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Gonzalez Defends Reputation

February 21, 2007

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Efrain Gonzalez, the Bronx state senator who was charged last year with stealing close to half a million dollars in state funds, has been difficult to get hold of lately.

In early February, messages left on his Albany office voice mail were not returned, and calls to his Grand Concourse district office went unanswered. It was beginning to look like Gonzalez, who faces more than 100 years in jail if convicted of all charges, had quietly removed himself from public life.

Last Thursday, however, a woman – who wouldn’t give her name – answered the senator’s Albany phone. She said Gonzalez’ district office was closed after it had been flooded two weeks earlier, but that up in the state capital it’s business as usual.

She worked for the Senate, she said, not Gonzalez, and was simply using space in his office. Nonetheless, she leapt to his defense when asked how the senator was doing, and insisted his legal problems aren’t affecting his day job.

“He’s highly respected up here,” she said. “He’s the ranker on Economic [ranking minority on Economic Development and Small Business Committee], he has conferences, he votes on bills, he sits on Finance, he meets with his constituents. He’s doing what a state legislator is supposed to do.”

She promised she’d pass on a message. Sure enough, 10 minutes later, Gonzalez called back, and talked for an hour about his determination to continue his work, how he can’t wait to clear his name, and how he thinks he’s been demonized by a media that’s addicted to “opinions not facts.”

“I’m looking forward to my day in court,” he said. “It will exonerate me and I’ll be able to continue to do God’s work.”

Most of the charges against Gonzalez are tied to accusations that he funneled member item money – state funds allocated to legislators to spend on projects of their choosing – through non-profit organizations and then back into his own pocket. He used the cash, prosecutors say, to support his cigar company, and pay for, among other things, his daughter’s education.

Last October, when a state judge ordered that every state legislator’s member items be made public, supporters of the decision saw it as a move towards a more transparent legislature, and a blow to greedy, self-serving lawmakers.

Gonzalez says he is one of these supporters. “I prefer it out in the open, it’s great,” he said.

When reminded that he refused to disclose his own member items in an interview with the Norwood News earlier that year, Gonzalez said his comments were misconstrued. “I didn’t refuse,” he said, adding that member item details were even then easy to get hold of, and that he didn’t want to do the reporter’s job for him.

[Member items were not available to the public at the time, which is why the Albany Times Union sued the legislature to get the data.]

Gonzalez, a state senator since 1989, says he’s angry at the media attention this funding stream is getting. “Member items are half-a-penny in the bigger picture,” he said. “They’re not even a pimple on a donkey’s behind.”

This bigger picture, says Gonzalez, is the billions of dollars that make up the state budget. Legislators, he says, work tirelessly behind the scenes to bring a piece of this pie to their districts. The press, he says, should “go to the bigger fights” of why people in the Bronx aren’t receiving much needed services.

“[But] member items are sexy,” he said. “Right now I’m the poster boy.”

Gonzalez claims he doesn’t need newspapers or television to keep his constituents in the know. “I’m self-sufficient. I have my own printing press,” he said, without explaining exactly what he is printing.

He works from the ground up, by going into churches and other organizations, he says, to help them help others. And his constituents, who swept him to a big victory in last year’s election, remain behind him, he said.

“They stand with me, they know it’s [the charges] total baloney,” he said. “Who’s doing the demonizing? It’s not the people of color; it’s not the people from the district.”

Gonzalez – who’s talk about working behind the scenes and from the ground up, has led critics to accuse him of doing, well, nothing – says his loyal supporters are considering organizing a rally in his defense.

While his legal problems have cut out some “extracurricular activities,” he’s adamant they haven’t affected his ability to perform his duties. “All my life I’ve done my job and represented my constituents, it’s no different now,” he said. “I return all my constituents’ calls. I’m accessible and reachable. That’s me.”

But right now, he and his staff are somewhat inaccessible as anyone calling his district office at 1780 Grand Concourse (it will reopen later this month after a burst pipe is repaired, he says) or his Albany office, where people not willing to give their names answer the phone, can attest.

Gonzalez and three co-defendants are in court in March for a pre-trial conference hearing, where a judge will set a trial date.

Not that Gonzalez is talking about the trial, or his defense. “Everyone is trying to attack me and I have to stay quiet on the good advice of my lawyer,” Gonzalez said. “I’m innocent and that’s it.”

Carrión Salutes Borough’s Progress

February 13, 2007

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Adolfo Carrión, the Bronx borough president, gave his annual State of the Borough Address at Hostos Community College on Feb. 9, at which he stressed the borough’s accomplishments during his tenure.

In a coup for Carrión and his supporters, the event was attended by New York senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, both of whom gave short speeches. Schumer showered his friend with superlatives; Clinton praised the Bronx’s residents and its leadership.

Carrión looked relaxed and confident, as he addressed a friendly crowd of political allies and Bronx community leaders.

“As we begin 2007,” he said, “… we have made great progress in economic development and job creation, in housing production, in improving the environment, in improving health conditions, in fighting crime, and small but important gains in education.”

Since he became borough president five years ago, Carrión said, Bronx unemployment has fallen more than 50 percent, crime has plummeted, and 23,000 fewer people are living on public assistance.

“Last year, the Bronx ranked third in the state and first in the city in Personal Income Growth,” he said.

According to Carrión, seven out of ten complaints his office receives are housing-related, and there has been progress here as well, he noted, with 28,000 new housing units built since 2001, and significant increases in homeownership.

Meanwhile, the borough’s subway stations are being modernized, its bridges renovated, and its parks and playgrounds – thanks to an unprecedented funding injection – rebuilt.

“He has much to be proud of,” said Jose Rivera, the assemblyman and Bronx Democratic leader.

Carrión said he decided to speak at Hostos because it “is at the epicenter of a new wave of development.” Nearby, the new Yankee Stadium and the Gateway Center, a gigantic retail complex, are being built. Both projects have created thousands of construction jobs and nearly half the contracts have gone to Bronx businesses, he said.

“The Bronx is now seeing the greatest amount of growth and change since the 1920s and 1930s,” Carrión said.

How much credit he can take for many of these projects is open to debate. And Carrión didn’t dwell on significant recent controversies. That the lion’s share of funds for Bronx parks was the result of a deal to build the Croton filtration plant in Van Cortland Park wasn’t mentioned. And Carrión didn’t touch on the bitter community opposition to the new Yankee site, either.

He did admit, however, that there is still work to be done. “The persistent bad news is that poverty and all its related issues remains a problem that grips still too many in our community,” he said.

There continues to be a shortage of affordable housing, he went on, and HIV/AIDS, cancer, and diabetes, remain rife. Moreover, too many kids are failing in school.

This year, the borough president’s office is launching an education task force with the aim of connecting schools with business and philanthropy. Gang violence, too, will be addressed.

He also took the opportunity to talk about a number of upcoming projects he’s excited about, including Mount Hope Housing Company’s new community center, being built on East 175th Street, and the planned Kips Bay Boys & Girls West Bronx youth center, on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

Long term, Carrión has plans for a hotel and conference center, a children’s’ museum, and a hip-hop museum. “Cleveland has the Museum of Rock ‘n Roll, the Bronx will have the Museum of Hip-Hop… Why not?” he asked.

Carrión gave shout-outs to several Bronx politicians, and he had warm words for Clinton, who he introduced as “the next president of the United States of America,” to whoops of appreciation.

“I just wanted to come and hear what a real presidential address sounded like!” Clinton told the crowd. “What Adolfo said… is so true: The Bronx is back because of great leadership and because the residents of the Bronx made it happen.”

Clinton’s appearance served to extinguish rumors that Carrión favors Barack Obama, the Illinois senator, and a rival of Clinton’s in next year’s Democratic primary.

In a press conference afterwards, Carrión said that he met with Obama, who he called “a very bright young senator.”

But, he told reporters, he supports Clinton for the White House. “Look, she’s our New York senator, she’s a friend, she has worked very hard to bring resources to this state and I think she’ll do the same for this country,” he said. “And when I talk about an urban agenda, I think we’re on the same page.”

Carrión, of course, has dreams of higher office himself: it’s a virtual certainty that he will enter the race for Gracie Mansion in 2009.

“As you know, after I’m done serving as borough president, I will continue serving our city in one capacity or another,” he said. “So, over the next few years… you will hear me chime in with more regularity on the issues that affect every borough of the greatest city in the world.”

With additional reporting from Tony Richards of the Highbridge Horizon.