EAST HARLEM — State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez failed to pass a bill that would have limited new methadone clinics from opening while accepting money from one of the biggest clinics in the area, said Diana Ayala who is currently running against Rodriguez for City Council.
“The fact that he’s receiving contributions from these clinics is a conflict of interest,” said Ayala, whose claims are backed up by public records, including campaign finance disclosure forms and records from the state legislature.
The area around 125th Street and Lexington Avenue has been plagued with quality-of-life issues connected to a saturation of methadone clinics and homeless shelters for years. People have been stabbed and robbed while others have been hospitalized for smoking synthetic marijuana.
“Diana Ayala’s accusations are a weak attempt to create fake news that belittles Robert Rodriguez’s accomplishment and deflects voters from inquiring about the lack of her own,” a statement from Rodriguez's spokeswoman, Jennifer Blatus, reads.
Ayala, former deputy chief of staff for Melissa Mark-Viverito, decided to go on the offensive because Rodriguez has critiqued her own response to 125th Street during multiple candidate forums.
“He continues to bring it up and it’s insulting because I am not an elected official," Ayala said. "Through my work in the speaker’s office I’ve been able to accomplish a lot more than he has and I think he needs to recognize that.”
Over the past couple of years, Mark-Viverito passed legislation outlawing the sale of synthetic marijuana, worked with the NYPD to set up a mobile command unit in the area and increased the availability of sanitation services from two days a week to seven, Ayala said. More recently, she helped secure $1 million in funding to replace subway grates that homeless men and women use to sit and sleep on, she added.
In 2015, Rodriguez held a press conference on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue where he promised to pass legislation that would prevent methadone clinics from opening within 500 yards of a school, church or park.
Rodriguez co-sponsored the bill, but the proposed legislation died in the Mental Health Committee, which Rodriguez is a member of. A similar version of the bill has been introduced during the current legislative session but Rodriguez has not signed on in support of it, records show.
When asked why the bill didn’t pass and why the assemblyman hadn't co-sponsored the new version, Rodriguez’s spokeswoman sent a written statement.
“Instead of waiting on legislation, and after a tragic death on 125th St., Robert Rodriguez took swift action to improve the business corridor,” read Blatus’ statement. “Taking matters into his own hands, he delivered a six-point plan that took steps to tackle homelessness, drug use and crime.”
That six-point plan calls for passing legislation in Albany, increased police presence, enforcing new synthetic marijuana laws, removing the subway grates, a review of possible street improvements, and auditing mental health and rehabilitation facilities.
The statement did not contain updates on the auditing of facilities and review of street improvements.
The statement also failed to address concerns Ayala raised over donations Rodriguez has received from SES Operating Corp, one of the biggest methadone clinics in the area. Since 2009, Rodriguez has received more than $20,000 from SES and their CEO Stuart Steiner, records show.
Although this is a small sum compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars Rodriguez received during that period, Ayala believes accepting that money is unethical.
Blatus’ statement dismissed Ayala’s concerns saying, “It is easy for someone without any legislative experience to be critical of a process they do not understand.”
Blatus also touted Rodriguez’s efforts in raising capital funding for recovery and outreach centers, and has fought against opening more homeless shelters in East Harlem and the South Bronx.