A Tale From the Slush Fund

A top Brooklyn pol uses the pork barrel against cancer

Here's a taste of your state legislature at work:

There's the $5,000 grant approved for Bobbi and the Strays, the Ozone Park, Queens, group that finds lost pets; there's the $10,000 for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in upstate Cohoes so the lodge can fix its ailing HVAC system; there's the $2,500 to erect permanent signage in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in midtown; and the $2,000 for the German American Club in Albany so the group can finally pave its parking lot.

New York's media have always had a field day with the state legislature's "member items"—the $200 million slush fund out of which legislators are allocated a set amount of funds (calculated according to political clout) to spend pretty much as they please. This good old-fashioned pork-barrel spending is the kind of thing that greases political wheels, even if taxpayers might not see it as urgently needed. Traditionally, assembly and senate leaders kept the names of the givers secret, a move that necessitated a bit of a guessing game as to which member was responsible for which item.

Dem and dose: Brooklyn pol Vito Lopez
photo: Miltin Signman Walters/New York Post
Dem and dose: Brooklyn pol Vito Lopez

But the guessing game ended abruptly this fall when the Albany Times-Union won a lawsuit to compel the legislature to identify the names of the lawmakers and their individual largesse. A new round of stories was sparked this month when the assembly and the senate published files showing who gave what over the last three fiscal years on their respective websites. The lists show that Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno were the biggest givers, doling out millions to their own favorite charities. Bruno even gave $500,000 to a for-profit technology firm headed by a close pal—a gift now under FBI scrutiny.

Most lawmakers, however, received far less to distribute, and the records show they spread their limited loot around their districts in increments of $1,000 to $5,000. The money goes mainly for respectable civic endeavors: volunteer fire and ambulance departments, community patrols, neighborhood improvement associations, libraries, schools, legal services, and veterans' needs.

By that standard, the $50,000 a year for leu-kemia research allocated by Brooklyn Democratic assemblyman Vito Lopez is one of the larger individual grants, as well as one that seems to put him squarely on the side of the angels. But it also dramatically demonstrates how legislators have been given a free hand to choose good deeds that benefit themselves as much as their constituents.

Lopez, who last year became the powerful leader of Brooklyn's Democratic Party, earmarked the money for the prestigious Sloan-Kettering Institute, an arm of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a world-renowned facility.

The state grants have gone toward a study of the glucose transporter function, which was described by Dr. Mark Heaney, a leukemia specialist at Sloan-Kettering, as "an effort to study ways that cancer cells differ from normal cells in leukemia patients." In a written statement to the Voice, Heaney said, "We hope this research will one day lead to a therapy for leukemia patients."

That's something in which Lopez has an intensely personal stake. The 65-year-old assemblyman suffers from leukemia himself and has been a patient at Memorial Sloan-Kettering since 1993, when he was first diagnosed with the ailment. In an interview, Lopez, who was first elected to the assembly in 1984, said that he began making the grants shortly after he underwent treatment at the center. "I went in and got treated with heavy doses of chemotherapy, three different regimens. The last time, I almost didn't make it through," he said. "The hospital had a research project that dealt with some vitamins, and they came to me and said they needed probably a million dollars for research. And I submitted it."

Lopez said he had provided the $50,000 grants to Sloan-Kettering every year for the past decade. Initially he made them together with another Brooklyn assembly member, Eileen Dugan, who was also treated for cancer at Sloan-Kettering. Dugan died in 1996. Since then, Lopez has made the grants on his own. He said that he failed to allocate the funding to Sloan-Kettering in the current fiscal year only because he had been absent from the assembly for several months after having a heart operation.

The doctor who originally approached him for the research funding, Lopez said, was the same one overseeing his cancer therapy at the time. That doctor has since died. But Lopez, whose cancer has been in remission for 10 years, said that most of his recent checkups at the hospital have been handled by Heaney, who was listed as the research project director for the grants on the legislative forms submitted by Lopez and approved by the assembly.

"This was a renewal of an ongoing grant," said Joanne Nicholas, a spokesperson for Memorial Sloan-Kettering. "When Dr. Heaney took over the lab two years ago, the grant was already in place. It is a wonderful thing that Mr. Lopez is doing," she added.

Lopez reacted angrily to questions about his giving. He said that he had never undergone any experimental treatments himself and that he had supplied the funding because he had become "more sensitive" to the need for cancer research. "You are going to taint this because I went to the hospital?" he said. "How do you make that dirty? It's remarkable. They get it, and that's about it. I don't have much more to tell you. I guess the legislature gives research money out on a broad level. It was never a major thing."

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