By Rich Bockmann
City Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) is facing a challenge from a well-funded opponent in southeast Queens, and as the weeks creep closer to the Sept. 10 Democratic primary his name keeps popping up in the wrong places.
Wills’ campaign coffers have trailed behind those of Rochdale Village criminal defense attorney Hettie Powell ever since her first filing with the city Campaign Finance Board in May put her almost $13,000 ahead of the incumbent.
The candidates’ latest disclosures show Wills, a former chief of staff to disgraced ex-lawmaker Shirley Huntley, has closed the gap, but with contributions totaling $37,815, he still lags behind his biggest challenger, who has receipts totalling $48,069, including a self-financed loan.
Democrats David Kayode, Joseph Marthone, Breina Payne, Frank Perero and Christina Winslow are also vying for the seat, but none have mounted a significant funding effort.
But as the adage goes, “You can’t buy this kind of publicity,” and the spotlight that shines on Wills, particularly in light of the recent wave of corruption allegations in southeast Queens, may give his opponents a boost no amount of donor checks can.
Wills has had his name linked to a number of allegations and investigations since he won the seat in a 2010 special election, and while Powell does not bring them up directly, she repeatedly promotes herself as the candidate of “honesty, integrity and transparency.”
“I have been involved in my community, and people come and say the community has not lived up to their expectations,” she said. “Let the people decide who Ruben Wills is.”
Behind the scenes, however, Powell’s campaign says Wills’ history will weigh heavily with voters come September.
Wills has in the past been accused of failing to pay child support to an ex-girlfriend, stealing property from a Chinatown business he did contracting work for and taking a swing at a campaign opponent and striking a volunteer, a case in which no charges were filed.
He pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in the Chinatown case and called the charges brought against him politically motivated.
“There was a whole political motivation behind it and negative press behind it and it’s not even half the story,” said Wills, who characterized the incident as a business dispute from 15 years earlier. “It’s not even 10 percent of the story, but it gets 150 percent of the press time.”
The councilman’s latest episode of bad ink came last week, when Attorney General Eric Schneiderman named Huntley as the primary funding source to a southeast Queens nonprofit that had embezzled public funds.
The AG did not identify Wills by name, but city budget documents show that he, along with four other councilmen, had also allocated funds to the nonprofit.
“This investigation is not a Ruben Wills investigation. This investigation deals with not-for-profits,” said the councilman, who likened his experiences with Schneiderman over the past year and half to a probe in an uncomfortable place.
While Schneiderman singled Huntley out in his statement, he said it would be inappropriate to presume malfeasance on the part of a lawmaker simply for allocating funds to a nonprofit.
Wills, Huntley and Schneiderman have been intertwined since last summer, when the AG and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli filed a motion in Manhattan Supreme Court claiming Wills failed to comply with a subpoena calling him to account for $33,000 in state funds Huntley had allocated to a nonprofit Wills headed.
Wills later complied with the subpoena and Huntley lost her bid for re-election last year after Schneiderman charged her with embezzling funds from a nonprofit just weeks before her Democratic primary.
Huntley claimed the charges were politically motivated, and her indictment proved to be the first in a string of public-corruption allegations casting a pall on southeast Queens.
The former lawmaker would go on to be charged by federal authorities in another embezzlement scheme, and in an effort to cooperate with prosecutors she secretly recorded several lawmakers at her home last summer, including Wills.
The councilman says his lawyer has assured him he has been cleared in the federal probe and added that despite the allegations against him, he has twice been elected to his seat and has not missed a beat on the job.
He said his track record fighting school co-locations, a proposed homeless shelter in South Ozone Park and gang violence are the kinds of issues that will register with voters come September.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.