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Morgan Pehme

Morgan Pehme

Posted: September 23, 2010 05:43 PM

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.