Lopez draws criticism for accepting Birchez campaign donations


By David Avitabile

Assemblyman Pete Lopez vehemently denies any favoritism to the company proposing the 72-unit senior housing project in Schoharie despite accepting campaign donations from Birchez Associates and a sister company.
The Lopez 4 NY campaign received donations of $1,000 each on August 3, 2011 from Birchez Associates of Kingston and August 3, 2012 and $4,100 from Hudson River Productions Inc. of Kingston on July 6, 2012, according to the campaign financial disclosure statement provided by the state Board of Elections.
Birchez Associates and Hudson River Productions share the same address in Kingston and according to Assemblyman Lopez, are sister companies.
Monday, Assemblyman Lopez categorically denied any wrong doing or favoritism.
"If someone gives more $1,000, do they own me? Absolutely not. I wouldn't allow that."
Project opponent Arlene Vrooman, who lives near the proposed project, brought the donation issue to light and isn't so sure.
"It troubles me that politics had to enter into this...It shouldn't have gone to politics," she said. "It's all about the money and how much money will come into this village.
Assemblyman Lopez, should have disclosed that his campaign received funds from Birchez--or any related company-Ms. Vrooman said.
Assemblyman Lopez explained that the two donations from Birchez came at annual fundraising events held in August in Saugerties.
After seeing a critical need for housing in the region, especially after Hurricane Irene, Assemblyman Lopez contacted Birchez.
"I invited them here. They didn't come here knocking on the door looking for a favor...I brought Birchez in."
It wasn't a case of Birchez giving money and then asking for a favor, he said, explaing: "I see a need. I bring a willing person there in good faith and that's where my role ends."
Assemblyman Lopez pointed out that he final decision on whether the project goes forward is up to the planning board; it's not his decision.
He also said critics of the project should look at where the campaign donations went.
At least $1,000 of the donations went to repair a van that was damaged when he was responding to the VanAller farm after the August 2011 flood.
His own vehicle was out of service after the flood.
Assemblyman Lopez noted that the state only pays for one Assembly office and doesn't reimburse for traveling expenses or cell phones, and as a family, he and his wife, Lisa, have had to spend $12,000-$15,000 out of their pockets each year to cover expenses.
Donations from individuals and companies are necessary to help fill the gap.
"We do it because it simply has to be done," he said, dismayed that the project's focus has shifted to his finances.
"I feel bad that my neighbors feel that they have to be pushed to these extremes," Assemblyman Lopez said, calling it "an attempt to vilify neighbors and derail a project...
"It's saddening to see, to be honest, to try to discredit my efforts in the community."
Assemblyman Lopez was informed by the state last week that the funds from Hudson River Productions must be returned because that company exceeded its donation limit.