Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) has been accused of doing a series of favors for campaign donors by his 2017 primary opponent, land use expert Paul Graziano.
“A council member is supposed to represent the interests and well-being of the residents and constituents of the Council District — all 160,000 of them,” Graziano said in an emailed statement after focusing on the allegations during a sitdown interview with the Chronicle. “Unfortunately, Paul Vallone has seemed to only be representing the interests of a selected group of his ‘clients’ since his election to City Council in 2013.”
Vallone declined repeated requests for comment on the allegations beyond a statement his office issued about one of the claims and none of the donors could be reached for comment.
In one case, the planning consultant said, Vallone opposed the extension of the Douglas Manor Historic District because of donations he received from a resident of the proposed area who is against it.
Frank White opposed the extension and gave $500 donations to Vallone each year for the past three years.
In a letter to Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairwoman Meekahshi Srinivasan, the councilman says that “landmark status imposes undue restrictions on the rights of homeowners to renovate, modify, or sell their properties as they wish.” He also notes that 12 of the 17 households in the area proposed for the expansion opposed it, and Community Board 11 had rejected it.
Graziano criticized Vallone’s remarks about landmarking in the letter to the commission chairwoman.
“If it were that case, why are so many neighborhoods desperate to be landmarked?” the planning consultant said, mentioning Broadway-Flushing as an example. “Because they want to protect their neighborhood from being destroyed by terrible development.”
Vallone did support two smaller landmarkings in his district that were opposed by the people who own the affected buildings, the Hawthorne Court Apartments and the Ahles House, both in Bayside. There is no record of either owner making any donation to Vallone.
“He voted for both with absolute owner opposition,” Graziano said.
In another area controversy, Vallone was initially supportive of the proposed high school at the Bayside Jewish Center site, which Graziano says is because last year he received a $250 donation — the maximum for people who do business with the city — from Stephen Aiello, the husband of School Construction Authority head Lorraine Grillo, and a $300 donation from Christine Colligan, the JHS 189 parent coordinator, who supported the project and spoke in favor of it at a Community Board 11 meeting.
The councilman later said he opposed the plan.
A third example dates to 2009, when Vallone was first running for Council and accepted a donation of $500 from developer Paul Rifino, who also donated the same amount this year and last year.
“Rifino started building a construction fence and cinderblocks around this house and filed plans to build an eight-unit apartment building,” Graziano said. People were living in the house that the building was happening around, Graziano claimed, but Rifino said he had already torn it down on his building application, which caused the Board of Standards and Appeals to deny his plan.
Shortly after the plan was filed, the zoning for the area was supposed to change from R4 with commercial overlay, a multifamily designation, to R2, a more restrictive zoning.
Northeast Flushing Civic Association President Peter Brancazio asked Vallone, who was doing legal work at that time, what could be done to block Rifino’s building plan, which by then had its construction stopped by the Department of Buildings.
“He did advise us that we were wasting our time which was not an unreasonable thing to say,” Brancazio said, adding that Vallone said the BSA would likely approve the project.
Although Graziano says that Vallone declined to help them because of the donation, the civic activist disagrees.
“It had nothing to do with the donation,” Brancazio said.
Real estate broker Paul Luciano donated $500 to Vallone in 2013 and 2014. He was trying to remove a variance provision on his family’s firm, Utopia Real Estate in Auburndale. The clause says “there shall be no change in ownership or operating control without prior application to and approval from the Board.” Luciano needed the variance to run the business and wanted to make it never-ending.
Vallone’s office sent a representative to the Community Board 7 committee meeting about the renewal, according to Graziano and Station Road Civic Association President Rhea O’Gorman. While the civic activists say that a representative was there, one is not listed on the CB 7 committee report about the meeting.
O’Gorman says that the councilman was doing a favor for Luciano by sending a representative to the meeting.
“Are you there because you support overdevelopment or are you there because you’re doing a favor for somebody who gave you campaign money?” O’Gorman, who will support Graziano against Vallone, said.
Vallone originally supported the request to remove the clause on ownership change, according to Graziano and O’Gorman, but the board did not accept it though it voted to renew the variance for 10 years. The councilman then sent a letter to the BSA in support of that decision after the meeting.
“Council Member Vallone has followed and supported the decisions of both Community Board 7 and 11 since the day he took office and this application was no different,” Vallone spokesman Lionel Morales said in a prepared statement. “He is a steadfast leader on behalf of our community and civic associations.”
Steve Chon, a developer who donated $2,000 to Vallone in 2014 and $2,500 in 2015, met with Graziano and other civic leaders last year to discuss his plan to tear down the Reception House banquet hall in Auburndale and build at the space.
“His plans were to tear down Reception House, build a giant commercial building, have his offices for his entire real estate empire on the second floor, 15 storefronts, professional offices in the back, 70 parking spaces, and the parking lot across the street would be another two-story building for retail and a dental office for his daughter, with another 30 parking spaces,” Graziano said. “So I said to him, ‘sounds like a great plan.’ But your zoning is R2A” — which would not allow that.
According to Graziano, Chon had a fix to the problem in mind, saying that Vallone had told him that the commercial zone next to Reception House — which lies within the only single-family section of Northern Boulevard — could be expanded.
However, due to a Rickert-Finlay Covenant on the property allowing only single-family homes to be built, Chon could not go through with the plans anyway, according to Graziano.
When the Council addressed raising its own salaries but banning most kinds of outside income, Vallone was opposed. He wanted an amendment that would have kept allowing outside income, which was limited to 15 percent of members’ salaries, according to a report in the Daily News. The Council approved a raise from $112,500 a year to $148,500, with the ban on most outside income included. Vallone voted no.
“While the amendment failed, it reveals one of two things: Either Paul Vallone thinks that making almost $150,000 per year of public taxpayer funds is not enough — an amount more than what 95 percent of families in his district make annually — or his push for allowing the continuation of outside income was for a more nefarious purpose, which would be to allow him to mix public service with private gain through steering individuals to his private law firm from his City Council office,” Graziano claimed.
“If Paul Vallone wants to continue to represent developers and other special interests in northeast Queens, he can go back to his previous job of being a real estate lobbyist and attorney in private practice after I defeat him in the 2017 election,” Graziano said.
Graziano ran against Vallone once before, in the 2013 primary, along with several other candidates. Vallone won with 31.1 percent of the vote, while Graziano received 17.6 percent.