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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Espada Holds Court in Lofty New Office

Pedro Espada Jr. eats biscotti at his new district office near Fordham Road

Pedro Espada Jr.’s new district office, eight months in the making, sits seven floors above the street in a swank office building near Fordham Road. It’s beautiful. New carpeting, new paint job. Giant photos of the controversial Bronx State Senator adorn the back wall. One shows Espada wearing a suit and over-sized red boxing gloves.

It’s a fitting image because the pugnacious Espada – his ringtone is “Eye of the Tiger,” a song made famous in the “Rocky” films – literally fought his way into this office, forcing a leadership struggle between political parties by offering his allegiance to both Republicans and Democrats in exchange for what he calls long-needed Senate reform. After a month of gridlock, accusations and headlines, Espada emerged victorious, for the time being.

He managed to secure a position as the Democratic majority leader, a beefed up staff and two district offices, including the one on Fordham Road and another he says will open someday on Bainbridge Avenue in Norwood.

But Espada’s victories have come at a price.

He’s facing increased criticism and scrutiny on a number of levels. The Bronx District Attorney is investigating whether Espada’s primary residence is actually in the Bronx. The Attorney General is looking into whether he used his healthcare nonprofit for political purposes as well as if he lied about whether he lied on grant he applied for with the state Health Department.

Local housing advocates say he turned their back on them regarding a series of tighter rent regulation laws that he ignored as chairman of the senate’s housing committee. In early August, after Espada negotiated his new majority leader position, his son was hired for a specially created $120,000-a-year job in the State Senate and then fired days later amid accusations of nepotism and the fact that he wasn’t actually showing up to the post.

On Monday, Espada fired his deputy chief of staff after a NY Times reporter told him that the new hire had a long, troubled history as a building manager. On top of that, the new Bronx Chamber of Commerce recently turned down nearly $2 million in member item (discretionary) funding from Espada, who is now scrambling to find other groups to fund with the money.

Earlier today, Espada invited the media to check out his new digs and talk about anything and everything. He spent much of the hour and a half defending his actions and thwarting allegations of misconduct.

He called the investigations “politically motivated” and adds that he’s been under some kind of investigation for 15 years and has not once been convicted of any wrongdoing. (Though he has been reprimanded and fined and three of his employees were sent to prison and then rehired.)

Espada went to great lengths to dispel the notion that he’s in the pockets of the landlords and big developers who have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign coffers. (The money he’s received from landlords and developers pales in comparison to his colleagues, he said.) He does not support the tightening of rent regulations, something landlords adamantly oppose, that would protect tenants, including the repeal of vacancy decontrol, a hot button issue that local tenant advocates say would protect hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units in the city. Instead, Espada said he wants to focus on creating more incentives for developers to construct affordable housing.

As for the nearly $2 million in discretionary funding, which Espada said he originally wanted to give to two newly created nonprofit groups headed by executives at his Soundview Health Care Network, the senator said his staff is now researching other groups to fund.

Since February, Espada has been trying to secure this office space in the Fordham Plaza building. He said Senate Democratic leaders were holding up the funding for it – he says it costs around $3,500 a month -- in another politically motivated move. But, after the leadership struggle, which he calls a “31-day impasse,” Espada got what he wanted.

Sitting at one of the desks in his new office was Espada’s son, Pedro G. Espada, who apparently has some time on his hands after resigning from his senate job a few weeks ago. Asked if his son was now employed by the district office, which is forbidden under state rules, Espada just laughed and said Pedro G. was simply a volunteer. “We’ll let the NY Post write that story,” he said.


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