Ex-Councilman Steve DiBrienza is considering pulling the plug on his race to win back his old seat in the wake of a growing scandal over yearly, six-figure payouts from the City Council’s so-called “slush fund” to the non-profit DiBrienza has run since leaving the legislature in 2001.
The former lawmaker’s campaign tailspin began last Friday when the New York Post reported that the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation — the shadowy Windsor Terrace group DiBrienza founded after his failed race for public advocate — has been entirely funded by $1.19 million in taxpayer funds it has received from the Council since 2002.
The money is supposedly spent on youth sports teams and organize anti-graffiti drives.
When reached by The Brooklyn Paper, DiBrienza said his group sponsored soccer, basketball and softball teams at three Catholic schools in Windsor Terrace and Park Slope.
But a sports director at one of the schools said he hadn’t heard of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation or seen DiBrienza in years.
“I know all the sponsors,” said the athletic director. “[DiBrienza] has helped us in the past, but I couldn’t tell you the last time.”
Neighborhood activists also said they have barely heard of DiBrienza’s group or seen it in action.
“I respect the work he did when he was a council person, but to be honest, I haven’t seem him around the community in eight years,” said Randy Pairs, the chairman of Community Board 7 who is also supporting DiBrienza rival Brad Lander in the seven-man race to succeed Councilman Bill DeBlasio (D–Park Slope).
DiBrienza’s non-profit is small. Its annual budgets have ranged from $100,000 to $209,825 — almost all of it from the Council grant and almost all of it spent on salaries to its executive director and others who are not required to be identified because they draw pay of less than $50,000.
Executive Director Gail Bauccio, who worked for DiBrienza in the Council, was paid $54,000, plus benefits, for 2007, the last year for which records are available.
Two other employees, including DiBrienza, pulled in $83,262. DiBrienza said that he made $20,000 “at most,” but he must have made more or else the other salary earner’s name would have passed the $50,000 threshold, making his or her name available in city records.
Past salaried employees have included DiBrienza’s wife and other former staffers, including Josephine Beckmann, now district manager of Community Board 10 in Bay Ridge. Beckmann did not return a call.
The city Department of Youth and Cultural Development has audited the organization and reported “no significant findings.”
Bauccio said that 155 students participated in Neighborhood Assistance Corporation sports leagues at schools like Holy Name of Jesus on Prospect Park West, and Immaculate Heart of Mary on Fort Hamilton Parkway so far this year. She also said there were 42 participants split between its family services programs and the anti-graffiti program, which draws students from schools like Bishop Ford HS who need to perform community service to graduate.
Not all of the schools returned calls for comment.
“It’s a small niche program serving a working- and middle-class community,” said DiBrienza. “My role is doing community outreach.”
But the connection to the Council’s slush fund — and the high percentage of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation’s budget that goes to salaries — had one of DiBrienza’s council rivals calling for an investigation.
“The people of New York need to know that their hard-earned tax dollars support organizations that provide legitimate services,” said Josh Skaller, a Park Slope resident and club member of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. “I was saddened to read that the City Council has been giving Mr. DiBrienza so many dollars for so many years with so little transparency and accountability — raising so many questions.”
Questions have also arisen about the connections between the city money and DiBrienza’s role in a congressional election. In 2006, Rep. Major Owens retired, setting off a five-way Democratic primary that included Councilmembers David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights) and Yvette Clarke (D–Crown Heights). DiBrienza’s group got $40,000 from an unidentified councilmember or councilmembers that fiscal year — the names of the sponsors were not revealed to the public until reforms that stemmed from last year’s slush fund scandal.
DiBrienza ended up endorsing Yassky in the race. Yassky sponsored DiBrienza’s group with a $15,000 Council grant the next year.
Yassky stood by his disbursement — and denied any quid-pro-quo to win DiBrienza’s endorsement for his ultimately unsuccessful congressional run.
“I always endorse the person I think is going to do the best job,” he said. “I always figure that people endorse me for the same reason.”
Yassky added that he asks the Speaker’s office to fund dozens of groups both inside and outside his council district every year.
Other insiders were surprised by the scandal, saying that DiBrienza had a “clean” reputation in City Hall. But with pressure mounting around the former lawmaker, he suggested that he might drop out of the race.
“If I feel like enough people support me and think I can do a good job, then I’ll continue,” the former four-term councilman told The Brooklyn Paper.