The pile of free condoms caught one elderly woman off-guard. Expecting a single-serve pack of coffee, she gasped and smiled mischievously before dropping it back in the basket and walking off to tell her friends.
“Did you see what they’re giving away?” she told her fellow travelers, a few dozen residents of the northwest Bronx — mostly women, mostly seniors — who trekked to an American Legion post in Kingsbridge Thursday night for an event billed as a “health fair” by the Soundview Healthcare Network. They certainly weren’t there for condoms, or to look at the graphic STD education chart, or even (though a few of them tried it) the free blood pressure screening. They mainly expected free food.
And they got it — bags of cereal, pasta, fruits and vegetables, along with free emery boards and granola bars urging them to “VOTE PEDRO ESPADA JR. TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 9.” Espada, chairman of the aforementioned healthcare network, is running for the State Senate.
Espada is locked in a Democratic primary battle with incumbent Efrain Gonzalez, Jr., who is facing federal charges for allegedly abusing funds from his own non-profit for personal use.
To the naked eye, Espada was doing the exact same thing in Kingsbridge, in one of a number of similar events the Soundview Healthcare Network has held across the 33rd State Senate district over the past few months. Though the event was campaign-heavy, the notice for it was mailed to district residents in a Soundview Healthcare Network envelope and included a phone number for the organization for interested parties to RSVP.
As the Voice has reported, Espada has faced similar charges before. And in 2005 four employees of the Soundview Healthcare Network were convicted of using funds intended for paitients to boost Espada’s unsuccessful 2001 campaign for Bronx Borough President.
Espada says his critics are way off-base, that he is not using his non-profit to benefit his campaign and that these events are simply an extension of similar programs he has conducted across the Bronx for three decades.
“The fairest question is, really, where do you draw the line in terms of the use of taxpayer dollars?” said Espada. “And you ask these people, has any politician ever been to their community to give them anything? And the answer is no. They haven’t seen them, and when they do they’re asking for something from them and not delivering to them. So what I do is I deliver something of substance. I don’t deliver promises, I deliver aid, whether you get granola bars or you get fruits and vegetables. I am Pedro Espada Jr., and I am a candidate for the State Senate, but I’m not here doing what I do because I’m running for office.”
According to the most recently available tax returns, the Soundview Healthcare Network received almost $1.7 million in government grants in fiscal year 2006. Espada, as the organization’s president, drew a salary of $338,151 that same year. A request for comment from the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson regarding a potential investigation into Espada’s apparent non-profit abuse has not yet been answered.
“Anybody that’s ever seen Pedro Espada run, you know he’s preparing to do something when his health center all of a sudden starts appearing on cable television with a thousand commercials,” said Miguel Ponce, Gonzalez’s campaign manager, who added that the board of the Soundview Healthcare Network should be held personally responsible for the misuse of its funds. “That’s correct,” said Gonzalez, while Ponce added that it was “obvious to anybody” that Espada was using the non-profit to boost his campaign.
Gonzalez was reluctant to discuss his own pending federal trial, though he was sure that he would be found innocent of all charges. Espada served three terms in the State Senate in a different Bronx district, and a major argument for the Gonzalez camp has been to highlight their opponent’s lack of roots in the district. They have even gone to court to throw Espada off the ballot, arguing that he is a resident of Mamaroneck rather than the Bronx, even going so far as to produce in court a document indicating that Espada used his Westchester home as collateral for the bail of a relative in Connecticut. (Espada’s candidacy survived the challenge.)
Espada does not deny owning a house in Mamaroneck, but insists his true home is in the Bronx.
“I’ve always had more than one residence. I happen to be blessed,” said Espada, adding that Gonzalez has been “invisible” during his 20 years in the State Senate. “Mr. Gonzalez, according to the voters, has not been there. I’ve been accepted with open arms. And right now, you sense their desperation.”
For his part, Gonzalez is confident that he will be victorious in September over the strongest challenger he has ever faced. “I have faith in the people of my district,” he said. “They don’t get fooled that easy, not with fruit and granola.”