Brooklyn assemblyman Vito Lopez, who is pushing hard to win the county’s Democratic Party leadership post made vacant by the conviction of his former assembly colleague, Clarence Norman, Jr., has something else in common with Norman: Both men used political campaign committees to pay for their personal cars, and then accepted mileage reimbursement from the legislature – a legal no-no according to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes who won indictments against Norman for that very offense.
State election board filings show that since 1999 the Bushwick pol’s campaign committee, “Friends of Vito Lopez,” has routinely shelled out $500 a month in leasing costs for his Acura sports car, and another $2800 a year for his auto insurance costs. It also pays more than $200 a month for a luxury dashboard computer service. In addition, the committee picks up a monthly American Express bill for the assemblyman, a tab that runs from $400 to $8,000 a month.
At the same time, legislative expense records show that Lopez has routinely billed the Assembly for his weekly 320-mile round trip between Brooklyn and Albany when the legislature is in session. Legislators are reimbursed on a per-mile amount, currently pegged at 48.5 cents, a figure that is set by the federal IRS and which is calculated to reflect the full cost of owning and maintaining an automobile, including fuel costs. To obtain reimbursement, lawmakers are required to fill out a detailed sheet specifying mileage, and must certify that it is truthful and accurate.
In Norman’s case, the payments were made by the Kings County Democratic Committee, a practice Hynes said constituted double dipping. Two years ago, Hynes won indictments against Norman for grand larceny and 76 counts of filing falsified expense statements. Norman’s attorneys challenged the charges, but courts have upheld them saying that the grand jury that indicted the former Bed-Stuy powerbroker correctly found that Norman was seeking reimbursement under false pretenses. Norman has yet to be tried on those charges. He was convicted of separate campaign abuses last month and forced to give up his law license and political positions.
A Hynes source said Lopez’s filings appeared to be similar to Norman’s, and are currently under scrutiny. “There is a pending investigation,” the source said.
Lopez vehemently defended his practice and said he’s doing nothing wrong. “There are at least 15 or 20 legislators who do the same thing,” he said. Lopez said that he splits the cost of his car and insurance, with his campaign committee paying 70 percent of the tab, while he pays the rest himself. Lopez said that his total monthly lease payments for the auto run a whopping $800, but he refused to provide specifics.
Lopez also declined to say what’s covered by his American Express bills, but insisted that they don’t include his auto upkeep or gas costs. He pays for all of that, even new tires, out of his own pocket, and in cash, he said. Always cash? Even at a self-service gas pump? “Yes, this politician pays in cash. I just bought a new Michelin tire. I paid for it in cash, I could send you the receipt.” Would he? “No, I am not going to give you anything. I have gone way beyond what I should. I know what this is all about. You are trying to bring me down.”
Norman’s indictment on the expense-padding charges came after two other city legislators, former Bronx assemblywoman Gloria Davis, and Brooklyn assemblyman Roger Green, were also cited for improperly seeking travel reimbursement. But even in the wake of those scandals, Lopez said he had never sought an opinion regarding his own expense practices. “Others have gotten legal opinions,” he said. “It’s legal.”
Brooklyn’s Democratic district leaders are due to meet next Tuesday to consider plans for choosing a new chairman of the party’s executive committee-the party leader’s formal title. Lopez claims he already has 25 votes – more than enough to put himself over the top. But others disputed his math, saying he has no more than 19 or 20, still shy of the 22-vote majority needed for victory. But Lopez is already talking like he has it wrapped up. “My pledge is to bring unity and respectability to the party,” he said.
Lopez would also bring a penchant for endorsing Republicans over Democrats. In recent elections, he backed Rudy Giuliani for mayor, and George Pataki for governor. He also backed his longtime ally, former Senator Al D’Amato, against Democrat and fellow Brooklynite Charles Schumer in 1998.
“Lots of Democrats did the same thing,” he responded. “I am responsible for putting some of the best, most progressive judges on the bench, how about that?”