March 14, 2012; Source: New York Times

Former New York State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada, Jr. is either a greedy criminal or a champion of nonprofit health care, depending on which lawyer’s opening statement you care to believe at Espada, Jr.’s embezzlement and conspiracy trial. Espada, Jr. and his son, Pedro Gautier Espada, are accused of stealing more than $500,000 from the Soundview Health Care Network, a group of clinics in the Bronx, as well as affiliated organizations.

“They did it because they were greedy. They did it because they were powerful. They did it because they thought they were going to get away with it,” prosecutor Carolyn Pokorny said. “Money that was supposed to go to the sick and needy paid for their beach vacations, thousands and thousands of dollars for flowers and spa treatments.”

The first witness at the trial for the prosecution, former Soundview personnel head Maria Cruz, testified that Espada frequently put family and friends on the payroll at the nonprofit health care organization and that Espada managed to populate Soundview’s board with people who wouldn’t ask questions about his personal usage of the nonprofit’s funds.

Of course, Espada’s lawyer, Susan R. Necheles, tells a different tale. She says that Espada passed up upwards of $100,000 in funds owed to him by the health care network in order to keep it running. “This is not a man who is bleeding Soundview,” Necheles said. “This is a man who kept it alive for 30 years.”

Prior to his current trial, Espada, Jr. was perhaps best known as one of two Democrats who, in 2009, voted with Republicans in the New York State Senate to install a Republican majority leader even though the body was comprised of more Democrats. After the “coup,” as it came to be known, Espada returned to the Democrats who, having witnessed Espada’s eagerness to put himself before his party, grudgingly made him majority leader so as to retain control. The incident will likely be remembered as a low point for the New York Democratic Party.

As the trial begins, the future of the Soundview Health Care Network looks grim. The New York Department of Health and Office of the Medicaid Inspector General had moved to terminate Soundview’s participation in Medicaid, which would essentially close its doors (Soundview says that two-thirds of its business is from Medicaid), but the center has been granted multiple stays in Bronx County Court. However, the most recent stay will be up on April 16th. Whether Espada, Jr. is a greedy criminal or an unfairly maligned champion of nonprofit health care, certainly the charges flying around the courtroom at his trial can’t be doing these clinics, which have long provided medical care to underserved populations, any favors. –Mike Keefe-Feldman