Buffalo Assemblywoman Enjoying New Found Influence

The replacement of a Board of Regents member isn’t exactly front page news but it’s a subtle signal the new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has his own set of political allies.  There’s early indication Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes is one of them and already has the new Speaker’s ear.

“I do have a very good relationship with him.  I have enormous respect for him.  He’s not served all that many years longer than I have so we’ve kind of come up together,” Peoples-Stokes said.

The Buffalo Democrat appeared to be flexing her new found influence when reports surfaced that longtime Board of Regents member Bob Bennett was being replaced.  Bennett told Time Warner Cable News, Sunday night, he took his name out of consideration after Peoples-Stokes told him she was recommending a different candidate to the Speaker.

“When the legislature’s in joint session, the Speaker really controls the entire thing,” said Bennett.

“Without any doubt Crystal Peoples-Stokes has reached a point of the most influence she’s had since she got there, absolutely,” Democratic political consultant Jack O’Donnell said.

Stokes has served in the Assembly since 2003.  Despite her tenure she’s had a hard time gaining the support of her own party with some Erie County Democrats, including Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, reportedly favoring her primary opponent last fall. 

Peoples-Stokes easily won the primary over former State Senator Antoine Thompson and her seventh term in the Assembly.  Some say she also proved she’s an emerging political power.

“There were a lot of big name (Erie County) Democrats behind him (Thompson). He had a lot of resources at his disposal and the fact that she did so well and was so well-respected in her district only strengthens her in Albany and in dealing with folks in the Assembly leadership,” said O’Donnell.

Peoples-Stokes relationship with Carl Heastie dates back to her work with the organization Grass Roots Buffalo. An organization Heastie reached out to for advice during his time as a Democratic leader in the Bronx.

“Crystal, (Buffalo Mayor) Byron (Brown) and Maurice Garner and Grassroots sort of was a template for how a young generation of African-American leaders took office. Unlike some of their predecessors who were challenging entrenched, often white, elected officials, Grassroots was basically a reaction to Art Eve and the Art Eve machine,” O’Donnell said

Eve, the well-known Buffalo Democrat, held that Assembly Seat before Peoples-Stokes. O’Donnell says she may have already eclipsed the former Deputy Speaker’s influence in the Assembly.

Peoples-Stokes has maintained her relationship with Heastie and if this recent move with the Board of Regents Seat is any indication she won’t be shy about taking advantage of it.

“The fact is that the Speaker cares what Crystal Peoples-Stokes thinks and I think her opinion carries a lot of weight, not just with the Speaker himself as it clearly does but Crystal’s become a real leader within the Women’s Conference in the Democratic Assembly and she’s also become a real leader in the Black and Puerto Rican Conference,” O’Donnell said.

“He’s a good guy. I’m grateful that I have a relationship with him. And I think the fact that I do have a good relationship with him, and have his ear, will bode well for Buffalo,” Peoples-Stokes added.


Koppell Pressures Klein On Pre-K (Updated)

Former Bronx Councilman Oliver Koppell, who is reportedly mulling a primary challenge to IDC Leader Jeff Klein this fall, issued a statement this morning blaming Klein for the refusal of his power-sharing partner, Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos, to allow a bill establishing NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tax-the-rich-for-pre-K plan to the floor for a vote.

Koppell called Skelos’ decision to block the measure “outrageous,” said said the “only reason” the GOP leader is allowed to block this and other progressive legislation “is because of his backroom deal with Senator Jeff Klein.”

“As a former Councilmember who represented much of Senator Klein’s Senate District and a current resident of this district, I call upon Senator Klein to immediately renounce his self-serving agreement with Senator Skelos and rejoin the Democratic Conference.”

This is the first time I can recall that Koppell issued a formal statement on anything to do with the goings on in Albany.

The former councilman, who also served a brief stint in the state attorney general’s office, has not officially announced a challenge to Klein, but he has discussed a possible run with the IDC leader’s political nemesis, DSCC Chairman Mike Gianaris. If nothing else, this statement serves to put Klein on notice (assuming he wasn’t already) that Koppell is waiting in the wings.

But Klein has doubled down on his support for de Blasio’s plan to tax wealthy New York City residents to fund universal pre-K and after school programs.

Yesterday, the senator upped the ante – and further drove a wedge between himself and Skelos – by saying he would not support a budget plan that does not “realize the vision Mayor de Blasio and I share of providing high-quality, universal pre-k to the 50,000 four year olds who need it,” adding: “Mayor de Blasio’s plan is the only one that provides New York City with the funding it needs to achieve that goal.”

The left has been agitating for some time against Klein and his fellow IDC members for failing to live up to their promise that their power-sharing deal with the Republicans would result in the passage of more “progressive” legislation, though the IDC has pointed to things like the minimum wage hike as proof that the conference is indeed delivering.

The left has been making noises about supporting primary challengers to IDC members, though they so far have failed to locate any willing candidates. They appear to be keeping their powder dry until at least the end of the budget battle – and perhaps the entire legislative session – to see what kind of progress the conference is able to make.

UPDATE: The Daily News’ Glenn Blain reports that Klein today is walking back his Shermanesque no budget/no pre-K statement from yesterday, reiterating that he’s not in favor of “taxing for the sake of taxing,” and adding: “But again, if we move forward and we find that we can’t fund the universal  program in the city or the state, every alternative has to still be on the table.”

Klein said it’s “too early” to say for certain whether de Blasio’s pre-K plan is “right” compared to the one the governor is proposing, which calls for using $1.5 billion over five yreas to fund pre-K statewide ($100 million total in the first year, $25 million of which is renewing the existing competitive pre-K grants). That’s considerably less than $350 million a year de Blasio says it would cost just to cover re-K in the five boroughs.

Also, after tweaking the Senate Republicans yesterday for being “in the minority,” Klein today rejected the idea that there’s any rift between him and Skelos.

Diaz Sr. Re-Opens Old Wounds

Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., who is reportedly mulling a primary challenge to his fellow Bronx Democrat, Rep. Jose Serrano, is using the modern-day targeting of the Puerto Rican Day Parade by AG Eric Schneiderman to re-visit what he says was the “selling out” of the Latino community in connection with the same event by the congressman back in his days as an assemblyman.

Diaz Sr. has been railing against Schneiderman for his Charities Bureau probe of the embattled Bronx nonprofit behind the Puerto Rican Day ­Parade, which is expected to result in the ouster of its six-member board.

In his latest “What You Should Know” email, Diaz Sr. says he has learned Schneiderman is seeking private meetings with Latino leaders to discuss the parade board’s fate. This, in the senator’s mind, is tantamount to “double crossing” of the community by its elected officials, whose names he has pledged to make public – just as soon as he figures out who has met with whom.

“You should know that the double-crossings of our elected officials in our own community are an ugly part of New York’s history,” Diaz Sr. continues. “One example of these double-crossings has been documented in former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch’s book, ‘Mayor,’ in the chapter he called ‘Minorities: Confronting the Issues.’ Mayor Koch wrote about the city-wide Puerto Rican Community Development Project (PRCDP), a program that helped many Puerto Ricans who came to New York to live. As a matter of fact, I was a beneficiary of the PRCDP: it created the opportunity for me to attend and proudly graduate from Herbert H. Lehman College!”

Diaz Sr. quotes a passage from Koch’s book about the mayor’s decision to close the PRCDP – a decision for which he claimed to have received support from then-Assemblyman Serrano during a visit to Albany for an event known as “County Day.” (Serrano served in the Assembly from 1976 to 1990, when he won a special election for the seat vacated by resigning Rep. Robert García with 92 percent of the vote. Since then, he has been re-elected every year by a wide margin, making his seat one of the safest in Congress).

Subsequently, according to Koch, Serrano signed an open letter criticizing the mayor’s decision that appeared in El Diario on the same day then-Rep. Herman Badillo was qoted in the paper attacking Koch’s Deputy Mayor, Haskell Ward, for orchestrating the closing of the PRCDP, calling Ward “negligent and incompetent.”

“My dear reader, this is exactly why our community has never been strong,” the senator concluded. “Too often, our elected officials say something and then go behind our backs and say – and do – something else.”

“Mayor Ed Koch’s story about José Serrano happened when José Serrano was a State Assemblymember from the South Bronx, but this story is still happening today – with more elected officials, meeting behind closed doors and trying to destroy the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.”

“When Mayor Koch was the Mayor, José Serrano (who is now a U.S. Congressman) sold us out, and we did not learn. Today, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and public officials from our community meet with him behind closed doors to decide the fate of our Puerto Rican Day Parade (which is less than 4 months away) and we in the Puerto Rican community are being double-crossed by our elected officials, once again.”

Diaz Sr. is calling on Schneiderman to release the names of the elected officials with whom he has met to discuss the parade, and says he is praying that Serrano is not one of them. (I have a call into the congressman, and will update if he returns it).

Mysterious Moreland Commission Robocall

A NYC-based reader call in to report that he had received a mysterious robocall today on his cellular phone that appeared to be from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s corruption-busting Moreland Commission and name checked a Bronx assemblywoman whose dubious slot machine winnings have been making headlines of late.

Sadly, the reader did not have a chance to record the call or write down a word-for-word version of the script.

But he said the gist of the call was that Cuomo had created a commission to investigate public corruption by elected officials, and made specific mention of Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo, alleging she has bilked taxpayers out of more money than “some of us take home in a year.”

Arroyo and her daughter, City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, have both been accused – but not charged – of funneling taxpayer money into family-run non-profits. One of the assemblywoman’s grandsons did time for embezzling $115,000  from a charity tied to the family.

In recent months, the assemblywoman’s report on her JCOPE financial filing of a $30,000 gambling win – which purportedly took place at Saratoga Casino and Raceway – raised eyebrows.

According to this reader, the robocall asked that anyone with additional information about Arroyo or any other “corrupt” pol press one to be connected directly with the commission. The call was placed from a number with a 518 area code that has been disconnected.

Moreland Commission Executive Director Regina Calcaterra laughed when I asked if the commission is robocalling and responded: “Definitely not.”

In Other Corruption News: Diaz Aide Sentenced

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the sentencing of Clement Gardner, a former aide to Bronx Sen. Ruben Diaz, after he pleaded guilty to charges he embezzled more than $500,000 from taxpayer-funded charities in the Bronx during an eight-year period.

He was sentenced 2-to-6 years in prison.

“The defendant used two publicly funded Bronx organizations like his personal piggy bank, diverting more than a half million dollars earmarked for services for needy New Yorkers in just over eight years,” Attorney General Schneiderman said in a statement. “We will not tolerate those who abuse the public trust for personal gain, and will continue to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. Today’s sentence brings justice for Mr. Gardner’s crimes.”

Gardner was order to pay restitution on the $560,000 by Justice Steven Barrett, who accepted the guilty plea on Feb. 28.

The arrest of Garnder came after a probe that was conducted in cooperation with the AG’s office and the city’s Department of Investigation.

Gardner was found to have written checks to himself from two non-profit organizations based in the Brxon, Christian Community Benevolent Association and Christian Community in Action.

Schneiderman’s office says the vast majority of funding for Christian Community In Action received tens of millions of dollars from the Medicaid program, while the Christian Community Benevolent Association received about $495,000 in member item grants.

Changes In Sen. Rivera’s Office

Sen. Gustavo Rivera is losing his chief of staff, Conchita Cruz, who is returning to work on the Hill in Washington after spending just over two years working for the Bronx Democrat.

Cruz is taking a new job as deputy chief of staff to Colorado Rep. Jared Polis. (This will be her second time working for the Democratic congressman. She served as a legislative aide in his office after he was elected in 2008 as the third sitting openly gay member of Congress and the first non-incumbent openly gay man to be elected to serve on Capitol Hill).

Cruz, who multi-tasked a lot during her stint with the senator, but has a particular interest in immigration law and reform, will be replaced by Meghan Lynch, who was previously the chief of staff for Bronx Council Member Annabel Palma and also worked for former Bronx BP Adolfo Carrion.

“While I am sorry to see her leave our office, I am heartened that Conchita will be returning to Washington to work on immigration policy at this critical moment when we are so close to passing comprehensive immigration reform,” Rivera said said in a statement.

“I am extremely excited to be welcoming Meghan Lynch to my staff, whose background in health policy and social services will be a tremendous asset as I begin to work as the new ranking member of the Health committee.”

Rivera has also promoted Katrina Asante, who has worked in his office since 2011, to the role of deputy chief of staff.

Rivera took office in January 2011 after defeating former Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr. in a high-profile 2010 Democratic primary.

Prior to his election to the Senate, Rivera worked as a political operative himself, doing a stint as chief of staff for now-Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ campaign and in US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office.

Bronx Man Pleads Guilty To Embezzling From Diaz Sr.-Founded Non-Profits

A Bronx man has pleaded guilty to charges that he embezzled more than half a million dollars from two taxpayer-funded Bronx charities founded by state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. over an eight-year period, AG Eric Schneiderman announced today.

Gardner Photo

Clement I. Gardner pleaded guilty to the felony charge of Grand Larceny in the Second Degree. That count alleged he stole approximately $560,000 in public and charitable assets while serving as fiscal officer for two related Bronx not-for-profit corporations: Christian Community Benevolent Association, Inc. and Christian Community in Action.

“The defendant used two publicly funded Bronx organizations like his personal piggy bank, diverting more than a half million dollars earmarked for services for needy New Yorkers in little over eight years,” the AG said. “My office has zero tolerance for those who abuse the public trust for personal gain, and will continue to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

Between December 31, 2003 and February 12, 2012, Gardner wrote numerous checks to himself from CCBA and CCIA bank accounts and then falsified business records to conceal his crimes, Schneiderman said.

Part of the money was taxpayer-funded member item grants directed to the charities by Diaz Sr., who has not been implicated in this case. He’s not mentioned in Schneiderman’s press release.

Diaz Sr. directed close to $495,000 to CCBA between 2006 and 2007. The Bronx Democrat founded the organization in 1977 in the basement of the Church of God on Seward Avenue, according to his official Senate biography, and served as its executive director until shortly before his election to his current post in 2002.

In exchange for his guilty plea, Gardner will be sentenced on March 20 to two to six years in state prison. At sentencing, acting state Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett will enter an order of restitution for $560,000.

Gardner was arrested last March. Until then, he served as fiscal officer for both CCBA, which provides recreational and educational opportunities to Bronx children and seniors, and CCIA, which provided home health services to the disabled and elderly.

Gardner managed the finances of both organizations, maintained their expense records, and administered their bank accounts, according to the AG.

Following Gardner’s arrest, Schneiderman’s office said the investigation was ongoing, and Diaz Sr. expressed “shock” that his onetime “close ally” could have done such a thing. As for any question about whether the senator himself was somehow involved, Diaz Sr. said:

“If I ever lost my salvation, which I doubt it, it would not be for money,  because I am in the business of giving, not in the business of taking.”

Sen. Diaz Sr. Opposes Cuomo’s High Court Pick, Compares Gov To Caesar (Updated)

Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. devoted his latest “What You Should Know” polemic to the mini dust-up over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first Court of Appeals nominee, CUNY Law Prof. Jenny Rivera, which the Bronx Democrat sees as an effort by the governor to further divide the already divided state Senate.

You should consider the messenger on this one, particularly since Diaz is particularly proud of his heritage (he, like Rivera, is Puerto Rican), and quick to accuse his fellow elected officials of giving Latinos the short end of the stick.

In short, Diaz Sr. says he agrees with the Senate Republicans that Rivera, who worked for Cuomo when he was state attorney general, is not sufficiently qualified to serve on New York’s highest court “due to the fact that she has neither been a judge nor a litigator.”

And the senator believes Cuomo selected Rivera over a host of superior Latino candidates – and he does name names – to further his own (rather nefarious, in the senator’s eyes) political agenda.

“Apparently Governor Cuomo knew that this tactic of divide and conquer could be used with skill to appoint one of his friends, knowing that she is not the most qualified and does not have the necessary experience compared to others, but knowing that any non-Hispanic who would vote against her would create the perception that he or she was Anti-Hispanic,” Diaz Sr. wrote. “Governor Cuomo could win points with the Hispanic community and Hispanic media by defending her nomination.”

“You should know that I believe that if Governor Cuomo wanted to appoint a Hispanic and not create the mess as he has done now by bringing more division to the Senate Floor, he should have spent some time with the Senate Leadership and Hispanic Senators.”

“…You should know – and the world should know – that we in New York State have many Puerto Rican, Dominican and other Hispanic Judges with a lot more experience and better qualifications than Jenny Rivera.”

“She’s not – and I repeat, not – the best we have, and the Governor knows it. But it’s a lot better for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s presidential ambitions to use the Hispanic community and the Hispanic media to create a ‘divide and conquer’ crisis.”

Diaz Sr. listed a number of Latino judges he believes would have been a better pick for Cuomo than Rivera, including Rolando T. Acosta, a Dominican-American appeals court judge.

Of course, Cuomo is limited in his options when it comes to appointing a new court of appeals judge (in this case, to replace Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, a Mario Cuomo appointee who reached the mandatory retirement age last year and had to step off the bench). He must select from a list perpared for him by the Commission on Judicial Nomination.

It just so happens that Asocta is on that list.

So was Margarita Rosa, who is also Puerto Rican and a former Commissioner of the NYS Division of Human Rights (during the first Cuomo administration). She’s currently the executive director of Grand Street Settlement, a community service agency in New York City.

She also was the only candidate on the list that was rated “not qualified” by the New  York State Bar Association.

Cuomo gets another shot at filling a high court seat as a result of the untimely death last November of Judge Theodore  Jones, the only African-American on the court. A list of candidates for Jones’ seat will be submitted to Cuomo in March.

Rivera did make it out of the Judiciary Committee after a tense two-day grilling period. Her nomination is scheduled to come up for a vote before the entire Senate on Monday.

UPDATE: In my haste to write this post, I overlooked the very first paragraph, in which Diaz Sr. compares Cuomo to Julius Caesar. Normally, this wouldn’t be noteworthy, since the senator is known for his colorful – if not downright inflammatory – commentary.

But since it comes on the heels of yesterday’s tempest in a teapot that saw Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin roundly criticized for comparing the governor to two fascist dictators – Hitler and Mussolini – it seems only fair to point out that Diaz Sr. opened his commentary thusly:

“You should know that even though it is impossible to say for certain, it is Julius Caesar who has been attributed to the quote ‘Divide et impera’ which translates from Latin to mean ‘Divide and Conquer.'”

“You should also know that New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo – one more time – has proven to be a very Machiavellian and skillful politician. This time, using that old tactic of ‘divide and conquer’ to pit the Hispanic community against the non-Hispanic community, especially the Republicans in the New York State Senate to secure the nomination of Miss Jenny Rivera, a ‘Puerto Rican,’ to the State of New York’s top Court, the Court of Appeals.”