It’s no secret that Vito Lopez is much more than a garden variety pervert. For decades he has been one of the most powerful figures in Albany. In his own way, the man is a genius. If there was a Corruption Hall of Fame, Vito would be on the first team, up there with legendary names like Boss Tweed. Vito is being forced out of public office because of public outrage over his persistent, grotesque sexual harassment of young female staff members — and he should be. But it’s worth recalling how little public outrage there has been at Vito’s ruthless perversion of New York’s generous social welfare system. Lopez basically wrote the modern playbook on how to use a publicly funded social service agency to build a political empire and reward friends with jobs and lucrative salaries. (Pedro Espada gets honorable mention in this category for his systematic exploitation of Medicaid using his Bronx-based, Soundview Health System. )
The outlines of Lopez’s empire of influence peddling have been described many times, but for the unfamiliar, here’s a synopsis. In 1973 Lopez founded the non-profit Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. Under Lopez, the group used city and state contracts and grants to provide services to seniors, and to buy and rehabilitate abandoned or tax delinquent properties. After he was elected to the state assembly in 1984, Lopez used the center as a power base to reward supporters, relatives and friends with high paying jobs and housing. The center was notorious for the enormity of the city and state contracts and grants it received and Lopez’s blatant nepotism. Lopez’s campaign treasurer, Christiana Fisher served as executive director and was paid $607,000 a year in 2010, before being indicted. Lopez’s long-time girlfriend Angela Battaglia, remains at the center as assistant executive director.
But despite being under intense scrutiny from the state and city, the center is still heavily populated by Lopez loyalists; ten Ridgewood-Bushwick employees recently donated to Vito Lopez’s City Council Campaign, including Jeanne Laino, the executive director and Battaglia. Despite the scandal and investigations, Ridgewood-Bushwick also continues to be heavily funded by New York State and City tax payers. As of May 17, 2013, the center had $32 million in active city contracts and about $19 million in contracts with the state. But this may understate the size of Vito’s publicly funded empire. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism counts 80 separate legal subsidiaries of Ridgewood-Bushwick.
We’re glad to see Vito out of office, but we wonder what would have happened if Vito had kept his hands to himself and been content to simply pervert government, rather than be a pervert.
More on Vito Lopez’s empire of corruption.