District 17: The Shameless Venality of Maria del Carmen Arroyo

Last July the Daily News ran a story about CM Maria del Carmen Arroyo of the 17th District in the Bronx.  The story explained that the council member had paid her husband, lawyer Ricardo Aguirre, $15,000 for “consultant” work.  

It appears that it is technically legal to pay a close family member out of campaign funds, as long as the money is from private contributions, not from public matching funds.     However, the money that you have received as a private contribution and since given to your husband is still allowed to be matched by public funds at the 6-to-1 ratio.  Got that?

To City Council Watch this argument about the non-fungible nature of campaign moneys is reminiscent of a child who keeps his lunch money in one pocket, and his comic book money in another pocket.  Or perhaps, as in the patois of the street, “Let me hold five dollars.”

In any case, one would think that CM Arroyo would have been taken up short by the revelation that the majority of her campaign contributions were being paid to her husband, and would have curtailed the practice, if not so much out of embarrassment, then out of pragmatics.  It doesn’t look nice.

But CM Arroyo has not stopped paying her husband since the Daily News story.  In fact she has ramped up her payments.

According to the Campaign Finance Board, the Arroyo 2013 campaign has taken in $55,600.  Of that sum, $42,500 has been paid to her husband for consulting.  The campaign is little more than a pass-through to her own household. 

Well, some may argue, so what?  The people who are contributing to the Arroyo campaign are surely aware what’s up, that 75 cents of every dollar they give to the campaign winds up paying for her and her husband’s vacations or cable bill or whatever.  So, while sleazy, by the low standards set by other recent Bronx politicians, nothing exceptional is going on here.

I thought that too, until when looking through her reported contributions I stumbled upon a tranche of payments over a few days this April from employees of the non-profit social welfare organization the Puerto Rican Family Institute: a dozen or so payments of $5, $10, or $20.  I could list the names and sums given, but you can look it up easily enough: I suspect that the donors have already suffered enough humiliation.

The PRFI does the sort of social work you might expect from the name of the organization.  It helps poor people find housing, get jobs, feed themselves, etc.  The group gets money from the City Council, and receives discretionary grants from CM Arroyo, among several others.

Only CM Arroyo received contributions from the employees of the Puerto Rican Family Institute, however, and in the same month when each council office allots discretionary money.

Is it really a stretch to imagine what I am imagining: that through some kind of cajoling or veiled threat, in the style of thugs throughout history, the campaign of Maria del Carmen Arroyo conveyed the message that continued funding for the PRFI was dependent upon tribute from the employees themselves?  And that the case workers and staffers of the organization, which is not even located in the same borough much less the same district as the Member, opened their wallets and pocketbooks and coughed up the next week’s lunch money, most of which was to be rolled through official channels and then paid out, legally, to her husband?

Maybe it wasn’t like that…maybe the social workers at the PRFI love Maria del Carmen Arroyo and would gladly tithe to her campaign.  A spokesperson at PRFI claimed to have no knowledge of why 13 non-executive employees who live all around the city would have each decided to give a Bronx council member around twenty dollars, all at the same time.

There is a human component to greasy corrupt politics.  A human component, and a human cost.