Pedro Espada Jr. arrives at court with his wife, Connie...

Pedro Espada Jr. arrives at court with his wife, Connie Espada. (March 14, 2012) Credit: AP

Former Bronx state Sen. Pedro Espada packed the payroll and board of his federally funded Soundview Health Center with cronies and relatives, including girlfriends of two of his sons and the boyfriend of his sister, a prosecution witness testified Thursday.

Maria Cruz, Espada's longtime executive assistant at Soundview, said that she first ran into a future Soundview board member named Victor Sierra as he left Espada's office one day.

" 'That's Victor, he's Elena's boyfriend. He's a nice guy. I'm going to put him on the board,' " Espada told Cruz, she recalled in testimony in federal court in Brooklyn. Asked about his qualifications, she responded, "I heard he worked in a restaurant. I think he was the cook."

Espada, 58, a former state Senate majority leader who became a poster-boy for ethical issues in Albany before his 2010 defeat in a re-election bid, is charged with plundering a half-million dollars from the struggling nonprofit Bronx health clinic that he founded and controlled.

Prosecutors have alleged that he and his son Pedro Gautier Espada stole the money through lavish spending on meals, vacations and parties that were billed to a Soundview credit card and other schemes, and that the board never cracked down because Espada controlled it.

Cruz, who spent 30 years at Soundview before being replaced by one of Espada's sons in 2011, said she had been granted immunity from prosecution in return for testifying. She said she had been convicted of an assault in 1991, and had taken the fall for Espada in a plea to campaign-law violations in 2005.

Altogether, Cruz identified 10 members of Espada's extended family -- including uncles, siblings, cousins, children, in-laws -- who had been on the nonprofit's payroll, and seven who had served on the board.

She testified that for years, Espada had Soundview pay a for-profit janitorial company he controlled up to $25,000 a month for cleaning, and used that company to collect $3,500 a month in tenants' rents that should have gone to Soundview.

She also provided new details of Espada's contract as president and chief executive of Soundview. In addition to a salary that prosecutors say has risen to $500,000, she testified that he gets eight weeks of vacation, 30 days of sick leave, a company car and severance pay of $6 million to $7 million if he leaves.

She said Soundview, with a $12 million budget, could never pay the severance and had struggled for years to meet payroll and pay medical suppliers for mundane items like patients' dentures.

"We owed a whole lot of money," she said. "We were constantly running low."

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