since — publicly urging his constituents to get tested themselves.
Speculation regarding Lopez’s health surfaced several weeks ago, when he appeared at his annual senior picnic in Long Island on Aug. 19, and at the funeral of a longtime political ally on Aug. 22 wearing a gauze bandage below his collar and looking exhausted.
But Lopez still made public appearances leading up to the primary, visiting seniors in nearly every senior center run by the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, the nonprofit that he founded 30 years ago.
The news about Lopez’s health has startled even his political opponents, including Marty Needelman, an attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services and a one-time friend.
“I visited him at Sloan Kettering with him a long time ago, it must have been early 2000,” said Needelman. “He had a rare form of leukemia. If it’s come back, that’s horrible.”
Lopez, the county’s party chairman for the past six years, defeated Esteban Duran in his state committee race last Tuesday by a 70 to 29 percent margin, but he has become embroiled in a widening fraud investigation that has ensnarled the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and its top executives.
A Department of Investigation report, which became public two days after the election, found that Ridgewood Bushwick employees allegedly defrauded the city out of almost $340,000 through falsifying attendance sheets and attempting to bill the city for programs that it did not provide to Bushwick residents, without the knowledge of its clueless executives and its placid board members.
Earlier this week, several newspapers reported the nonprofit’s top executives, Christiana Fisher and Angela Battaglia, Lopez’s campaign treasurer and longtime girlfriend, received exorbitant salary increases of 182 percent and 73 percent, respectively.
On Friday, Ridgewood Bushwick agreed to follow the city’s recommendations to bring in an independent auditor and add new board members after the investigation found the nonprofit did not keep proper records and its board members did not demonstrate even basic working knowledge of Ridgewood Bushwick’s operations.
Lopez was not the subject of the city’s investigation but remains its most public figure as its founder and chief advocate.
So far, Lopez has not publicly responded to questions surrounding the investigation but in a New York Post article, he justified the inflated salaries of its executives as well deserved.
A state assembly source stated that the salaries were raised to provide a financial cushion for both Fisher and Battaglia — two of Lopez’s most loyal allies — in case something happened Lopez.
Lopez and his allies have repeatedly declined to comment about questions regarding his health.