RISA Gets Money Despite History of Ripping Off Seniors

Stealing, Lying, Cheating on Seniors? No Problem, Says RIOC Board

Updated 3 years ago David Stone
Michael Shinozaki (red tie) at Tram 40th Anniversary Celebration in 2016
Michael Shinozaki (red tie) at Tram 40th Anniversary Celebration in 2016
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

On Wednesday, August 8th, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation's Board rejected a principled appeal from Member Michael Shinozaki to at least temporarily withhold funds from RISA, the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association, batting away concerns generated by a sordid history of cheating seniors out of services and food, admissions of widespread check forgery, multiple ongoing investigations and felony convictions.

It was not a proud evening for Roosevelt Island.

What angers many of us about RISA is its galling failure to accept responsibility for a decade of Senior Center abuses under its watch, instead buttressing its campaign for public money with a cornucopia of lies and misleading statements.

But no problem, don't worry about it, according to the RIOC Board.

Shinozaki's distaste for RISA comes from simple humanitarian concerns, none of which moved even one of his colleagues to join him.

According to a close associate, Shinozaki remains outraged at the starving death of a homebound resident, just a few floors above the Senior Center, while RISA managed the food deliveries. Shinozaki is flabbergasted that such a thing could happen here.

Not so his fellow Board Members, who chose instead to reward the group that appears responsible.

RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal
RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal
File Photo by Erica Spencer-El, Courtesy of RIOC

One of RISA Program Director Rema Townsend's felony convictions was based on her writing weekly checks out to her son's father for food deliveries he never made, then forging his initials and banking the money in her own personal account.

Those thefts continued until just before the Department for the Aging kicked RISA out of the Senior Center in June, last year, while Townsend remained an employee in good standing. Her employment was not terminated until DFTA demanded it.

With RISA and Townsend gone, the Carter Burden Center increased meals to seniors 40% within a few months.

But for RIOC's Board, no problem there.

After PPF Money Was Already Stolen, Board Gives RISA More

Investigator's report om Rema Townsend, acting as RIOC Program Director, double-dipping on money from RIOC's Public Purpose Grant, last year.
Investigator's report om Rema Townsend, acting as RIOC Program Director, double-dipping on money from RIOC's Public Purpose Grant, last year.
File Copy from plea bargain, NYS Supreme Court - Criminal Division

Another of Townsend's felony convictions came from using a single receipt to justify Public Purpose Funds from RIOC while grabbing the same $6 grand from DFTA. She told an investigator that, after managing the Senior Center for thirteen years, she believed it was okay to double dip.

It's safe to assume, given the details of her confession, that it wasn't the first incident.

Forgeries by the dozen are known to have taken place with official approval. So, why not whatever other fraud was available?

What we can share with our readers is that, in spite of what we learned from Townsend's conviction, RIOC knew nothing about the misdeed, for which Townsend pled guilty, until we informed CEO Susan Rosenthal and lead attorney Jaci Flug.

Not to worry, says RIOC's Board. It's only money. Your money.

While the Board was busy pitching provable falsehoods and intentional evasions to drown Shinozaki's request, no mention whatsoever was made about RISA's misappropriation of Public Purpose Funds or any effort afoot to get the money back.

Board Decision Poisoned by Bad Information

Keeping in mind that this is essentially the same Board that fired one of RIOC's best and most ethical CEO's, Steve Shane, in favor of Leslie Torres,  one of its worst, then sat back, voting "Yes," "Yes" and "Yes," while an executive asked them to approve bid awards so outrageously high, he was later convicted of receiving hundreds of thousands in kickbacks, it should come as no surprise that the majority voted to support RISA while relying on bad information. 

Former RIOC President Steve Shane with historian Judith Berdy in 2016
Former RIOC President Steve Shane with historian Judith Berdy in 2016
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily
  • Point #1: RIOC Attorney Jaci Flug argued that Rema Townsend had pled guilty of a single felony. As records show, Townsend pled to three felonies. That should have been made clear, along with details of the investigation, well before the Board meeting. 
  • Point #2: Margie Smith claimed that none of the current RISA Board was involved at the time. Either Smith knew this was false or should have. Current RISA President Barbara Parker was Secretary during some of the worst of Townsend's thefts. Parker was reported by multiple sources to be Townsend's most consistent supporter, resisting efforts to install a system of checks and balances on Townsend's handling of DFTA funds and even recommending Townsend as Program Director for RISA's successor at the Senior Center.
NYS Supreme Court - Criminal Division records showing Rema Townsend's guilty plea to three Class D Felonies and one Misdemeanor.
NYS Supreme Court - Criminal Division records showing Rema Townsend's guilty plea to three Class D Felonies and one Misdemeanor.

During the contentious debate over Shinozaki's proposal, the rest of the Board, led by Margie Smith, refused publicly to even look at the evidence.

"Please read the court records.  If you want, I have a copy," Shinozaki appealed to her.

Smith's unreasonable reply: "Yeah, I can't read this.  Alright, this all blog stuff .... Well, I'm not reading the blog stuff .... I don't ... That's an interpretation of it.  I'm not reading that."

For the record, what Shinozaki offered her were photocopies of court papers, not "blog stuff." (Roosevelt Islander blog publisher Rick O'Conor did publish the damning investigators report in full, which apparently neutered it as "blog stuff" to Smith.

No other Board Member stepped up to ask for more information.

Why would anyone, especially Smith, last seen tossing her weight behind the disgraced RIOC Board Nominating Elections, take facts into consideration when they don't dovetail with the preferred narrative?

RIOC Mistakes from Start to Finish

To get this into some kind of perspective, it's important to note that RISA probably should never have been allowed to get into the PPF Grant process to start with.

As noted by Dave Evans, who headed the Common Council committee charged with making PPF recommendations, it's taken for granted that RIOC thoroughly vets all groups they pass on to RIRA, which lacks the time or bandwidth to do it themselves.

RIOC, by its actions, affirmed RISA's qualifications as a 501(3)c not for profit organization, and the committee acted on that in good faith. Not in such good faith was the Council's willingness to let Barbara Parker and Sherie Helstien, RISA executives as well as Common Council Members, participate in the selection of committee members.

Helstien, then Common Council Vice President and RISA Secretary, was also allowed to participate in discussion about the grants, in violation of the Council's own rules.

But before RISA was able to lay its hands on any money and while protests mounted over their qualifications, in December, they asked to be temporarily excused from the process while they struggled to get their paperwork together.

In the public session of the next Board Meeting, Parker appealed for their indulgence, implying that DFTA was obstructing them by withholding documents. A tone deaf Board never asked why DFTA had their documents. A former RISA executive told The Daily that some of the documents really didn't exist because Rema Townsend had been allowed to clear anything incriminating out of the files, once RISA knew an investigation was in progress.

No problem, again said the RIOC Board. Take all the time you need. All the other applicants had their paperwork in on time, as required by RIOC's own rules, but for RISA, we'll just forget about those pesky guidelines.

A more substantial issue that should have disqualified RISA immediately is that they appear to have lost their qualification as a 501(3)c upon getting kicked out of the Senior Center, according to documents filed with the IRS.

To qualify for tax exempt status, groups must file an IRS Form 990, each year, a task RISA faithfully left to Rema Townsend. As filed, their exempt status was based exclusively on running a "senior center," something they no longer did.

Moreover, they had not refiled as a "new" RISA with a different purpose.

This should have disqualified them, but when questioned about it, RIOC's President Rosenthal brushed it off as "a mistake."

A mistake no other applicant for PPF Grants anyone is aware of was ever allowed to make.

Then, RIOC compounded the error by looking the other way while nursing RISA through an approval process that stretched out for nearly nine months past the deadline.

Okay, said RIOC's Board, lets give them more money than almost every other group, in spite of the ongoing investigations, their failure to meet the guidelines not withstanding.

No problem.

When the RIOC Board Backed Friends and Ditched Seniors

David Kraut in 2010
David Kraut in 2010

For me personally, the most disappointing feature of the whole debate and the Board's stubborn failure to even consider Shinozaki's appeal, was with David Kraut.

Although he growled at me once, "You're on my shit list," I later got off it.

In twenty-five years of knowing Kraut and certainly not always in agreement, I have never known him to be anything but honest, moral and principled.

His willingness to go along with Smith's refusal to even consider the issue of funding a group now officially established as having ripped off seniors for at least six years, to even look at the recently revealed evidence of extensive wrongdoing that was not necessarily limited to Rema Townsend, is perplexingly out of character.

With Smith, I got it.

She long ago let concerns for community welfare take a back seat to her political agenda. "A card carrying Maple Tree Group Member," in her own words, Smith was never going to go against her fellow member, Sherie Helstien, facts be damned.

Shinozaki, Kraut and Smith are always the ones that speak up and take a stand. That Kraut, who I once wrote of as the "smartest man on Roosevelt Island" and until now saw no reason to think otherwise, went with Smith and RISA is inexplicable.

How did we get a Board, made up of a majority of residents, with such callous disregard for our most vulnerable neighbors?

What kind of message does this send to seniors so poorly served by RISA and to the Carter Burden Network, which rescued and greatly improved Senior Center services while forced to fend off an interminable RISA campaign to undermine them?

It's just baffling.

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