MELROSE — In the past two years, two city councilwomen went to bat for nonprofits employing their family members, writing letters of support for the groups to city officials deciding on their proposals to develop public land, records show.
City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo and ex-city Councilwoman Diana Reyna each penned letters to officials at the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development backing affordable-housing proposals, records obtained by DNAinfo New York show.
Arroyo's June 14, 2013, missive supported a Bronx nonprofit that had hired her ex-convict nephew six months earlier, while Reyna's Aug. 27, 2012, note praised a proposal by a Brooklyn nonprofit where her mother-in-law worked as a director.
In her letter, Arroyo wrote to HPD Commissioner Mathew Wambua, urging him to choose a proposal to build a mixed-use facility in Melrose by a development team consisting of real estate firm The Richman Group, the Mountco Construction and Development Corporation and the Neighborhood Association for Intercultural Affairs (NAICA).
Arroyo's disgraced nephew, Richard Izquierdo Arroyo, was hired as a case manager at one of NAICA's homeless shelters in December 2012, according to the nonprofit.
Prosecutors said he used the money to pay for hotel stays and airfare. He also used some of the cash to pay for summer interns who worked for Councilwoman Arroyo and for his grandmother, Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo.
The team of NAICA, Richman and Mountco was competing against other developers to build on HPD-run land that was part of the Bronxchester Urban Renewal Area. The team proposed constructing four residential buildings for low- to moderate-income families, as well as 50,000 square feet of commercial space, 10,000 square feet for a community facility and more than 1.5 acres of open space.
Arroyo wrote that she believed "the development team has successfully addressed the community needs specifically identified" in HPD's request for proposals.
Arroyo told DNAinfo that her writing a letter for NAICA and her nephew getting hired by the nonprofit was just a "coincidence."
"The letter was written based on the organization's history and experience," she said. "I didn't even know [Izquierdo Arroyo] was working there for quite some time, actually."
Arroyo, whose district includes the development site, said NAICA had a long track record serving the needs of Bronx residents with housing programs, homeless services and addiction counseling. She also described NAICA's CEO, Eduardo LaGuerre, as a close friend who has done a lot of work for the community.
"I happen to like Eddie very much. He's a hardworking individual," she said.
LaGuerre also told DNAinfo that Izquierdo Arroyo was hired for his competency and credentials. He added that whenever his nonprofit seeks business with the city, he tries to gain the support of local elected officials.
Ultimately, HPD chose another developer's proposal.
On Aug. 27, 2012, then-Councilwoman Reyna wrote her own letter to an HPD director to support a housing proposal by Brooklyn nonprofit Southside United HDFC and real estate firm Alembic Community Development.
Southside and Alembic wanted to build 53 affordable housing units in the city-owned LPC Warehouse in Williamsburg.
At the time, Southside employed Reyna's mother-in-law, Laura Hernandez, as a director of its senior center.
"Southside United HDFC and Alembic Community Development have my full support for this proposal because of their proven track record and their dedication to the vulnerable low-income families who face gentrification and displacement as a reality every day," Reyna wrote on official City Council letterhead.
Reyna, who represented Williamsburg as a councilwoman, didn't convince HPD, which in May 2013 picked a partnership between North Brooklyn Development Corporation and MDG Design to make over the warehouse.
Reyna, who now serves as a deputy borough president in Brooklyn, said in a statement that her support for Southside's proposal had nothing to do with her mother-in-law's employment.
“I do not believe there was any concern with submitting a letter of support for this affordable housing project," she said. "Southside United HDFC is an outstanding organization with a history of commitment to the Williamsburg community, and I was proud to support them during my time as a councilmember.”
Southside also said in a statement that Laura Hernandez's work at the senior center in "no way had any influence on the development side of our operation."
Arroyo and Reyna weren't the only councilmembers to write HPD in the past two years in support of a development proposal.
Last week DNAinfo reported that, while a councilwoman, Letitia James wrote a glowing letter of support for developers hoping to build a boutique hotel in Downtown Brooklyn. Days before James sent the letter to Wambua, the developers contributed $4,000 to her campaign for public advocate.
HPD has previously told DNAinfo that letters of support from elected officials do not influence their evaluation of the proposals.