Senator’s Indictment Causes Concern Among Democrats

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The New York Sun

Although state Senator Efrain Gonzalez Jr. has represented the Bronx in the Legislature for 17 years, his name did not become widely known until Friday — and it was not for a legislative initiative, because there have been none, but for his indictment by the federal government.

Mr. Gonzalez, 58, is accused of looting a Bronx not-for-profit corporation, the West Bronx Neighborhood Association, for his personal benefit. He faces up to 20 years in prison. The senator is one of a score of Bronx public officials who exist in obscurity, doing little for their constituents in the state’s poorest county but benefiting from a political system in which few of them ever face serious challenges.

Ironically, the cloud that has hung over Mr. Gonzalez’s head during an investigation that has lasted for two years has imparted a degree of power and influence that had eluded him for so long. The leadership of the Bronx Democratic organization, with which Mr. Gonzalez has been affiliated, is apoplectic over the possibility that Mr. Gonzalez has information on others that he might pass on to prosecutors.

So rather than being shunned, Mr. Gonzalez has been embraced. He has emerged as the chairman of the Democratic minority conference in Albany. He has been included in photo opportunities and party functions at which he has previously been all but invisible. Even the remnant of the “reform” Democrat movement has endorsed his reelection.

Despite the cloud over Mr. Gonzalez, his endorsement of Eliot Spitzer for governor was welcomed and appeared on the attorney general’s campaign Web site. It disappeared over the weekend.

When the investigation began two years ago, a number of top Bronx officials were issued subpoenas. That list was thought, but never confirmed, to include the Bronx County Democratic leader, Assemblyman Jose Rivera, his predecessor, Roberto Ramirez, and a number of elected officials.Also said to have been called to testify before the grand jury was party lawyer and power broker Stanley Schlein, who, for unrelated reasons, was just denied reappointment to the Civil Service Commission by Mayor Bloomberg after serving 24 years in that post.

The West Bronx Neighborhood Association is not a run-of-the-mill nonprofit group, but an entity formed by Mr. Gonzalez as a vessel to receive government funds, and even campaign funds. This isn’t mentioned in the indictment, which preserves the illusion of an entity formed to do good works, its hard-earned funds filched by a scheming politician. But the WBNA is actually an extension of Mr. Gonzalez, and what concerns many Bronx politicians is that it is very similar to dozens of groups that they themselves have set up.

I wrote about one of these last month, the North East Bronx Redevelopment Corporation, shepherded by Council Member Larry Seabrook, who has previously served stints in the state Assembly and Senate. This group was the subject of a federal probe a decade ago, over funds it received to create a youth center. Although hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds were allocated, there is no evidence that the promised youth center actually existed. While the federal probe then failed to result in indictments, the state Education Department, the major supplier of the group’s public funding, issued a blistering audit and has attempted to recover some of the money.

This did not dissuade the City Council, at the behest of Mr. Seabrook, from allocating $1.5 million in the current budget to the same group, this time to study the feasibility of establishing a “hip-hop museum” in Mr. Seabrook’s Bronx district.

The amount that the indictment charges Mr. Gonzalez with filching, $37,000, is modest by this standard. While Mr. Seabrook is a well-spoken law school graduate, Mr. Gonzalez, a former bus driver, is well known for avoiding speaking in public. The question is what he might tell prosecutors in private.

Hence the unease in Bronx political circles this week. The talk of superceding indictments to pile on more charges against Mr. Gonzalez reinforces this. After such a lengthy investigation, it seems to observers odd that the indictment would be delivered on the installment plan. Some speculate that this is part of an effort to bring Mr. Gonzalez around to provide information against other, more prominent public and party officials.

Missing from the investigation of the alleged misuse of the funds and resources of this nonprofit group is the one public official who has authority to regulate these groups, Mr. Spitzer, the leading Democratic candidate for governor. The attorney general has close ties with the Bronx Democratic organization and has a long-standing financial relationship with the web of political consulting firms tied to a former Bronx Democratic leader, Roberto Ramirez.

Mr. Spitzer, his running mate, David Patterson, the Senate minority leader, and the county Democratic leader, Mr. Rivera, were listed as chairing a $500-a-plate Gonzalez fund-raiser in May. Mr. Spitzer backed away from the event after the local press made inquiries.

Efrain Gonzalez, existing in obscurity for so long, is finally on the public radar screen. His Bronx political colleagues — and perhaps other powerful Democrats — are hoping that this is one story that will soon fade away.

The New York Sun

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