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.
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.”
But the grant stands out for other reasons.
Lopez represents the neighborhoods of Bushwick and Williamsburg, an area that includes some of the city’s poorest areas and is located miles away from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, which is on Manhattan’s wealthy Upper East Side. There are plenty of cancer sufferers in Lopez’s district, but the disease doesn’t strike residents in the area any more often than those in the rest of the city, health studies show. The biggest local health problem, according to a 2006 survey by the city’s department of health, is asthma: Hospitalization rates for asthma attacks suffered by both children and adults in the area are double that of the rest of Brooklyn, as well as the city as a whole. Infant mortality rates are also higher than the city average, the study found. When it comes to cancer, the most alarming local health indicator, analysts determined, is that more
than half of adult males in the district have not undergone colonoscopies, the all-important safeguard against colon cancer.
Lopez chairs the assembly’s influential housing committee and serves on committees for economic development, rules, and social services. But he said that health has been an important issue for him as a legislator. “I sign on to every bill that talks about health, about helping people through illnesses. Is that because I became ill? Perhaps.” The newly released records show that as a member of Brooklyn’s assembly delegation, Lopez has joined his colleagues in steering funds to other cancer prevention programs, such as providing mammograms for uninsured women. But those grants are for small amounts of $1,000 or $2,000 apiece, and the cost is apportioned among each of the legislators.
Had he ever considered sending his annual $50,000 to other cancer research facilities? “No one has ever asked me,” he responded.
The member-item data show that Lopez also didn’t search very hard in choosing where else to send his annual funding. Aside from the $50,000 to Sloan-Kettering, the rest of Lopez’s individual member-item grants in recent years have gone to a large nonprofit community organization in his district with which he is closely connected. Lopez has sent $130,000 annually, in three separate grants, to the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and one of its affiliates, the North Brooklyn Residents Association. For many years Lopez was a paid consultant to the organization. He also lives with the organization’s $116,000-a-year housing director, Angela Battaglia.
Had he ever considered that as a possible ethical conflict? “No. Absolutely not,” Lopez said. “I will help and continue to help programs that do a good job. That’s how I feel about it. And that’s a direct quote.”