By ALEX KRATZ
If State Senator Efrain Gonzalez is found to have defrauded the West Bronx Neighborhood Association, as a recent indictment alleges, he didn’t have to go very far to do it.
In July, Gonzalez sat down for an interview with the Norwood News in a virtually empty two-room suite on the same floor of his district office on the Grand Concourse. Paintings of him as a stately, younger, slimmer lawmaker adorn the wall along with framed logos of his Dominican cigar company.
The suite, which Gonzalez has a punch code for and referred to as his other office, is the headquarters of the West Bronx Neighborhood Association (WBNA), the same non-profit group Gonzalez stands accused of siphoning money from for his own purposes.
On Aug. 25, Gonzalez, who represents the entire Norwood News readership area, was indicted on federal mail fraud charges. The indictment accuses the veteran Bronx lawmaker of using $37,412 of WBNA’s money for personal expenses, including rent in Monroe, NY, and in the Dominican Republic, Yankees tickets, membership at a Dominican vacation club, clothes and college tuition.
That Friday morning, Gonzalez, 58, surrendered to federal authorities. In the afternoon, he appeared in front of a federal judge at a courthouse in Manhattan, but did not enter a plea. According to his lawyer, Murray Richman, Gonzalez will plead not guilty.
The senator was released on $25,000 bail and told not to leave New York. Gonzalez is scheduled to return to court for a pre-trial conference on Oct. 13.
“I will fight for my constituents like I’m going to fight for this case,” Gonzalez told reporters on the courthouse steps Friday afternoon, adding that he would continue to serve as a state senator.
Richman, Gonzalez’ attorney of 30 years, says the indictment is missing something, most notably a charge saying the senator actually stole money.
“An alleged crime that appeared over a period of six years and this is what they come up with?” Richman said. “What is mail fraud anyway? I’m asking you? Do you see the word ‘larceny’ anywhere?”
In Richman’s opinion, the mail fraud charge smacks of a witch-hunt. “He was a target and they were looking for a charge,” Richman said. “What could be sexier than getting a politician?”
The mail fraud count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine of $250,000.
The Gonzalez indictment stems from a joint investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District, and the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI).
“Individuals are elected to public office in order to represent the public’s interests. Instead of using government funds to help the community he represents, this defendant served his own interests while allegedly siphoning government money into his own pockets,” DOI Commisioner Rose Gill Hearn said in a statement.
Heather Tasker, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said the investigation is ongoing.
Richman said he doesn’t believe federal prosecutors will go to trial with only the one count of mail fraud. He expects superseding charges, or replacement charges, if prosecutors intend to take the case to trial.
The investigation began in August 2004. Gonzalez, his wife and several other Bronx officials were subpoenaed by federal prosecutors who were investigating the senator’s relationship with a handful of non-profits, including WBNA, the National Hispanic Policy Institute and the Institute for Multicultural Communication, Cooperation and Development. Gonzalez helped found all three groups and each employed family members and/or associates of the senator. The state attorney general’s office, which tracks tax records for all state non-profits, said that the National Hispanic Policy Institute is delinquent in filing forms and that the Institute for Multicultural Communication, Cooperation and Development didn’t have to file because it had less than $25,000 in assets.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” Gonzalez told the Norwood News in September 2004. “Everything is just speculation. Whatever the investigators are looking for will come out in the process.”
A year ago, the Norwood News reported that, despite tax forms indicating that West Bronx had spent $210,000 on “conventions, conferences, and meetings,” Bronx community leaders had never heard of WBNA. On tax documents, WBNA states that its purposes include educational, cultural, youth programs, community issues, family values, environmental issues, voter registration drives and scholarships.
“We shun all publicity,” said a volunteer who answered the phone at WBNA in 2004. “We don’t really say all the things we do. We prefer to remain silent and help people. If the Lord acknowledges us in the afterlife, that’s good enough for us.”
According to public campaign finance records, Gonzalez’ Friends of Senator Gonzalez campaign committee donated $38,800 to WBNA over a four-year period beginning in 1999.
The Albany Times Union reported on Aug. 26 that WBNA received $112,000 over several years from Pathways for Youth, a New York City non-profit. Pathways, in turn, received at least $30,000 from Gonzalez in member items — state funds doled out at the discretion of individual lawmakers. The senator distributes $290,000 to non-profits in member item funds each year, according to the Times Union. For a story in the previous edition of the Norwood News, Gonzalez refused to divulge his member items.
In July of 2005, Pathways for Youth and an affiliate, the Gloria Wise Boys & Girls Club, were cut off from city contracts – which ran into the millions of dollars – after allegations of impropriety stemming from a DOI probe, according to a Daily News article.
A week after the indictment came down, Lucia Sanchez opened the locked door of Gonzalez’s district office at 1780 Grand Concourse. She looked apprehensive and said she’d been flooded by calls from reporters. On tax documents from 2003, Sanchez is listed as the only director, officer, trustee or key employee of WBNA (Gonzalez’ brother is also listed in previous filings), though she had no title and received no compensation for her work. On 2004 tax forms, Sanchez, who lived with Gonzalez for a time, and a woman named Kenia Castanos, are listed as secretaries who received no compensation.
Sanchez said she’s employed by Senate Minority Leader David Paterson’s office, but is assigned to Gonzalez’ office. When asked about her relationship with Gonzalez, Sanchez said, “No comment.” A Paterson staffer said the office would look into Sanchez’ employment but didn’t call back to comment.
Several calls to WBNA’s voice mail seeking comment were not returned. No one answered when the Norwood News knocked on their door last Thursday.
Gonzalez’ indictment is just the latest in a series of troubles for Bronx politicians. In 2003, Assemblywoman Gloria Davis stepped down after pleading guilty to bribery. And in 2004, State Senator Guy Velella also pleaded guilty to bribery charges and resigned.
Many of the senator’s Bronx colleagues said they respected Gonzalez and hoped the charges against him weren’t true.
One of the longest serving Hispanic state senators, Gonzalez is up for re-election this fall. He’s running unopposed in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary and faces Conservative Party candidate Ernest Kebreau in the November general election.
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