Assemblyman Vito Lopez and his political allies have found a nifty way of ensuring good press: publishing their own newspaper — and you’re paying for it!
The Bushwick Observer, a newspaper founded in 1995 and published by the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, receives about $70,000 a year in state funding for its budget — not including revenue received from ad sales.
More than 9,000 issues are distributed for free in Ridgewood Bushwick-controlled senior centers and housing developments, businesses and government offices throughout Bushwick every month.
The paper, which operates out of a building owned by Ridgewood Bushwick, is a more sophisticated version of the kind of mailers that elected officials typically send to constituents, consisting of short articles and photographs of city and state leaders attending Ridgewood Bushwick-sponsored events in Lopez’s district.
Lopez’s girlfriend, Ridgewood Bushwick Housing Director Angela Battaglia, reviews every issue personally before it goes to press, according to Ridgewood Bushwick sources. And Lopez is the publication’s primary focus.
In a September, 2010 issue, distributed a few weeks before the primary where Lopez was running for state committee and Assembly, the lawmaker is featured in five photographs and two articles, and graces the issue’s cover with Mayor Bloomberg at his senior picnic in Long Island.
The headline: “Assemblyman Lopez Picnic Draws Seniors, Gov, Mayor.”
Nearly all of the newspaper’s budget is funded from a member item earmarked by Lopez ally, state Sen. Martin Dilan (D–Bushwick), who contributed $70,000 in funds last year to the enterprise — about half of his $135,000 total allocation to Ridgewood Bushwick programs.
The practice of using a state member item to fund a newspaper is extremely rare. Records show that only one other allocation has gone to a newspaper, a $500 award for an upstate high school to start its own paper in the 2009-2010 school year.
Dilan’s member item says that the taxpayer money is necessary to enable the nonprofit to “continue to write, print, publish and distribute The Bushwick Observer.”
“I just know it’s a community paper,” said Dilan. “They’ve put in requests and I’ve honored their requests. It goes through background checks [at the Department of State].”
Last year, $48,967 of the earmark was designated for salaries for its editor and bookkeeper, $165 for supplies, and $20,868 for other services, which include $12,765 for printing and $5,550 in rental payments back to Ridgewood Bushwick, documents show.
The paper contains several advertisements from Ridgewood Bushwick-affiliated entities and legislative officials, including Dilan, though it is unclear how much revenue the ads generated. A spokesman for Ridgewood Bushwick declined to explain the specifics of the paper’s budget and the information is not outlined in Ridgewood Bushwick’s federal tax fillings.
Lopez himself has not contributed funds to the newspaper over the past two years — but has cited it at meetings as a paragon of objectivity.
Critics have lambasted the publication for serving Lopez’s and his friends’ interests and never featuring the work political opponents such as Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D–Williamsburg) and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–Williamsburg) in the neighborhood.
“The Bushwick Observer had no journalistic integrity,” said Esteban Duran, a candidate who challenged Lopez in his state committee race this year. “Bushwick residents deserve better news coverage from what’s supposedly a local community paper that they ultimately pay for in taxes.”
A Department of State spokesman said that the agency funds a variety of requests for programs involving nonprofits and is not in the business of determining what qualifies as news.