Volume 75, Number 25 | November 09 -15, 2005

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Margarita Lopez at a recent L.G.B.T. event at the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea. Lopez is said to be interested in a position in the second Bloomberg administration.

Volunteer: I was told Lopez records are missing

By Lincoln Anderson

Although Councilmember Margarita Lopez, through her lawyer, is saying her 2001 campaign didn’t violate election laws by making late payments to campaign workers, a Lopez volunteer has come forward to say that he received a $300 check — three months after the election.

In addition, this volunteer is claiming that the financial records from Lopez’s ’01 campaign are missing and that the records of volunteers were destroyed.

But Lopez’s lawyer says the records still exist.

Last week, The Villager first reported that the city’s Campaign Finance Board has put Lopez on notice that it is considering assessing penalties against her for alleged violations of fraud, misrepresentation and improper payments involving her 2001 campaign finances. Among the allegations, C.F.B. is claiming Lopez’s campaign made approximately $45,000 in impermissible post-election expenditures to individuals, accompanied by “apparent fraud and misrepresentation” in connection with these impermissible expenditures.

Under the city’s campaign finance law, public funds are awarded to candidates on a 4-to-1 match provided candidates don’t exceed a fundraising cap.

According to the C.F.B. 2001 Candidate Handbook, given to every participant in the public matching funds program: “Public funds may not be used for spending before or after the calendar year of the election.” The handbook further states that if a candidate’s qualified documented expenses do not exceed the amount of public funds he or she received, the balance must be returned to the public treasury.

Philip Van Aver, a volunteer on Lopez’s ’01 City Council re-election campaign, last week told The Villager he was surprised when in February 2002, three months after the general election, he received a check for $300 from the campaign. The check was dated Nov. 1 and signed by Anne Johnson, Lopez’s campaign treasurer, he said.

Van Aver volunteered on the campaign up until 9/11, primary election day, when the terrorist attack caused the primary to be delayed.

“I had worked in the campaign, but I had never been paid before,” he said.

According to the C.F.B., the distinction between unpaid volunteers and paid workers is supposed to be kept clear, with paid workers required to fill out a contract.

He was concerned that the seemingly old check might bounce and not wanting to pay a fee, asked around about it. He was told that Johnson — a former chairperson of Community Board 3 and a professional tax preparer — could not find his address.

“The excuse I got was they couldn’t find my address in the phonebook,” he said. “That’s ridiculous,” he scoffed. “My address is in the telephone book.”

After mentioning it to a fellow member of his political organization, Coalition for a District Alternative, Van Aver said he ultimately decided to deposit the check.

Things died down until earlier this year, Van Aver said, when at 10:30 one night in April he received a call from Georgina Christ, Lopez’s ’01 campaign volunteer coordinator. He says Christ wanted him to sign an affidavit the next morning vouching that he had been a worker on the campaign.

“She told me that Anne Johnson could not find her records — and that she [Christ] had destroyed hers,” Van Aver said of Christ. “That made me very suspicious. I didn’t want to sign something and have them say, ‘Philip Van Aver lied, he didn’t work those days.’ ” Van Aver, who is in his 50s, said he’s worked on a lot of campaigns but never had a request like this made of him before.

The next day, the then attorney for the Lopez ’01 campaign, April Hand, also called him. However, he spoke to the treasurer on Lopez’s 2005 Manhattan borough president campaign, whom he said was very competent and on top of every expense, and she counseled him not to sign anything he didn’t want to.

In 2001, Lopez knocked her potential primary rival, Mildred Martinez, off the ballot by successfully challenging her petition signatures. This year, however, Lopez had a hard-fought primary election for borough president, coming in third in a crowded field of candidates. This year, there was no money left after the campaign, according to Van Aver, who also volunteered on Lopez’s B.P. race. He didn’t expect to paid for his volunteer work this year, noting some of Lopez’s campaign workers were even laid off.

Even though he volunteered for her B.P. campaign, Van Aver said when CoDA held its endorsement meeting for borough president, backing Lopez, he abstained, feeling she was “too disorganized.” In short, Van Aver said, because she is very busy “she puts things in the hands of people who are not conscientious.”

Van Aver chalked up to “laziness and incompetence” the checks that were deposited well after the election that apparently were red flags to the C.F.B. He also said he expected the problems would eventually come to light.

However, the finance board feels the problem goes beyond mere sloppiness. As to why it has taken four years to resolve the outstanding issues involving Lopez’s ’01 finances, Andrea Lynn, C.F.B. deputy press secretary, said, “The issues are very complex and serious. The board had to go to third parties to get information, and also encountered delays in getting information from the candidate. This audit has been going on for months and years with many opportunities for the campaign to clear up any issues.”

Lopez may have her last chance to clear things up on Nov. 16, when the finance board will hear her lawyer’s response and possibly make a final determination in a closed-door session after the hearing on whether she will be fined.

As Lynn of C.F.B. explained it, after an election, people can only be paid for “normal wrap-up activities,” such as holiday card mailings, thank you letters, utility bills and rents and the like.

“If somebody volunteered, you can’t turn around and say that person is a worker,” Lynn explained. “You can’t turn around and pay that volunteer for previous services as a volunteer.” Similarly, using public funds to make bonus payments or gifts to staff or volunteers after an election is not allowed, she said.

Lopez and Johnson referred all questions about the ’01 campaign to attorney Jerry Goldfeder.

“You need to talk to my lawyer,” Lopez said last Wednesday. “The only thing that you need to do is to talk to him.”

Calls to a phone number listed for a G. Christ on E. 12th St. were fielded by an answering machine that did not allow messages to be left.

Goldfeder, a well-known, politically connected Upper West Side election lawyer, was recently retained to represent the ’01 Lopez campaign. He said the C.F.B. is off base in their charges, and he offered answers in response.

“All payments were made properly,” Goldfeder said. “All records were submitted to the Campaign Finance Board. Anyone who worked for the campaign was paid on a timely basis. They were paid on Nov. 6,” he said, noting that some payments were mailed and some hand delivered. “The board appears to be confused, because not everybody cashes a check immediately,” he noted. “And so, they infer that we paid them for work after the [election]. These people worked on Election Day and they were paid on Election Day.”

As for a $1,300 payment to AHONA Housing Development Fund Corporation — another expenditure that C.F.B. is disputing — Goldfeder said this was rent for a ground-floor space in the E. 11th St. building in which Lopez also has a co-op apartment. The space, which had been vacated in June, was used for two months as one of Lopez’s several campaign headquarters, he said.

Regarding allegations of “apparent fraud and misrepresentation” in connection with a subpoena by C.F.B. to Lopez’s campaign bank, the attorney said C.F.B. is claiming Lopez told the board she never received it. Yet, he said, it was the bank that was subpoenaed and which did provide the records regarding cancelled checks to the board. Like many banks, the credit union doesn’t send customers their cancelled checks, so records must be consulted instead, he noted.

“We didn’t stand in the way,” Goldfeder stressed, regarding access to the credit union’s records.

On the subject of a violation of accepting a $500 contribution from an unregistered committee, the Committee to Re-elect Nydia Velazquez, which C.F.B. also disputed, Goldfeder said, “The $500 was returned — it was a mistake and it was returned.”

In general, Goldfeder said, the use of the word “fraud” by C.F.B. is simply a “bootstrap” term the board uses when it doesn’t accept a candidate’s defense of his or her expenditures — when “They don’t believe you, and then they say that you’re lying.”

Because of the unresolved problems with her ’01 funds, in order to get the C.F.B. to release $453,745 in matching funds for her B.P. campaign this year, Lopez first had to pay the board a bond of $185,877 in August as “a protection to the taxpayer,” representing the highest liability of public funds from her ’01 campaign and potential penalties. Ten friends and supporters pitched in to loan Lopez most of the money for this payment.

“Margarita was so incensed when she got this bogus notice [of alleged campaign finance violations] on Aug. 1 that she decided to pay all the money they asked for, as long as she retained the right to contest these allegations,” Goldfeder said. “If she thought for a moment there was validity to any of this she would not have given the board the $185,877 in good faith.”

Asked last week about the reportedly missing financial and volunteer records from the ’01 campaign, Goldfeder initially denied any knowledge about this issue, noting he had only been retained recently and so didn’t know about this. And he said he wouldn’t make any attempt to verify if these records do exist.

“I never heard of this issue, and I’m not going to do your work for you,” Goldfeder told The Villager. “The Campaign Finance Board is not alleging that [the records have been destroyed] — I am not going to make phone calls for you.”

On Monday, after being told that The Villager had subsequently spoken to a volunteer from the ’01 campaign who is claiming that the records are either missing or destroyed, Goldfeder initially said he would not respond until being told the volunteer’s name. The Villager refused.

“You are making an allegation about an unnamed person,” Goldfeder said. “I have no way of verifying or disputing that allegation because you’re not identifying the person who is making the allegation,” he said, adding, “I want you to quote me on that.”

However, asked how knowing the volunteer’s name has any bearing on whether the records exist or not, Goldfeder later said, “Of course the records exist.”

Like Van Aver, Susan Stetzer, district manager of C.B. 3 and a former co-president of CoDA, Lopez’s political organization, said she too was “surprised” to receive a $300 check from Lopez’s ’01 campaign. Stetzer said that in 2001 she had worked for Lopez’s campaign, then managed Rocky Chin’s Council District 1 primary campaign, then came back to “help” Lopez in the general election.

“I certainly remember getting it,” Stetzer said of the payment. “It was a nice surprise. I honestly don’t remember when I got it,” she said, though adding she’s sure it was in 2001. “I certainly don’t remember any discrepancy between the date [on the check] and when I received it.”

Former Democratic District Leader Rosie Mendez, who, after winning the District 2 Council election on Tuesday night, will succeed Lopez, who will be term-limited out of the Council at the end of the year, was Lopez’s office chief of staff in 2001. Mendez did work on the campaign. When the campaign manager was let go, the job of managing the campaign was split between several individuals, and Mendez said she basically managed the campaign in her district leader part, covering the East Village, Alphabet City and Lower East Side.
“I was not her treasurer,” Mendez stressed. “I was not involved in setting budget and determining who was getting paid. I did make recommendations about hiring people. The campaign and the political office are two separate things.”

As for the violations cited by the C.F.B. against Lopez, Mendez said, “I don’t really understand what these charges are — I read about them in The Villager.”

Roberto Caballero, a former Lower East Side district leader and a staunch Lopez foe — he’s founder and head of the Committee to Defeat Margarita Lopez — did an analysis of Lopez’s ’01 campaign funds in March 2003. Among other things, he said he was struck by the fact that a number of the women — including Lopez’s partner — living in Lopez’s E. 11th St. H.D.F.C. received payments.

“I just found it strange that everybody seemed to be compensated in that building,” he said. Caballero entitled his analysis “Follow the Money.”

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