Sunset Park residents gathered outside of Assemblyman Félix Ortiz’s district office on Friday to demand answers after his highest-ranking staff member was arrested for allegedly embezzling campaign funds — but the lawmaker was nowhere to be found.
“The allegations are shocking, and we want answers. We want to know what exactly happened here,” said Jorge Muñiz. “This is a major crisis for our democracy… we have that money that people are giving to better our democracy ending up in private bank accounts.”
Maruf Alam, 29, served as Ortiz’s chief of staff until his Aug. 8 arrest, when federal authorities charged him for allegedly stealing $80,000 from a campaign bank account through multiple cash withdrawals and personal expenditures between 2012 and 2019, according to court documents.
Ortiz — a 13-term assemblyman, who serves as assistant speaker of the lower-legislative chamber — has denied any knowledge of Alam’s actions, and fired the staffer following his arrest.
“I am personally appalled, hurt, and disappointed that an employee would violate my trust,” Ortiz said in a statement on Aug. 9. “My constituents come first, and they deserve to know that public employees are always working on their behalf.”
But the group of Sunset Park locals lead by Muñiz — who has worked on political campaigns to unseat the assemblyman in the past, and harbors a personal beef with Alam, whom he claims threatened to “skin [Muñiz] alive” in 2014 — were not content with Ortiz’s disembodied statement, and claimed he’s already lied once regarding his knowledge of the crime.
“Mr. Ortiz, so far, has not made any real statements to explain and account for what happened with this money. So, we have questions,” said Muñiz. “He said in the press yesterday that this was the first time he was even hearing about these charges. Meanwhile, the FBI is in court saying they actually interviewed him in March, earlier this year.”
Seeking a face-to-face meeting with Ortiz, some constituents gathered outside the assemblyman’s Fourth Avenue district office at 11 a.m., but the legislator’s new chief of staff, Karen Broughton, politely refused to let them inside. Instead, Broughton briefly addressed the crowd to say the assemblyman was “traveling, before handing out a printed statement, and then quickly retreating back into the office.
One Sunset Park man demanded the lawmaker come out of hiding, saying the public deserves to know how one of his staffers committed such a grievous crime.
“We need all of our elected leaders to come forward and be transparent and to be honest with the public. We need them to take leadership, take responsibility for their offices. That’s what we want Mr. Ortiz to do now,” said John Santore.
Another demonstrator said the assemblyman should accept responsibility for the misdeeds committed by his chief of staff and tender his resignation.
“This is speaking to a greater frustration that we have. I think that Sunset Park, Red Hook, South Slope, everybody within District 38 has had a lot of frustration,” said Whitney Hu. “He should resign.”
Magistrate Judge Steven Tiscione released Alam on $100,000 bail following a preliminary hearing on Thursday.