State Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) is inviting the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to defend its allegations that he as a city councilman took improper gifts from a Rockaway nonprofit in court.
“A real court,” Sanders said Wednesday during a conference call with Queens media.
The COIB in a report issued Tuesday ruled that Sanders received improper gifts for himself and family members including trips to a resort at the Poconos, items from the resort’s gift shop and dinner cruises from the Margert Community Corp. between 2009 and 2012.
Sanders said all were activities that were arranged to enrich the lives of senior citizens in his district.
Margert specializes in affordable housing and housing preservation.
A $15,000 fine accompanies the ruling.
“While he was a Council Member, a now-former Council Member [Sanders] accepted 18 valuable gifts from a not-for-profit organization that was doing business with the City, including by receiving $841,000 in discretionary funding sponsored by the Council Member,” the COIB said in a press release. Council members are typically prohibited from accepting gifts in excess of $50 in value.
The press release included a three-page ruling by the COIB and a 21-page recommendation by Administrative Law Judge Kara Miller.
“[Sanders] testified that the Woodloch getaways and the dinner cruise were organized to provide recreational activities for seniors in his district,” Miller wrote in concluding her recommendations. “But, [Sanders] manipulated the situation to repeatedly and self-servingly use City funds as a windfall for his family and himself.”
Miller recommended the $15,000 fine.
Sanders said he is in the process of drafting an Article 78 appeal. He served in the City Council from 2002 to 2012.
“The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Sanders said, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Nowhere has that been more true than with these slanderous allegations.”
The COIB release stated that Sanders accepted gifts of accommodations at Woodloch Pines in Hawley, Pa.
Sanders said all were on overnight trips for seniors in the district paid for by Margert “to make sure seniors can enjoy their lives,” Sanders said. “I’ve also arranged for free concerts. [The COIB] called them parties. Parties can be frivolous but concerts? The Parks Department does them.”
Sanders said the trips, while paid for by Margert, were planned by his office staffers, who made the arrangements, negotiated prices for volume discounts on rooms and accommodations and handled other details.
In response to a question from the Chronicle, Sanders said while Margert focuses on housing issues, it was not improper to reach out for funding for senior recreation as it also provides community development services.
In regard to family members taking the trips, Sanders said some of the excursions had up to 300 seniors.
While he did have some staffers participate as chaperones on the trips, he said with a staff of about six people he also needed some to stay home and keep his office running.
He said booking the trips on weekdays made them less expensive, but left him short on chaperones.
“What do you do? You lasso members of your family,” he said.
Sanders said in accepting reimbursement for items he bought at the resort’s gift shop, he said gifts were given out to seniors during contests and other social gatherings and that he would have sought reimbursement if he spent his own money.
Sanders’ assessment of his testimony differs radically from that of Miller.
“I would encourage the media to get a copy of the trial administrative record,” he said. “I made a point of putting all of this information in the record.”
The senator also dismissed a report on the matter in Wednesday’s New York Post.
“[Residents] are aware of my record of serving the people for many years,” Sanders said.