It was a red-letter day for Republicans when veteran East Harlem legislator Olga Mendez announced she was quitting the Democratic Party to join the GOP. Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg, and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno all showed up to hail Mendez at her December 2002 announcement.
There was plenty to celebrate. Republicans weren’t just getting a new member, they were getting an institution: the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the U.S; the longest-serving Hispanic in Albany; a second-generation Democratic activist in overwhelmingly Democratic East Harlem, not to mention a feisty and funny woman in her late seventies and a breast cancer survivor with canny political instincts.
On the other hand, they were also getting someone long used to doing things her own way, and often none too worried about details or appearances.
For instance, state records show that a few months before Mendez quit the Democrats, she also quit filing mandated campaign finance reports with the state’s board of elections.
Mendez, who has served in the senate since 1978 and whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Washington Heights as well as her East Harlem base, hasn’t submitted a single required campaign filing since September 2002, records reveal. State board of elections officials have hit her campaign with judgments of $500 apiece—the maximum allowed by law—for each of seven reports never submitted. She has paid one of those judgments so far, a total of $522 including court costs.
“She is chronically late,” said elections board spokesman Lee Daghlian. “We have taken judgments against the committee but that’s all we can do.”
Actually, late filing isn’t that uncommon among state legislators, who often figure the worst that can happen to them is a mild fine. But in Mendez’s case, interviews with campaign donors and records from other committees show that even the reports she did file during the 2002 election year had major gaps, failing to disclose more than $100,000 in contributions she received from individual givers and political action committees.
Mendez said a nephew and campaign aide, Erick Vazquez, was supposed to have taken care of all that. “I love him, but I could wring his neck sometimes. I said, ‘Erick, what are you doing to me? I don’t need this.’ He explained to me that they had changed something in the reporting, and he is going back over all the records now.”
But then there are other issues.
In the past four state fiscal budgets, records show, Mendez has directed at least $300,000 in government funds to a nonprofit organization run by her family. The group, East Harlem Building for the Community, provides job training and counseling and is located right upstairs from Mendez’s district office on East 116th Street. Its executive director is Mendez’s older brother and campaign adviser, Freddie Aran, a former East Harlem Democratic district leader. Its board chairman is her nephew Erick.
The funds Mendez steered the group’s way came out of so-called member items, the pot of money allotted each legislator to allocate to whatever needy organizations they deem fit. The closer legislators are to power, the bigger the pot gets. This March, after the senator had moved over to Bruno’s Republican majority, she was able to allocate $150,000 to the organization, up from the $80,000 she gave in 2002.
“Do you think it is a conflict of interest?” she said last week when questioned about the matter. People might think so, she was told. “So then I am doing the wrong thing? I never felt so. Number one, the program is good. They train kids with computers. And it deals with women being abused. And Freddie cares very much.”
Freddie Aran wasn’t at his office last week when a visitor went to East Harlem Building for the Community, and he didn’t respond to requests for comment. “He is in the field,” said Jacqueline Saltares, the group’s program director. Saltares declined to talk about the group’s finances, saying those things were best left to the executive director. She did, however, describe instances in which the group had helped kids succeed at school and had gone to bat for domestic-abuse victims.
“We love the senator because she helps us do good work,” said Saltares.
Supermarket tycoon John Catsimatidis, the owner of Gristedes and other chains, said he too was fond of the senator, which was why he threw Mendez a fundraiser at his home in the summer of 2002. “We’ve got stores in the city and we support a lot of the candidates,” said Catsimatidis, one of the state’s largest campaign donors.
Attending his August 5 soiree were Bloomberg and Pataki, along with a welter of lobbyists, corporate executives, and union officials. Filings made by the Pepsi-Cola Bottlers Political Action Committee, the Building and Construction Trades Council, and the trial lawyers’ group called LawPac all show contributions to Mendez ranging from $1,000 to $3,400 for that date. The checks, however, were made out to “Friends of Mendez,” a committee not registered with the elections board. “We have no record of that group,” said Daghlian, the agency’s spokesman.
All told, the event raised about $85,000, Catsimatidis told the Voice. “We keep statistics on these things.”
Filings by other political action committees show at least a dozen other contributions to Mendez in 2002, both before and after Catsimatidis’s party. None of that showed up on her reports, however, which listed only two donations, totaling $1,500.
Mendez recalled Catsimatidis’s party as “a very nice event.” But she said she had had nothing to do with arranging it or reporting its receipts. “I have never paid attention to those things,” Mendez said of the missing information. “In all my life, I never, ever called anyone for a contribution.”
Yet past campaign reports show the senator has done well by those doing business in her district. Mendez said when she needed a developer for a new low-income apartment complex to be built on East 115th Street, she was contacted by a Westchester-based firm called MacQuesten Development. “I was impressed by the work they did before, in the Bronx, which I saw,” said Mendez.
With the senator’s backing, MacQuesten won the state’s designation to build that 130-unit project, as well as a second one of 74 additional units on East 116th Street next door to Mendez’s district office. Campaign filings show the firm’s principals and family members, as well as its in-house architects and a political action committee to which MacQuesten is a major contributor, gave $11,100 to Mendez between 1999 and 2000 as the project was being negotiated.
The second complex, now under construction, is to be named Olga Mendez Apartments; the first one, already occupied, is named after Tony Mendez, in honor of the senator’s late father-in-law. Antonio Mendez, who died at age 80 in 1982, was Tammany Hall’s top ally in East Harlem, the first native-born Puerto Rican to be named a Democratic Party district leader. His base was the Caribe Democratic Club, whose offices in a Lexington Avenue brownstone still carry a large sign above the door with the names of Mendez and her brother, Freddie Aran, as its leaders.
That was the base of operations in the 2001 mayoral election, when Mendez endorsed billionaire Republican Michael Bloomberg after her first choice, Fernando Ferrer, lost a primary runoff to Public Advocate Mark Green. Her endorsement came with a pledge to turn out the vote, and to that end the mayoral candidate made a $40,000 contribution to the Caribe Democratic Club. Bloomberg reported the donation, but not the club, which has no reports on file with the city’s elections board, despite rules requiring it do so.
Why not? “My understanding is they don’t have to do it,” said Mendez. “Only those clubs that have paying members do; that is the way my father-in-law always said it was done.”
And how had Bloomberg’s money been spent? “Freddie took $10,000; he was running it all, he was the campaign manager. The rest was spent with all the people who were all over the place in the streets.”
This fall, Mendez faces her toughest race yet as she runs for re-election as a Republican. Two Democrats, City Councilman Jose Serrano Jr. and former assemblyman Nelson Antonio Denis, are competing for the nomination. Mendez said she’s not worried. “I play it straight. It would’ve been easy for me to stay Democratic and win 90 percent of the vote. But I go for something I believe in.”