Vol. 17, No. 18 Sept. 9 - 22, 2004


Gonzalez' Ties to Nonprofits Probed


Federal prosecutors are investigating whether State Senator Efrain Gonzalez improperly funneled campaign contributions and government grants into three nonprofit organizations that employ family and associates of the Bronx Democratic lawmaker.   
The New York Post reported in August that the U.S. attorney's office and the city's Department of Investigation have subpoenaed Gonzalez, his wife and other Bronx officials as part of a probe into taxpayer-funded nonprofits. 

In his first interview since the scandal broke, Gonzalez said he was innocent. "I haven't done anything wrong," said Gonzalez, who has retained veteran Bronx defense lawyer Murray Richman. "Everything is just speculation. Whatever the investigators are looking for will come out in the process." 

Two of the organizations in question --  the West Bronx Neighborhood Association (WBNA) and the National Hispanic Policy Institute --  have offices in the same building where Gonzalez' district office is located, 1780 Grand Concourse. The third organization, the Institute for Multicultural Communication, Cooperation and Development, lists its office at 1840 Grand Concourse. 

Despite the fact that tax returns indicate that the WBNA has no staff, it spent almost $59,000 on travel between 2000 and 2002. The Post first reported on the travel expenses, and The Riverdale Press provided further details. 

The WBNA also racked up over $57,000 in telephone expenses during those same years. WBNA's officers include the senator's brother, Angel, and Lucia Sanchez, who shared Gonzalez' apartment until his recent marriage, according to The Riverdale Press.

Tax documents indicate that WBNA's purpose is "Educational/Cultural/Youth Programs/Community Issues/Family Values/Environmental Issues/Voter Registration Drive [and] Scholarships."

But, despite this wide-ranging mission, and even though it spent over $210,000 on "conventions, conferences and meetings" over a three-year period, Bronx community leaders interviewed by the Norwood News say they've never heard of WBNA. 

Asked why the Norwood News had never heard of WBNA or received press releases or events notices from the group, Jose Nicot, a volunteer who answered the phone at WBNA, said the group dutifully avoids the public eye. 

"We shun any and all publicity," Nicot said. "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."

Nicot said the group sponsors "lots and lots of youth activities," including neighborhood concerts and education scholarships. As for conferences and conventions, Nicot said WBNA does not run its own but sponsors other people to organize such events. 

Gonzalez also said that WBNA has kept a low profile, but defended their work. "Nobody knows what they're about," he said. "They've done a lot of work ... and that will come out."

The Institute for Multicultural Communication, Cooperation and Development lists Ismael Betancourt, Jr. as its president. Betancourt, who has run for several offices unsuccessfully, including Bronx borough president, received compensation of $100,000 in 1997 and $27,000 in 2000. The 2000 tax document says he worked 40 hours a week but the 1997 document lists no work schedule. 

Reached at the phone number listed on the organization's tax return and asked what the Institute for Multicultural Communication does, Betancourt said it produces concerts, conferences, videos, and provides "business assistance." Asked to name a recent concert, he mentioned an event at the Apollo Theatre in 2003 but ended the conversation when asked for more specifics.

The National Hispanic Policy Institute, which says its purpose is to "involve the private sector in economic advancement of the Hispanic community" fought the merger of two Spanish-language media titans, Univision and Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, last year. The Institute ran a series of advertisements against the deal and, once it was approved by the Federal Communications Commission, appealed the decision unsuccessfully. 

Gonzalez says the merger hurts the Spanish-language market. The deal severely hurt Spanish Broadcasting Systems, which owns many national radio stations. The company donated $7,000 to Gonzalez' Senate campaign in 2000. 

Gonzalez says that the Policy Institute is a national organization with satellite space in his office. "They are based in Washington with an office here . . . next to my office," he said. Betancourt is a board member of the group.

Senator Gonzalez' campaign committee, Friends of Senator Gonzalez, has donated $38,800 to WBNA over the last four years, according to publicly available campaign finance records. The Institute for Multicultural Communication received $1,500 in 2002 from his campaign fund. 

Gonzalez defended his support for the nonprofits, saying he tries to help all the local groups. "What's wrong with helping groups privately?" he asked. "It doesn't have to be from government. What's wrong with that?"

While Gonzalez wouldn't comment about specific donations, he did say that "grassroots" groups like these needed all the help they could get. "People don't understand what grassroots means --  it means you got no money," he said. "We're not the Bloombergs. We're little people."

The organization's budgets are not insignificant, however. The Institute for Multicultural Communication, for example, recorded $327,000 in revenue in 1999, including $110,000 in government grants. The tax documents do not specify the source of that government support.

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