A state ethics panel has found "reasonable cause" to believe that 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 shows that Espada employed Juan A. Feliciano Jr. as a special assistant for most of 2009 at an $80,000 annual salary. It said 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. 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 Espada 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 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 Soundview's elimination from the program but extended a court-ordered stay, giving Espada 30 days to appeal to a middle-level court.
Espada has called the Health Department move "political terrorism" by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration, with the aim of 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.