Volume 18 • Issue 12 | August 12 - 18, 2005

Lopez talks about finances and Scientology

By Lincoln Anderson

Margarita Lopez is under fire for taking contributions from Scientology while giving funds to the group’s Downtown detox center, and is also at risk of losing public matching funds because of unresolved problems with her 2001 funds. Yet, the East Side councilmember, in a lengthy telephone interview on Monday, claimed she has done no wrong and expressed confidence in her campaign for borough president.

Lopez blasted back at the New York Post — which broke the story of her Scientology contributions and has editorialized against her about it — calling it a “destructive” newspaper out to get her because she is a progressive.

“I know there is a big effort not to allow me to run,” she said. “These articles the Post put out are just witch hunting, allegations, innuendos. My politics is progressive politics and the Post has the opposite position. Everything they publish is about destroying people’s lives. I care less about their opinion.”

In addition, while she said she didn’t know of Scientology having any antigay bias, as gay and lesbian groups contend, it can’t be worse than that of most traditional organized religions.

“You need to ask that to the organization, not to me,” she said. “And you need to ask that to the Catholic Church, Pentecostal Church, Lutheran Church and all the churches that are antigay.”

Starting Aug. 1, the Post has gone after Lopez in a series of three articles about the Scientology funds and detoxification center, accusing Lopez of a quid pro quo. As if that wasn’t enough, the Campaign Finance Board last Friday denied Lopez her matching funds, saying she owes them a “significant amount” of money for undocumented expenses and unspent funds from her 2001 reelection campaign. Lopez says her lawyers plan to talk with C.F.B. about it and hopefully work things out.

On Aug. 1, the Post reported Scientology members had made contributions to Lopez’s campaign totaling a quarter of her funds. The Post reported Lopez had received almost $100,000 from 84 Scientology members, with $38,000 of that from a January Florida fundraiser at which the donors were all Scientologists.

The Post accused Lopez of, in return, “steering” $630,000 in taxpayer funds to the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, a formerly privately funded facility on Fulton St. Co-founded by Scientologist superstar Tom Cruise, the center uses long saunas, vitamins and exercise to allegedly detox firefighters and others who worked at ground zero.

In June 2004, Lopez, who is chairperson of the City Council’s Committee on Mental Health, personally allocated $30,000 in public funds for the detoxification center, according to the Post. The center later received two additional $300,000 allocations of city money.

This June, Lopez participated with actor Cruise in a ribbon-cutting for a similar Scientology detox center in Williston Park, L.I.

Asked about the Scientology funds flap, Lopez said, first of all, the donations to her were from individuals and that people are free to practice whatever religion they choose.

“I never asked what their religious beliefs are,” she said. “The Constitution protects the rights of people to believe in whatever they want to. The religious beliefs of people are their business.

“The money that I got came from individuals, and every individual has a right to give. I do not raise money from groups — that’s illegal,” she added.

Gay and lesbian groups have noted that some early teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, were antigay. In one of these, Hubbard said gays should immediately be taken out of society and institutionalized. However, Lopez — who is a lesbian — countered that many traditional religions are homophobic.

Lopez said she didn’t know much about Scientology’s beliefs, such as about homosexuality, for example, before she supported funding for the group’s Fulton St. detox center or went to her Florida fundraiser.

“I don’t know their position,” she said. “I know the Catholic Church because I was Catholic when I was a child. As a child, I was told that the Catholic Church hates gay people and we should disappear.”

Scientology claims it does not discriminate against people based on their sexuality.

In a follow-up article, the Post reported on an e-mail by a Scientology-affiliated group that said it would “definitely pay dividends” for members to donate to Lopez, whom they noted had been supportive of the Fulton St. detox center.

Asked if there was any quid pro quo between her and the Scientologists, Lopez flatly denied it.

“Anybody who knows me knows that’s not true,” she said. “Period.”

The Post also reported that Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who is also a lesbian, warned Lopez not to take funds from the Scientologists because of concerns over their alleged antigay attitudes.

“That’s not true,” Lopez said. Glick did not return calls for comment.

Lopez said the conservative tabloid has it in for her because of her politics. Lopez said the Post never congratulates her on positive things she does for the community. For example, she said, she got $1 million in city funds allocated for detoxification programs for methamphetamine — a drug currently posing dire health risks in the gay community — with $100,000 each allocated to such providers as St. Vincent’s and St. Luke’s/Roosevelt hospitals, Callen-Lorde Center and Greenwich House.

“I got funding for detox for methamphetamine for St. Luke’s/Roosevelt and St. Vincent’s — that isn’t news, right?” Lopez asked in frustration. “That is not published. Nobody cares about the detoxification of crystal meth.”

Asked if she thinks the Scientology detox center actually does detox people, Lopez said she thinks it’s effective.

“I believe that 500 firefighters, E.M.S. personnel, have benefited from that program and they believe that program saved their life,” she said. “And I’ve seen them sick and I’ve seen them healthy.”

On Jan. 26, The Villager, a sister publication of Downtown Express, was the first to report Lopez’s Miami fundraising trip, though at the time she referred to it only as being with a “mental health group.”

Lopez said she didn’t talk much with Cruise at the opening of the Long Island Scientology detox center — “You know, I’m shy,” she said. However, asked about Cruise’s recent public pronouncements against psychiatry as a way to treat mental illness, Lopez, a former homeless outreach worker, spoke of her own track record helping the mentally ill.

“I worked for 20 years of my life with mentally ill people helping them get psychiatric care,” she said. “I stopped the closing of the Bronx Psychiatric Center. I’m fighting to keep the V.A. hospital [on E. 23rd St.] from taking away 300 beds for the mentally ill.

Asked how she feels about her campaign after recent developments, Lopez expressed confidence.

“I feel good,” she said. “No matter how much they attack me.” She said the Post doesn’t want a borough president who cares about issues that she does, like “affordable housing, speaking against drug abuse or making sure New York City doesn’t displace working people.”

In addition, last Friday, the New York Campaign Finance Board withheld public matching funds from Lopez. Under city election regulations, candidates can qualify for up to $4 of matching public funds for every $1 they raise. A B.P. candidate can receive up to $709,000 in matching funds if he or she has maxed out on their fundraising. According to Lopez’s filings, Lopez is claiming she has more than $115,000 in matchable funds, meaning she’d be eligible for more than $460,000 under the 4-to-1 bonus. However, Tanya Domi, a C.F.B. spokesperson, said Lopez has unresolved issues with her 2001 funds. Lopez received $143,682 in public matching funds for her reelection campaign that year.

“She basically has not been able to provide documents that back up her expenditures,” Domi said. According to Domi, C.F.B. has a monetary claim against Lopez for undocumented qualified expenses and unspent campaign funds.

(Qualified expenses typically include items such as staff salaries, postage for mailings, charges for creating campaign literature, consultants’ salaries, insurance, utility bills and the like.)

“It’s a significant amount. She owes us money. She still has to pay us back,” Domi said, declining to specify the amount. “The process has been going on for months, years without being cleared up,” she said. “The complexity of the issues and seriousness of the issues — we’ve had to go to third parties for information — that’s why it’s taken so long.”

Domi said Lopez received notice in March that she wouldn’t get matching funds this time around unless the matters were cleared up.

“At this moment, I can’t give you any details,” Lopez said. “I’m waiting for the Campaign Finance Board and my attorneys to talk to each other. From 2001, the Campaign Finance Board and us have been going through a long process and going back and forth. It’s a long process.”

In one of the most notable cases of a politician being punished for flouting campaign finance laws, the C.F.B. a few years ago sued former Councilmember Sheldon Leffler over $40,000 he should have returned to them from his Queens borough president campaign. In December 2004, he was found guilty of attempted grand larceny to defraud the C.F.B. and received five years probation, 540 hours of community service and a $500,000 fine.

“We sued him. That is one of the options,” Domi said.


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