Williamsburg community leaders slammed Assemblyman Vito Lopez for cashing in on a state loophole that allows him to collect his retirement pension while still drawing his $92,000 salary.
“There are some public officials who are guided by a passion to serve their community and others are guided by a passion for profit,” said Luis Garden Acosta, head of the Williamsburg-based arts group El Puente. “Anyone who uses loopholes to enrich himself rather than support constituents who are in dire circumstances is not guided by a passion to serve.”
Lopez and 10 other state lawmakers over the age of 65 filed paperwork this month announcing their “retirement” — but in actuality will only retire for one day and then go back to work as a “new” legislators on Jan. 1.
The move will allow Lopez, who is 69-years-old and battling a relapse of cancer, to collect his $88,000 pension — nearly doubling his salary.
A spokesman with the state comptroller’s office said that ordinary state workers cannot retire and immediately go back to work at the same job.
Lopez defended his decision to The Brooklyn Paper on Thursday, saying that he made the move because he was no longer convinced that he could beat the disease and wanted to ensure that his family — specifically his longtime girlfriend, two full-grown daughters and grandchildren — would be financially secure in the event of his demise.
“I have serious health issues and that was the determining factor,” he told the Paper. “People can challenge that, but I have 46 years in the system.”
Other Lopez allies explained that he deserved to collect his pension since he has served Williamsburg and Bushwick residents in various capacities for more than four decades.
“Vito has literally spent his entire adulthood serving the state of New York,” said Lopez spokeswoman Debra Feinberg.
But some constituents, such as Community Board 1 member David Lopez Jr. said that he was “baffled” that Lopez took advantage of the loophole to nearly double his salary.
“I would have to retire to get my pension, but Vito can collect a pension and still keep the same job,” said Lopez, who is unrelated to the Assemblyman. “That’s a double standard that separates him from his constituents. I’m saddened by this injustice.”
The nonprofit that Lopez founded — Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council — pays Lopez’s girlfriend, Angela Battaglia, a salary of $235,000. Lopez’s campaign treasurer, Christiana Fisher, is the nonprofit’s top exec. She earns $659,000.
Numbers like that had District Leader Lincoln Restler (D–Williamsburg) calling Lopez’s pension move “Espada-esque,” referring to the Bronx state senator who was just indicted for siphoning money from a Bronx-based nonprofit and spending taxpayer money on himself and his family.
“Whether it’s collecting an early pension on top of his state salary, siphoning millions of tax dollars for a not-for-profit currently under investigation for fraud, or paying his girlfriend with those dollars, Lopez’s arrogance and disdain for democracy can only be described as Espada-esque,” said Restler.
Lopez is far from alone for taking advantage of the loophole. More than a dozen legislators have “retired” over the past two years, most notably Assemblywomen Rhoda Jacobs (D–Flatbush), and collect both their salaries and pensions.
Lopez’s colleague, Assemblyman Joe Lentol (D–Greenpoint), has not sought to collect his pension even though he could.
“I’m sure he’ll apply for his pension when he gives up his seat,” said Lentol spokeswoman Amy Cleary.
That decision is something that Williamsburg resident Phil DePaolo found worthy to praise.
“Good for him!” said DePaolo. “He could, he’s allowed to if he wanted to, but God bless him that he doesn’t.”