A state ethics panel has found "reasonable cause" to believe former state Sen. Pedro Espada, already facing a federal corruption prosecution, broke New York law by hiring his uncle for his Senate staff.
The Legislative Ethics Commission said its investigation showed Espada employed Juan A. Feliciano Jr. as a special assistant for most of 2009 at an $80,000 annual salary. It also concluded that Feliciano is Espada's uncle, although the Bronx Democrat had publicly denied it.
State law prohibits legislators from participating in decisions to hire immediate relatives, including direct descendants of a grandparent. Espada could face a civil penalty or a referral for prosecution on a misdemeanor charge.
Calls to Espada, who lost a primary in 2010, and his attorney were not immediately returned Tuesday. The commission said the Bronx Democrat has not replied to its notices and has the option of a hearing.
Espada and his son, Pedro Gautier Espada, are scheduled to go on trial in March on federal charges accusing them of embezzling public funds from the Soundview health clinic, which Pedro Espada founded and where they both work.
Separately, state health officials are trying to kick Soundview out of the Medicaid reimbursement program. A state judge has upheld termination but extended a court-ordered stay, giving Espada 30 days to appeal to a midlevel court.
Espada has called the health department move "political terrorism" by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration aimed at closing his Bronx health clinic.
In April 2010, then-Attorney General Cuomo filed a civil suit accusing Espada of siphoning money from the government-funded clinic for lavish restaurant meals, trips to Las Vegas and his own campaign. That lawsuit is still pending.
The ex-senator said the health clinic, where he has continued to draw a $225,000 salary, operates on a $14 million annual budget and shouldn't be caught in his political fight because 200 workers could lose their jobs and 20,000 patients could lose their clinic. His son makes about $100,000 a year.
The Democrat was the key figure in the 2009 Senate coup that caused gridlock in state government. He created a coalition with the then-minority party Republicans to overthrow his Democratic conference from power. After securing a lucrative leadership post from the Republicans, Espada flipped back to the Democrats for another leadership post.