Say this for Pedro Espada Jr., the hard-jabbing bantamweight from the Bronx who managed over the past month to make himself the most reviled figure in recent New York political history: He knows how to keep his eye on the prize.
Within minutes of the announcement last Thursday that the rebel Democrat who had betrayed his own party and plunged the state into gridlock was back in the Democratic fold—this time as majority leader!—Espada’s aides were already hard at work. Their task? To redraft that piece of legislation nearest and dearest to the Bronx senator’s heart: funding for discretionary member items.
For Pedro Espada, such funding is the True North of his political compass. Throughout his career, whenever he surveyed his district in search of those in dire need of state financial support, his eye always fell on the one truly deserving local enterprise: his own.
It was only after staff aides to Malcolm Smith—the former Senate majority leader whom Espada has now replaced—red-flagged Espada’s efforts to award $2 million to a pair of brand-new nonprofit groups created by his own attorney, that the Bronx senator began negotiating to cut a better deal with Republicans.
Now that he has got Smith’s old job, Espada can start the member item process all over again. And he wasted no time in doing so. On Thursday afternoon, legislative aides—now directly under Espada’s supervision—reported that the formula for discretionary allocations was “being redrafted to reflect a more equitable distribution of funds for the minority conference.”
That’s Senate-speak for a bigger cut of the pie for Espada and his now-jilted pals on the GOP side of the aisle. No one has studied harder at these perks of office than Espada. Back in 2002, during an earlier stint in the Senate, he also deserted the Democrats in exchange for $745,000 in discretionary funding that he tried to deposit directly into his Soundview HealthCare Center where he now pulls $460,000 in salary. That effort, too, was derailed after the deal hit the newspapers. But it helped remind Espada of the vast riches at the disposal of whoever leads the Senate. Former Republican leader Joe Bruno’s piece of the action ranged from $4 million to $6 million annually, with tens of millions more available for large, capital projects.
Espada made no bones about the fact that he believed Smith had shortchanged him in this department. In a wonderfully revealing interview with New York magazine’s Chris Smith shortly before he cut his new deal with the Democrats, he griped about it: “I was not given a fair allocation of resources like every other senator,” Espada said. “Malcolm Smith had $85 million in member items. Pedro Espada got $2 million. I never asked for $2 million; that was his decision.”
Even more revealing is what Espada tried to do with that money after Smith’s aides told him back in April that he couldn’t simply award it to a pair of groups that didn’t even have offices, let alone a track record. What Espada did instead was reroute the entire $2 million pot to the New Bronx Chamber of Commerce, a business advocacy group created in 2002 to replace the old scandal-scarred business outfit that had preceded it.
According to forms submitted by Espada to the Senate, he intended to grant the chamber 10 separate individual grants, ranging from $20,000 to $375,000 apiece. The money would go for adult literacy classes, after-school programs, housing advocacy efforts, cultural presentations, holiday toys, summer youth recreation, Mother’s and Father’s Day luncheons, grandparents’ outings, softball league uniforms, a food pantry, English classes, a fruit-and-vegetable-distribution program to reduce obesity, and day trips for senior citizens.
Just how the chamber intended to handle this sudden bounty and immense program agenda is unclear. The grants represent a tenfold increase from its biggest previous annual budget of about $200,000. It also has never offered any of the community services that Espada said it would provide. As described in its promotional materials, the chamber’s chief activities are meetings, cocktail parties, and golf outings.
The chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, Joe Kelleher, briefly got on the phone to promise to answer all questions, but then disappeared. Kelleher manages the Hutch Metro Center, the sprawling new office complex on the Bronx’s northern border in the Pelham Bay section where the chamber is located.
Chamber executive director Lenny Caro also ducked repeated calls and e-mails. Before Espada’s grants made him the luckiest man in the north Bronx, Caro’s reputation among veteran borough political figures was that of a jovial blowhard. He sports a large walrus moustache and is partial to double-breasted pinstriped suits with a bright red pocket hankie. His previous jobs have included running a stretch-limo-rental operation and a men’s clothing outfit called “Clothes by Mr. Leonard.” Also prior to his current post, Caro worked as a maître d’ at a City Island lobster restaurant where he greeted patrons in a naval uniform, introducing himself as “Captain Carr.”
The only person willing to discuss the chamber’s role in the grants was former City Council member June Eisland, who serves as vice president of the chamber. She said the awards were a surprise to her. “The first I heard about it was in the newspapers,” Eisland said Friday. She said that she and Caro had gone up to Albany this past spring seeking funding for business-retraining workshops and assistance for minority and women entrepreneurs. “We went in asking for $50,000 from everyone in the Bronx,” Eisland said. “If we’d gotten $25,000, we would’ve been pretty happy.”
Among those they met with was Espada. “I didn’t know what he did,” said Eisland. As for the $2 million, she said she had no idea what the group would do with the money. “It is certainly not something we prepared for,” she said.
Actually, Espada’s initial intention was to give the chamber its original $50,000 request, but he upped the ante after his own newly created groups were shot down. The senator’s move to give all the dough to the chamber unnerved Senate staffers. In an e-mail sent in May, a finance aide on the central Senate staff worried that the grants could become a problem.
“I find it strange that Senator Espada is reallocating all of the money, $1,923,100, to one organization, the New Bronx Chamber of Commerce, and that he’s already funding them for $50,000,” wrote the staffer. “That’s a total of $1,973,100 to one organization. I know from his staff that he had groups that put in requests and aren’t being funded by him. I sincerely hope this doesn’t come back to bite us.”
Espada wouldn’t have had to look far to find other needy groups. According to a report released in March by the office of the Bronx Borough President, there are nearly 2,500 local nonprofits, providing everything from housing aid to food assistance. About 60 percent of them say they will operate at a deficit this year.
Freddy Ferrer, who served as Bronx borough president from 1987 to 2001, said Espada’s recent antics didn’t surprise him. “He always struck me as a Ramon Velez wannabe,” said Ferrer. In fact, Espada singled out Velez, the late Bronx anti-poverty kingpin regularly cited for corruption, as a role model in the New York magazine article. “That’s his thing,” said Ferrer. “He has so distinguished himself with his lack of character, it’s really stunning. I’m betting he’ll flip back again. He says this is about empowerment? Come on.”