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Vito Lopez: The Plot Thickens

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The
stage was set for one of the most dramatic scenes in the recent history
of Brooklyn politics. For a week, the city's newspapers had battered
the borough's immensely powerful Democratic County Leader, Assemblyman
Vito J. Lopez, with a barrage of stories alleging, if not outright corruption,
at least a litany of unscrupulous political manipulations by Lopez and
the juggernaut nonprofit he founded in 1973, the Ridgewood-Bushwick
Senior Citizens Council.

The
media's sudden assault and the New York City Department of Investigation's
scathing report on Ridgewood-Bushwick that precipitated the spate of
negative articles could not have come at a worse time for Lopez. This
past Monday was the date of the biennial meeting of the Kings County
Democratic County Committee, where Lopez would have to stand for reelection
before the executive committee of the body. The meeting, usually a carefully
scripted formality convened to legally rubber stamp the reelection of
the county leader and his allies, presented, out of the blue, the promise
of a different type of political theater. Rather than the standard farce,
the evening's billing now hinted at intrigue, action, maybe even a
little bit of suspense.

Lopez's
unexpected and unprecedented vulnerability was not lost on his adversaries,
chief among them the New Kings Democrats political club, which has been
a nagging thorn in the county leader's side since it was formed just
over two years ago as an outgrowth of the Obama campaign. Emboldened
by a few minor victories in district leader races against Lopez's
handpicked candidates in last week's Democratic Primary, 50 or
so insurgents,
"a
joyous mix of hipsters, Hasidic rebels, and veteran reformers"
- myself included - took to the steps
of Brooklyn Borough Hall to call for Lopez's resignation as party
chairman. We then proceeded to march to the County Committee meeting
a block away at St. Francis College, chanting "Stop the Corruption",
"Stop the Cronyism" and "Veto Vito."

Lopez's
own entry into the County Committee meeting was no less spectacular.
The 69-year old Assemblyman, a hulking figure with thinning hair and
arms like clubs, was shadowed into the meeting by an entourage of "thugs"
-
as
described by the Daily News' Adam
Lisberg
- who shoved
aside the reporters daring to question if the evening's meeting would
be "democratic" (with a small "d").

But
as with so many much-anticipated plays, after the protagonists took
their places, the spectacle quickly deflated into the same old formula.
Jeffrey Feldman, the former executive director of the Brooklyn Democratic
Party, who was indicted alongside Lopez's county leader predecessor,
Clarence Norman, "
but
escaped prosecution when he flipped and testified against his former
boss
," presided over
the meeting. After a few curt procedural requirements, Feldman announced
to the capacity crowd of about 300 elected and appointed members of
the committee's general body that the county leader had submitted
650 proxies of members not in attendance; a de facto declaration that
the vote of one man, Vito Lopez, would count for more than double that
of everyone in the room, thus deciding all of the evening's business
in Lopez's favor prior to a single vote.


Several of the members who were present challenged Lopez's proxies
and asked for a roll call to verify their legitimacy, but Feldman rebuffed
the request, saying that he would allow the proxies to be examined,
but that it was a waste of time to read out the names since the credibility
of the members of such an august body was unimpeachable. The room's
reformers, who argued to eliminate proxy voting, thundered in opposition,
but Feldman briskly continued on with business, ignoring their protestations.

The
rest of the evening unfolded much as the meeting had two years earlier.
A number of the borough's district leaders, hand-picked for their
unerring loyalty to the Brooklyn Democratic machine, read haltingly
from scripts that proposed motions deferring, as usual, all power to
the county leader. The sole departure from this "Groundhog Day"
was the proposal of two orders of new business from the reformer camp,
which were announced to the media in advance in an effort to pressure
the county leadership to allow them to be introduced.

The
first was a resolution calling for the County Committee to meet quarterly,
instead of every two years, for the purpose of mobilizing the borough's
Democrats, who collectively make up the largest Democratic county in
the nation.

Speaking
in opposition to the motion was former Surrogate Court Judge Frank Seddio,
who occupies one of the five "at-large" district leader seats created
by Lopez two years ago to
bolster
his control of the party
.
Seddio, who was
forced
to resign from the bench in 2007

after coming under investigation for violating judicial ethics by donating
"more than $31,000 in campaign funds to political cronies and to his
home base, the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club," argued that more
frequent meeting of the County Committee were unnecessary because
"we all have better
things to do" and "it costs too much money."
After Jeff Feldman pegged the cost of the
meeting at about $5,000, the reformers in the room demanded to see the
Treasurer's Report mandated by the bylaws. A few minutes later, a
single two-sided sheet of paper was made available, broadly breaking
down the party's finances. According to the document, the party had
$631,851.46 on hand.

The
second order of new business was proposed by Jo Anne Simon, one of the
borough's few district leaders with a track record of opposing Lopez.
Simon proposed doing away with the five at-large members (including
Seddio) who had been created in 2008, as well as the additional six
at-large members that Lopez had added earlier in the evening. Championing
Simon's proposal on the floor was City Councilman Lew Fidler, who
contended that the eleven appointed members
wrongly
diluted the power of the 42 district leaders

elected by the borough's Democrats to represent them. In concluding
his remarks, Fidler challenged any opponents of Simon's measure to
speak up and explain their rationale for keeping the at-large members.

Dead
silence.

Moments
later, Simon's motion was voted down by Lopez's allies in the room
and the 650 proxies in his pocket.

By
then, Lopez's supporters, who were visibly bored by the length of
the spectacle, moved to adjourn. The proxies agreed.

While
the reformers in the room headed down the street to drown their disappointment
at the local bar, the district leaders headed upstairs for the executive
committee meeting. Chief on the agenda was whether to reelect Lopez
as county leader for another two-year term. After little debate, only
one candidate emerged who was willing to challenge Lopez for head of
the party: Chris Owens, the newly elected district leader from the 52nd
Assembly District and past president of the Central Brooklyn Independent
Democrats reform club.

The
outcome of the election was about as gripping as all of the other votes
cast that evening. Only three district leaders voted against Lopez's
reelection: Owens, Simon, and Assemblymember Inez Barron. Two others
abstained: Assemblymember Annette Robinson and Joanne Seminara, the
female district leader of the 60th Assembly district since
2002. Lincoln Restler, the vice president of New Kings Democrats and
a certain anti-Vito vote, was barred from attending the meeting, because
the outcome of his tight race for district leader was not
officially determined in
his favor until yesterday
.

The
remaining 47 votes went to Lopez, including those of a few district
leaders who had just wrapped up successful campaigns in which they had
claimed the mantle of reform.

And
so the curtain fell on the King County Democratic County Committee for
another two years. But whether the show is over still remains to be
seen. Yesterday evening, the New York Times revealed that Vito Lopez
is "
at
the center of two separate federal investigations
", one of which stems from the corruption
case that landed Queens Assemblymembers Anthony Seminerio and Brian
McLaughlin in prison.
Tom
Robbins writes today
in
the Village Voice blog Runnin' Scared that Lopez's name came
up repeatedly in the taped conversations between Seminerio and an undercover
FBI agent, and that Seminerio arranged for the faux businessman and
the Brooklyn county leader to meet.

It
did not come out in Seminerio's court case what was the outcome of
that meeting - or whether, in fact, it ever occurred - but Lopez
has already been embarrassed by a hidden audio recorder. Last Sunday,
the New York Post ran a cover story entitled
"Don Vito", based on a secretly
taped conversation
from
2005 between Lopez and eight elderly women he was trying to badger into
supporting his candidate for civil court judge. Lopez, who speaks with
a brutish candor, tells the women "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."

This
morning, the Daily News ran a story
reporting
that Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes
,
a close ally of Lopez's, has recused himself from a third investigation
related to the county leader - this one focusing on an employee of
Ridgewood-Bushwick who allegedly faked paperwork to steal $4,080 in
taxpayer cash. The investigation will now be handled by Staten Island
District Attorney Dan Donovan, who is running for New York Attorney
General on the Republican line and
has
already attacked his Democratic opponent
,
State Senator Eric Schneiderman, for being too cozy with Lopez. Donovan
would appear to have every interest in his probe moving quickly with
the November 2nd general election fast approaching.

Unlike
the predictable biennial County Committee meetings, no one knows how
these investigations will play out. In the end, it may all be much ado
about nothing. But one thing is for certain: this is one show Brooklyn's
political reformers can't wait to see.

Around the Web

Vito J. Lopez - New York State Assembly - Member Section

Vito Lopez - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Vito Lopez and his Hour-of-Power | Deconstructing political ...

This summer, Vito Lopez may have finally pushed Mayor Bloomberg ...

Assemblyman Vito Lopez Is Said to Be Investigated - NYTimes.com

Restler wins...Vito Lopez's losing streak continues | The Daily Gotham

Vito Lopez-backed charity led by the clueless - NYPOST.com

POST-PRIMARY MUSINGS: The fingerprints of Vito Lopez; Evans v ...