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June 15, 2013

A disgrace to New York

By Diane R. Pagen Guest Commentary
The Daily Star

---- — It pays to save emails. As far back as February 2010, I’ve been getting e-mails about the shady dealings, bullying tactics, and misuse of non-profit funds that Vito Lopez was dishing out from his privileged position of elected official for the 53rd district, in Brooklyn.

Mr. Lopez is not only a politician. He is also a social worker. While most social workers are slogging away trying to help the poor, Mr. Lopez chose to enter politics.

Social work is a great field to come from if you want to go into politics — presumably because our work makes us aware of the needs of people. Social workers are usually willing to fight against special interests, and with a degree of integrity. Social workers have a formal code of ethics: we are supposed to be sworn to service, social justice, and integrity, to name a few things in that code.

Mr. Lopez, however, jumped from social service into self-enrichment. He has been caught giving a six-figure job to a girlfriend in his own “nonprofit” the Bushwick Ridgewood Senior Citizens Council, which is in Brooklyn, where I now reside. He has harassed his female employees; associates have previously stated to the press that he tried to bully them into giving jobs to his friends’ kids. Bushwick Ridgewood is for Mr. Lopez not a project to make the lives of senior citizens better, but a means to collect about $19 million a year in public and private money and use it tax exempt with no oversight.

Some daringly unethical politicians would put their girlfriend in a job and pay her a modest six-figure salary, in the hope that they would stay under the radar. But not Lopez. He was paying her $782,000 a year.

Just a little favor, paid from monies meant to go to fixed-income seniors.Thanks to that theft alone, seniors in his district were probably eating a lot more tuna fish and cold cereal than any of them would like.

To put it in perspective, that amount of money would pay for twenty social services caseworkers for a typical upstate county, like Delaware County, where I was a caseworker in 2011. Or it would pay to give Food Stamps for one year to 500 more destitute upstate kids.

No matter. Lopez’s girlfriend created documents after the fact to make the salary look quasi-legitimate, and Lopez continued on, creating a life of luxury for himself while his constituents and real social services workers braved an anemic economy.

I imagine that every entity that has given him an “achievement” award would like to forget they ever did, such as the National Association of Social Workers of NYC did a few years ago. Given what we now know about Mr. Lopez, some of those awards may have been helped along by his promises of financial or other support.

Meanwhile, real social workers make anywhere from $35,000 to $65,000 a year working with the public. There are many who labor with great dedication trying to get housing, food, income and opportunities for the worst off in this city.

We do it hoping that politicians like Lopez are working to change policies so that we will have a social welfare system that actually makes it possible for social workers to steer people to the things they need. From housing to jobs to food, we can’t lead people to stuff that isn’t there.

But Lopez was too busy building his own easy street to be concerned with changing policy to benefit New Yorkers. And now he is pretty well set, despite his resignation. Unfortunately, “this ugly chapter” as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said of Mr. Lopez’s time in the State Assembly, is not going to end unless we do something extraordinary.

He should not be permitted to receive his $64,000 pension. For him to get this generous payment every year defies sound public policy and common decency. When I think of him collecting this money, I think of many families I visited as a CPS worker: in Andes, Margaretville, Fleischmanns, and on an on, jumping through hopes to get public help while the state budget got smaller and smaller.

And with no shame whatsoever, Lopez now plans to continue his “public service” by running for New York City Council as well. Flush with ill gotten cash and with the allegiance of people he did favors for, he may just get in, too. Not bad for social work, Mr. Lopez.

DIANE R. PAGEN, LMSW, is a former Delhi resident.