Vito Lopez, in blue, at the recent Democratic County Committee meeting where he was reelected as chairman despite a full on assault by investigators and the press. — Photo by Aaron Short
For two weeks, Lopez and RBSCC have sustained a relentless barrage of media reports following revelations of widespread fraud within the nonprofit uncovered by three major investigations.
The city’s investigation into RBSCC appears to have petered out in July, though it was leaked publicly after the recent election primary after executives refused to cooperate with its recommendations.
Two federal probes — one continuing a public corruption case that was launched two years ago — are also plumbing the nonprofit’s financial records and possibly more.
In light of the investigations, the city has temporarily halted issuing $12 million in contracts promised to RBSCC as State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and City Comptroller John Liu all announced they would carefully review the contracts and new audit submitted by the nonprofit.
Amid all of this, Lopez’s staff announced he will undergo radiation therapy to combat a recurrence of cancer — taking a nine-day leave from his day-to-day activities as a legislator starting next week.
This very fast-moving story has been difficult to track, so BushwickBK has assembled a timeline to show how it all went down.
Sunday, Sept. 12
On the weekend before the primary, New York Post reporters Joseph Goldstein and Isabella Vincent uncovered the news that Christiana Fisher, the executive director of RBSCC and Lopez’s campaign treasurer, earned a $659,591 salary, according to a 2009 tax filing. Not to be outdone, the organization’s Housing Director Angela Battaglia — Lopez’s longtime partner — earned a salary of $234,234. What was surprising was how much the salaries increased from the previous year. Fisher’s ballooned 182 percent and Battaglia’s jumped by 73 percent.
The reporters also interviewed two board members at the nonprofit who said they never talked about the salaries, blindly signing the forms given to them during board meetings.
The story briefly explains Lopez’s ties to the nonprofit that he founded and Lopez is quoted saying that the nonprofit does "an outstanding job providing services" — but does not comment on the salaries.
The Daily News also previews the Democratic primary with the frame of New Kings Democrats’ slate of candidates against those backed by the Kings County Democratic Party.
Monday, Sept 13
BushwickBK previews the Democratic primary, noting that Lopez outspent his state committee opponent Esteban Duran almost 9 to 1 ( by the end of the campaign, Duran unloaded expenditures, closing the gap that he was outspent by 2.5 to 1). Rumblings among Downtown Brooklyn district leaders against Lopez, which began a week ago, begin to be circulated online.
Tuesday, Sept 14
Lopez defeats Duran in his state committee primary in a landslide, winning 70 percent of the vote to Duran’s 29 percent, but several of his candidates lost district leader races including Hope Reichbach and Steve Williamson. The Lincoln Restler-Warren Cohn state committee race is too close to call, with Restler, who campaigned in Greenpoint as much against Lopez as he did against Cohn, unofficially ahead by 20 votes.
Wednesday, Sept 15
The New York Daily News reports that the Department of Investigation has been investigating RBSCC for alleged fraud, and it has its hands on a "secret report," but publishes few details about the charges. BushwickBK wonders if there’s anything there.
Thursday, Sept 16
There sure is. The DOI story triggers a daily media war between the Post and the Daily News, which continue to compete each other for scoops regarding the Ridgewood Bushwick investigations.
Both the New York Post and the Daily News publish the details of the DOI report, which alleged that Ridgewood Bushwick workers took money for programs that never existed, falsified attendance sheets, and defrauded several city agencies of $340,000.
The Post gives Lopez its cover for the first time in years — which is panned by Capital New York for being too insidery.
Inside the papers, the Daily News plays up the details of the 10-page report, in which Fisher claimed she had no knowledge of the criminal wrongdoing, while the Post zeroes in on the willful ignorance of the nonprofit’s powerless board members and a scam nonprofit run out of the Hope Gardens multi-service center. BushwickBK, with a more local point of view, clarifies that there is less outright fraud apparent in RBSCC’s troubles than stunning incompetence.
The Brooklyn Paper also looks into the high salaries and the DOI report — finding that board members could not recall whether they approved the executives’ salary increases but Ridgewood Bushwick’s tax filings indicate that the board members signed off on the increase.
Friday, Sept 17
The Daily News visits an 86-year-old board member, Carmen Orlando, to find out how exactly she became a board member and what she can recall about those meetings — while including a snippy comment from Mayor Bloomberg about Vito, saying "He doesn’t have a lot of political power."
The New York Post‘s city hall desk reports that RBSCC has agreed to comply with the city’s recommendations to add new competent board members, an outside general counsel, and an independent auditor — but that its top executives Fisher and Battaglia will be allowed to stay on.
Both the Daily News and New York Post print its first editorials on the story — criticizing the "corruption" that has seeped into Brooklyn as a result of Lopez’s ties to the organization he founded. The Post calls for more reforms including a full audit of RBSCC’s finances and the Daily News chides Bloomberg, Councilman John Liu, and DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Ahern for not pushing harder for an audit and taking months to release the report.
The Brooklyn Paper reports the charity’s shakeup and puts the news in context with Lopez’s political victories.
Saturday, Sept 18
The Lopez saga leaches into the state attorney general’s race, as Republican candidate Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan bashes his Democratic opponent Eric Schneiderman for "being too close to Lopez," in a Daily News story and vowed to launch his own probe into Lopez’s nonprofit network in a New York Post story. Just to note, Lopez strongly backed Schneiderman’s rival Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice in the primary. New York 1 picks the story up the night before as does the Albany Times Union.
Brooklyn Heights Blog previews the Monday night showdown between Lopez allies and political reformers during the county’s biennial party meeting.
Sunday, Sept 19
The New York Post drops another bombshell in its Sunday paper with a five-year old audio recording of Lopez lecturing a group of elderly Latina leaders in South Williamsburg about politics. The recording is classic Vito — he’s trying to get the women to back his judicial candidate, an RBSCC lawyer named Richard Vasquez, over old nemesis Marty Needelman. Here’s the money quote:
"I’ve been around a long time," Lopez tells the women. "And the only thing that’s worth credibility — the only thing I have that’s worth something — is the politics. That’s how I get the money."
The Post also lists nine bullet points (some are stronger than others) showing direct and indirect ties between Lopez and RBSCC.
Monday, Sept 20
The city media descends on the county’s biennial political party meeting where Lopez is expected to be reelected Democratic chairman.
But before the meeting, state attorney general Andrew Cuomo says that his office is reviewing documents from the investigation after a Daily News reporter corners him at a campaign rally and another story teases out the connections between Lopez and his friends whom he has put up for judgeships in Brooklyn.
The Daily News‘ Adam Lisberg also suggests that it was Mayor Bloomberg who leaked the DOI report because of his frustration dealing with Lopez in the Domino negotiations this summer.
The Post provides more context in the Needelman-Velazquez race behind that mysterious five-year old recording, overplaying the importance of the judicial campaign’s on politics and development in South Williamsburg.
But the biggest news of the day may be that Lopez’s cancer has returned after a decade in remission.
Tuesday, Sept 21
Lopez is reelected as the Dems’ county chairman in another landslide, 47-3-2, late Monday night, as several reporters from the Post, the Daily News, WNYC, Channel 7, Greenpoint Gazette, Brooklyn Paper, WG News and Arts, City Hall News and several political blogs attend the county meeting.
The Brooklyn Paper has a recap of the Lopez win, the Post and Daily News interview Community Board 4 member Cyril Joseph who said he was fired by RBSCC because of political reasons, the Daily News adds a story about judicial delegates to Tuesday’s convention, and Celeste Katz links up a sidebar about Jeffrey Fenster, the executive director of the state Workers Comp board.
Meanwhile, the Post runs an editorial lashing into Lopez, Fisher, and Battaglia for not taking the DOI report seriously and urges Cuomo and Donovan to continue probing.
Also, several videos of the security measures taken before and after the meeting surface, including the Daily News‘ "goons" video, the party-line votes during the meeting, and Lopez greeting reporters after the meeting on WNYC.
Wednesday, Sept 22
The Brooklyn Paper reports that Lincoln Restler, a New Kings Democrats leader, has defeated Lopez-backed candidate Warren Cohn after a final tally of the votes.
More details emerge in RBSCC employee Cyril Joseph’s firing.
Thursday, Sept 23
The New York Times cannonballs into the pool — late, as usual — with a report that two separate federal investigations are now tracking Lopez and RBSCC — one of which is a public corruption probe that ensnared Queens legislator Anthony Seminerio two years ago.
The Daily News reports that Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has recused himself from the original case that led to the city’s DOI report, handing it over to a special prosecutor — Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan. The Brooklyn Eagle follows up.
Another Daily News story reports that the attorney general is closely reviewing a new RBSCC audit, which is holding up the city’s award of new contracts to the nonprofit.
The Post writes that Mayor Bloomberg is distancing himself from Lopez after a question about the county vote is asked during a City Hall press conference. Here’s the quote:
"If he said that I didn’t hear it and I’m not in the business of congratulating people in their political machine kinds of things," Bloomberg said.
Tom Robbins at the Village Voice gives much more context to the Times‘ federal investigation story and what the feds are possibly after in its probe.
Friday, Sept 24
The Courier looks at how Lopez added six new at-large board members (a total of 11) to the executive committee which choose the new county leader.
The Brooklyn Paper sums up the investigations and audits from three levels of government occurring in the Lopez-RBSCC case to date.
Saturday, Sept 25
The Daily News gives more context to the FBI’s role in the Lopez probe conducted by federal investigators while the New York Post interviews Mayor Bloomberg who backs away from his previously harsh statements about Vito.
Sunday, Sept 26
The New York Post unleashes three articles about RBSCC, led by a feature on Angela Battaglia — Lopez’s partner and RBSCC’s Housing Director — as the central figure in the nonprofit’s development dealings. A sidebar looking into possible shady dealings at a senior housing complex on Goodwin Place, which BushwickBK questioned early last year, is included, as is another piece where the Post‘s David Seifman goes back to the high salary story with a rebuttal from Chris Fisher.
The Daily News takes a step back to ponder whether Lopez’s power in the political sphere is crumbling.
Monday, Sept 27
City Hall News‘ Ed Isaac Dovere (prematurely?) questions what a post-Vito future would look like and reports that anti-Lopez reformer Chris Owens has circulated a letter calling Lopez to step down as County Chairman.
The Post publishes an editorial lumping Lopez and RBSCC with a group of disgraced legislators.
Those city and state contracts? The Post confirms that they’re still on hold.
Stay tuned, of course, for more — the story continues to develop and the final outcome is uncertain.