Assemblyman Vito Lopez, Brooklyn’s powerful Democratic party leader, steered more than three-quarters of a million dollars to both his campaign treasurer and his girlfriend, who work at the nonprofit he founded.
The treasurer, Christiana Fisher, is also the executive director of Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a Bushwick-based social services organization that Lopez founded. Last year, she nearly tripled her salary, earning $659,591 compared with $234,234, almost six times the amount of her peer executive nonprofit leaders in Brooklyn.
The nonprofit’s Housing Director Angela Battaglia, who is not only Lopez’s longtime girlfriend, but a City Planning Commissioner, got a hefty 73-percent raise from last year, earning $329,910 compared with $190,609 in the previous year, according to the organization’s tax filings.
Battaglia pulls in $54,150 as a planning commissioner, a job that lets her vote on significant rezoning plans that often affect Ridgewood Bushwick.
Both Battaglia and Fisher have held crucial roles in managing this campaign and its finances. Fisher managed the transfer of tens of thousands of dollars from Lopez’s Assembly re-election account to his campaign account for another 2010 race, for district leader. Battaglia has served as the candidate’s surrogate, reminding constituents at street fairs in Bushwick and Williamsburg to vote for Lopez, when he is unable to attend himself.
Both have long histories with Lopez, and Lopez has rewarded them and their family for their loyalty — elevating Pam Fisher, Christiana’s sister, and Jack Battaglia, Angela’s brother, to the bench in 2009 and 2001 respectively.
Calls made to Ridgewood Bushwick were not returned. And in a recent New York Post article, Lopez declined to comment about the salaries, noting that the organization “does an outstanding job servicing the residents of north Brooklyn.”
But several of Lopez’s political opponents have questioned the salaries. District Leader-elect Chris Owens called them “unethical, wrong and misleading the public.”
“Jesus Christ, that’s obscene!” said Owens, who has worked widely in the nonprofit sector. “An agency that can afford to pay an administrator $659,000 is almost on the verge of not being a not-for-profit. This is a rip-off of the public.”
By comparison, the executive director of Fifth Avenue Committee, a Park Slope-based housing nonprofit, earned $120,000, and the group’s housing director earned $81,167, in 2008. And the co-directors of Make the Road New York, a Bushwick-based economic justice nonprofit, earned $93,656 and $100,438, respectively.
But Fisher only reported working 17.5 hours per week at her job. The New York Post found that many of the nonprofit’s board members had little or no say in how the two executives were compensated — signing paperwork without a vote or even a discussion of salary.
An interview with one board of director member revealed that she could not recall how the salaries were approved, explaining that it was not discussed in meetings which occur once per quarter.
But the nonprofit’s tax forms indicate that the board did approve the salaries.
“Either the board member is mistaken or the process happened in such a way that at least one board member didn’t even know it was going on, or it didn’t happen or this process didn’t happen,” said Thad Calabrese, a professor at City University of New York.
Instead, it is Lopez (D-Williamsburg) who maintains close ties to both women and to the nonprofit, his base of political power in the region for more than a quarter century.
It is in this field that Ridgewood Bushwick’s social services mission and Lopez’s political goals most nakedly overlap.
Ridgewood Bushwick employs 553 individuals in addition to another 1,699 home care employees, a large number, but similar to several other housing nonprofit organizations in Brooklyn.
The organization manages and maintains a web of senior centers, housing complexes, and youth recreation centers, some of which are emblazoned with Lopez’s name as a reminder of where the funding for its development came from.
Many of these sites also conveniently double as polling locations, giving its elderly residents the privilege of not having to leave the building to re-elect Lopez.
Lopez himself has funneled $380,000 in member items to the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and its affiliated associations since 2009, including $60,000 for the Brooklyn Unidos upstate conference and $30,000 for transporting and feeding seniors at a summer picnic.
In 2009, Ridgewood Bushwick received $17,851,873 in government subsidies, over $4 million more than the $13,782,890 it received in grants the prior year.
On primary and general election days, the nonprofit’s workers are given a day off from work to get voters to the polls.
Last month, Lopez bragged to Daily News columnist Errol Louis that he would deploy 384 members of Brooklyn Unidos on Primary Day to help him beat his opponent for district leader, Esteban Duran, after two failed attempts to bump him off the ballot.
For his district leader campaign, Lopez raised $74,531, nearly all of it from his $1.19-million Assembly campaign warchest — a massive amount for a district leader race. But Lopez has the cash; he’s running unopposed for the Assembly.
Political opponents, such as Matt Cowherd, who founded the New Kings Democrats political club three years ago with the purpose of challenging Lopez’s leadership in Brooklyn, believe that Lopez’s intertwining of politics with social works has lead to corruption and abuse of power.
“Elected officials should work to secure city and state resources solely to benefit the community they represent, not to enrich themselves or their political cronies or to surreptitiously fund their political campaigns,” said Cowherd.