Thirty years ago, I wrote a front-page article for the Village Voice titled, “The Worst Gang in the South Bronx: Los Politiqueros.” The article identified Ramon S. Velez, also known as “the Cacique,” “el Gordo” and “el Jefe,” as a man who controlled a vast empire of the South Bronx poverty program and as a “boss” who controlled a small group of elected officials.
The article described the power and influence Velez had amassed by controlling elected officials, using jobs and funding to greatly expand his empire. Thirty years later, there have been drastic changes. The elected officials I wrote about 30 years ago have nothing on our current crop of representatives.
Among those recently convicted from the Bronx are City Council Member Larry Seabrook, state Sen. Efrain Gonzalez and state Sen. Pedro Espada. All were convicted for pilfering nonprofits. Assemblyman Nelson Castro has been accused of lying under oath about the 11 people registered to vote in his one-bed apartment. Assemblyman Eric Stevenson is charged with taking bribes to sponsor legislation that would benefit those who allegedly made payments to him. Some contend that these convictions and recent indictments are only the tip of the iceberg.
Pilfering from nonprofits sponsored by elected officials is rampant. There are so many ways to exploit a nonprofit, including doling out patronage jobs, giving out secure contracts and mobilizing potential votes. Both Velez and, later, Espada developed sophisticated forms of taking full advantage of a nonprofit. They both created profit companies (e.g., cleaning, office supplies, computer services), which they fully or partially owned, that provided services to the nonprofit. Their profit corporations would receive money from the nonprofit by providing these services. It is unfortunate that many nonprofits doing great work in the South Bronx are often not funded because of a lack of powerful connections.
A recent report by the National Institute of Latino Policy Studies titled “Game of Thrones” identified numerous families that control the Bronx. Among the clans identified were the Diaz, Arroyo, Serrano and Rivera families. The article concluded that the family dynasties have had a negative impact on the South Bronx. A current Bronx Assembly member has described the current crop of Bronx politicians, saying, “Never in the history of politics, even in its bad days, were there individuals in local politics as ruthless as we have today.”
Pay-to-play politics is alive and well in the Bronx. Recently, it was reported by numerous media outlets that state Sen. Jeffry Klein and Bronx Democratic boss Assemblyman Carl Hastie received substantial campaign contributions to sponsor a bill that would allow check cashing businesses to make personal loans with interest up to 200 percent. The campaign contributions—$50,000 for Klein, and $10,000 for Hastie—were all from the Association of Check Cashing Businesses.
Challenges to the machine are often thwarted by technical requirements that result in challenges being kicked off the ballot. Most Bronx County elected officials use controversial attorney Stanley Schlein as their election lawyer. Schlein, who served his internship under past party boss Stanley Friedman, reports numerous business associations in the Bronx and serves as a consultant to the Yankees. Many contend that since many Bronx judges were supported by Schlein when they ran for office, they feel hesitant to rule against him.
Some of these family dynasties are now involved in charter schools. The Arroyo family in the Bronx has gained great influence in a number of charter schools. They have also been involved in the housing programs. Two years ago, Richard Izquierdo, the grandson of City Council Member Maria Carmen Arroyo, was convicted of embezzling over $114,000 from a South Bronx Housing Program. As rumors abound about more upcoming indictments, we as a community must ask, can we continue to elect and re-elect this type of representation? Can we continue to remain silent, shrugging our shoulders and doing nothing?
The South Bronx cries out for honest leaders who use their position to empower their communities. The Bronx needs each every dollar it receives to be used for community needs—not divided and misused. It has gone too far. It is, indeed, the worst gang in the South Bronx.