What does embattled Assemblyman Vito Lopez have in common with Russell Crowe, Irv Gotti and Abbie Hoffman? The same lawyer!
The embattled assemblyman has retained one of the city’s top criminal defense lawyers, Gerald Lefcourt, to represent him as three government investigations continue to probe the Bushwick-based nonprofit he founded nearly three decades ago.
According to a Lopez spokeswoman, the legislator hired Lefcourt when he decided to “actively pursue a libel action,” in the wake of a torrent of media coverage that has linked Lopez to the scandal-ridden nonprofit, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council that federal and city investigators are currently probing.
Records show that Lopez’s Assembly campaign account, Friends of Vito, paid $10,000 on Sept. 28 to retain Lefcourt.
The first step for the legal eagle, a Manhattan-based attorney with extensive experience defending clients accused of fraud, has come in the form of a letter to this newspaper regarding its coverage of Lopez over the past six weeks.
“We appreciate that you are in the entertainment business and that in order to promote your [newspaper] so that advertisers will give you money, you seek to make the news as amusing as possible,” Lefcourt wrote in an Oct. 22 letter to Community Newspaper Group.
“[But] the First Amendment does not authorize you to manufacture facts in order to make the discussion more lively and ultimately more lucrative for you.”
His main target, however, seemed to be our sister publication, the New York Post, which, the letter claimed, is “making it appear that there is any actual investigative interest in Lopez.”
The letter also complained that the Post called Ridgewood Bushwick “Lopez’s nonprofit.” The Assemblyman does not sit on the Ridgewood Bushwick board, nor is he a staff member, but he did found and build the organization before he became a legislator, and has showered the charity with hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding since.
Lopez’s longtime girlfriend, Angela Battaglia, and campaign treasurer, Christiana Fisher, are the nonprofit’s top two executives.
On the larger point, there are two federal investigations currently plumbing the depths of the relationship between Lopez and Ridgewood Bushwick, a source confirmed, and both Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan and city Department of Investigation officials have launched their own inquiries into the matter.
Neither Lopez nor Ridgewood Bushwick has been charged with any crime, and all three investigations remain ongoing. Lopez has not returned any calls from our reporters during the period cited by Lefcourt in his letter.
Lefcourt himself has a long history with state legislators.
He defended former Assembly Speaker Mel Miller on fraud charges, who was cleared after a prior conviction.
Lefcourt has also represented a number of prominent clients, including disgruntled Australian actor Russell Crowe, who injured a hotel concierge by throwing a phone at him; Manhattan mafioso Matty “The Horse” Ianniello, who faced racketeering charges; and hip hop producer Irv Lorenzo (also known as Irv Gotti), of Murder Inc., for allegedly laundering money for a Queens drug-ring leader.
But his most famous client was notorious counterculture leader Abbie Hoffman, whom Lefcourt helped pro bono when he was tried on conspiracy charges during the world-famous Chicago Eight trials following riots incited during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
In 2000, Lefcourt was portrayed by actor Kevin Pollak in the Hoffman biopic, “Steal this Movie.”