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Meeks defends his staffers

The race to replace late City Councilman Thomas White’s seat is turning into a battle between two southeast Queens Democratic camps and is heating up after questions arose over one of the candidate’s supporters.

Members of the staff of U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) were spotted by a New York Post reporter at the city Board of Elections office last week working on countering signature petitions for Nicole Paultre-Bell. The fiancée of Sean Bell is one of several candidates running in the special election for the 28th Council District seat that was vacated when White died in August.

The staff members, including Jason Hilliard, the deputy chief of staff for the congressman, initially claimed they were at the offices for other matters, but their paperwork was for matters related to the election, according to the Post.

It is illegal for members of congressional staffs to directly work in political matters under election law.

Although Meeks has been actively endorsing Paultre-Bell’s run, he denied that his office was working on her campaign. In a statement, he said the staff members spotted at the BOE asked for time off from his office.

“Any individual in my office that chooses to volunteer his or her own time to do political work does so by his or her own accord through a request to be relieved from official duty,” the congressman said.

Paultre-Bell’s campaign has support from Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton), the councilman’s office announced last week, but most of southeast Queens’ elected officials have not endorsed her run for office.

A strong opponent, Ruben Wills, has secured support from his former boss, state Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica), and state Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-Jamaica), Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Democratic district leader Yvonne Reddick and others.

Wills ran an unsuccessful campaign against Meeks two years ago and lost in last year’s Democratic primary and general elections for White’s seat.

Wills’ campaign did not return phone calls for comment before press time Tuesday. Other candidates running for the seat — which covers Jamaica, South Ozone Park, Rochdale Village and Richmond Hill — include Albert Baldeo, former Councilman Allan Jennings, Imam Charles Bilal, Victor Babb, Martha T. Butler, Joseph Marthone and Harpreet Toor.

Sources said the schism between the two Democratic camps is the result of leaders wanting to keep their distance from Meeks, who has been under tight scrutiny several times this year. His involvement with the defunct nonprofit New Direction Local Development Corp., which has had questionable spending practices with thousands of money meant for Hurricane Katrina victims, has been the subject of a federal investigation.

He has also been criticized by government watchdog groups for failing to report to Congress a $40,000 loan he received three years ago.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Note: This article has been updated since publication to reflect the fact that Yvonne Reddick endorsed Ruben Wills in her capacity as district leader, not as district manager of CB 12.

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