It looks like its time for embattled Morris Park Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera to hire a good criminal lawyer.
A major scandal involving her putting boyfriends on taxpayer-funded payrolls has mushroomed to the point where at least three city and state agencies have opened potential criminal investigations.
The investigations come as the three-term assemblywoman finds herself running a close race with lead challenger Mark Gjonaj, a financially well-heeled local businessman, in the September 13 Democratic Primary.
Bronx District Attorney Rob Johnson’s office confirmed to the Bronx Times Reporter that it has begun looking into the allegations, while a source in state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s also confirmed his office has opened a case file.
Rivera, embroiled in one scandal where she hired her gym teacher boyfriend Tommy Torres for a staff job, found herself in yet another scandal alleging she installed a previous boyfriend, Vincent Pinela, into a Bronx nonprofit when they were a couple in 2008.
Pinela told the NY Post he was hired to run the Bronx Council for Economic Development with no nonprofit experience.
The couple allegedly used taxpayer money to pay for dinner dates and personal trips to Puerto Rico, with Rivera encouraging it, according to the report.
Calling the accusations “baseless,” the 47-year-old blasted the report, adding they’re meant to “defame my character.”
The latest investigative pile-on comes as the city Education Department launched an official probe into Torres, hired as a staffer for Rivera in 2010 while working as a full-time Brooklyn gym teacher. Referred to as a community-relations coordinator, Torres pulled in $1,100 a week, on top of the $89,000 salary at his DOE job. “The matter has been referred to the Special Commissioner of Investigation,” said a DOE spokesman.
The internal agency, which has subpoena power, “has broad authority to investigate fraud, misconduct, conflicts of interest, and other wrongdoing within the New York City School District.”
Rivera’s camp defended Torres’ hiring, calling him a part-time employee because of his background in education. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver backed Rivera’s claim, saying she followed proper guidelines.
Meanwhile, the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), an investigative panel that looks into conflicts of interest, refused to comment on whether its investigating Rivera.
But a section of the agency’s website shows Rivera could be liable for breaking several of its current ethics rules. One clause states members cannot be improperly influenced or affected by family members or “any party or person.”
While JCOPE remains tightlipped, several government watchdog groups support the investigations.
“The assemblywoman owes her constituents and JCOPE an explanation,” said Susan Lerner, executive director for Common Cause New York.
Dick Dadey, head of the public interest group Citizens Union, agreed. “Her behavior and relationship does raise serious questions about her conduct in office.”
One prominent criminal attorney, who asked not to be named, said he believes “these issues necessitate an investigation.”
A number of noted political consultants said their best advice for Rivera is to hire a criminal lawyer.
Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf disagreed. With Rivera in a heated re-election battle with Gjonaj as her main challenger, Sheinkopf said “I would not hire a lawyer at this point – that would just make more news.”
Several major pols have come to Rivera’s side, including Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who endorsed her re-election bid in the now-redrawn 80th Assembly District. Asked if he was weighing withdrawing his support, Diaz responded “Absolutely not! I have spoken with her and have to take her word on it.”
Both scandals come on the heels of a tabloid scandal involving Naomi’s private Facebook page showing some steamy photos.
It also comes just under a month before voters head to the polls in the September 13 Democratic Primary for the 80th Assembly District seat.
Main challenger Mark Gjonaj has declined to comment on the assemblywoman’s private life, but has called for official investigations.
Additonal reporting by Patrick Rocchio.
David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at DCruz@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 742-3383