A Double Standard

About RIOC's Special Friendship with the RI Seniors Association

Updated 10 weeks ago Peter McCarthy

What a healthy Senior Center looks like, the CBN/RI Senior Center today.
What a healthy Senior Center looks like, the CBN/RI Senior Center today.
File photo: senior artists at an opening in June, this year.
Our reader wrote, "Why does RIOC so frequently extend a benefit of doubt to RISA when misinformation is uncovered?"

Our answer: "Good question."

What sparked our reader's question, partially, was RISA's casual relationship with facts when it comes to saying how many members they have or had and implications involving RIOC's relationship with the group.

  • Starting less than a year ago, in October of 2016, RISA Secretary Sherie Helstien wrote, in a Community Column with the former Main Street WIRE, of serving "185 annual paying members," while straining to make a case that, having rebuilt itself, her group deserved public support.
  • But as recently as 2015, during a period in which RISA Program Director Rema Townsend was funneling resources into personal accounts, President Dolores Green was dismayed. "We used to have 300 members, easy. Now we have to struggle to get to 100." The reason: "We used to get a lot of funding and have a lot of parties. Now we have no funding. Our grants have dried up." Rarely inquisitive WIRE Editor Briana Warsing bought it without a question, never digging an inch into that statement.
  • By July of this year, while building a phony case against the Carter Burden Network, which hustled in to rescue the Senior Center RISA wrecked, Board Member Lorraine Altman put the lie to Helstien's claim: "RISA has been a thriving organization and has every right to exist. Over 125 seniors agree."
  • But just a month before, in the fact challenged Main Street WIRE, Publisher Dana Agmon, in a snarky article that tried to absolve RISA President Barbara Parker of any responsibility while hinting at collusion to undermine RISA by "former Board Members," Judy Berdy and CBN's Lisa Fernandez, quoted Parker as "...excited about the goings-on at her organization today. The group expanded its membership criteria to include a wider age range of adults, and she says they are very close to meeting their 100-member goal." 
(Note: the former RISA Board Members against whom Agmon aimed her potshot were the whistleblowers who went public with their concerns about malfeasance, an act that resulted in halting RISA's mismanagement of the Senior Center and the thefts that were part of it for at least seven years.)

Making the situation with RIOC more dubious, "According to the RISA website, it appears that RIOC Directors Fay Christian, Howard Polivy and Marge Smith are listed as members of the organization," as our reader pointed out.

"If this online data is accurate, it seems reasonable to ask whether these RIOC Directors should have made their plausible conflict-of-interest publicly known before voting to approve RISA funding."

Amen.

With RISA, There's Always More

CBN Executive Director Bill Dionne and RI Director Lisa Fernandez have a one year reunion with the DFTA team that helped rescue the Senior Center.
CBN Executive Director Bill Dionne and RI Director Lisa Fernandez have a one year reunion with the DFTA team that helped rescue the Senior Center.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily
In the immediate aftermath of RISA's being kicked out of the Senior Center in June, last year, Roosevelt Islander blog editor Rick O'Conor questioned RISA President Barbara Parker about whether an investigation into her organization was in progress and got this response:

"No. There is no investigation being conducted regarding the Roosevelt Island Senior Association," a claim that somehow got by, probably because, then, no public explanation for their eviction was being offered by the authorities who knew the reasons.

But in fact, City Council Member Ben Kallos, after being alerted to financial wrongdoing at the Senior Center in February, brought in the Department of Investigations. DOI's findings finally forced the Department for the Aging's hand, inducing them to look where they'd refused to look before, uncovering an ongoing riot of malfeasance going back as far as 2010.

One area of thievery that benefited RISA was double dipping on RIOC's Public Purpose Funds to the tune of $6 grand after claiming the same compensation from DFTA, a misdeed made worse by the fact that RISA pitched its request to the RIRA Common Council and RIOC by saying grants would be dedicated to paying higher salaries to program providers to seniors.

The claim, agreed to by RIOC, was for a refrigerator, a stove and paint work.

While it's true that many details uncovered in the investigation which led to felony convictions for RISA's Rema Townsend were not publicly known, there seems to be no evidence that RIOC even tried to find out what misdeeds led DFTA to dismiss RISA without notice.

RIOC pre-approved RISA for Public Purpose Funds, although later investigations by others suggest their IRS eligibility as a nonprofit had expired, and passed the group along to a Common Council Committee set up to consider who gets what.

Adding insult to injury for the community, RISA President Parker and Secretary Sherie Helstien, both Common Council Members, were allowed to participate in discussions involving the composition of the PPF Committee. Spineless Common Council President Jeffrey Escobar aided the abuse of public money by, over objections, allowing Helstien to participate in a final debate over approving the Committee's recommendations, which greatly rewarded her group, giving them more money than all but two of nine other applicants, none of which were under criminal investigation.

Consider this, while RISA worked to evade exposure of past practices, RIOC went on to shepherd RISA through the process, extending timelines for meeting qualifying criteria by over six months, a gift of service not offered any other applicant at any time and taken as a snub by other groups who worked hard to meet the criteria on time.

And chew on this: RISA was granted $15,000. That's as much as the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, which serves as the community's host for thousands of visitors every year, and Island Kids, which has helped working families for decades, got combined.

What the hell?

Polishing an Image

With a giant assist from the former Main Street WIRE, while the truth of what went on at the RISA managed Senior Center remained unknown to Islanders, the group put on a dazzling display of dishonest misrepresentation geared to burnish its reputation while Public Purpose Funds were being considered and RIOC coddled them.

In the October, 2016 Community Column mentioned above, Helstien wrote, "DFTA appointed two full-time paid staff, a program director and a social worker, who were to administer the approved programs at the Senior Center under RISA supervision. The board, not thoroughly knowledgeable in government technical, regulatory, and compliance processes, unwittingly put considerable trust in the expertise of the DFTA-vetted program director to administer the operational funds.  Unintentional errors crept into the program management, prompting DFTA to dismiss their appointed program director."

For clarity, I've bolded the indisputable lies in Helstien's column. (Doesn't the WIRE fact check anything, these days?)

To be clear:

  • DFTA did not appoint any staff. RISA hired their own people and DFTA paid for them, but by passing blame off to the City agency, Helstien tries to inoculate RISA against future revelations. How much did she already know and when did she know it?
  • RISA did not "unwittingly" do anything of the kind. Rema Townsend worked for RISA for thirteen years as Program Director. She worked closely with current RISA President Barbara Parker and former President Dolores Green. Parker, according to former Board Members, resisted setting up checks and balance to monitor Townsend's use of cash resources. Townsend was fired only at DFTA's insistence. 
  • The "unintentional errors" that Helstien claims innocently "crept into the program management" yielded a year long investigation that resulted in three felony convictions in a plea bargain for Townsend. Helstien's "unintentional errors," as demonstrated in the plea bargain, were the deliberate theft of tens of thousands of dollars in public money set aside for seniors
  • Helstien even had the gall to shift blame to DFTA and "their appointed program director." Rema Townsend was not "appointed by DFTA" nor was she their employee.

No Shame, No Accountability, The Beat Goes On

A year and a quarter has passed without RISA or any Member of its Board publicly acknowledging the misuse of funds and the resulting denial of benefits to seniors that went on during the group's watch at the Senior Center.

No apology for the abuse suffered by seniors denied meals and recreation has been forthcoming. Instead, misleading misstatement after misleading misstatement and outright evasion has marked their trail

Worse still, a campaign by RISA, launched almost immediately after they were displaced and most recently evidenced by their misguided effort to tarnish CBN's reputation over a pool table, has been nourished by RIOC, which in spite of available evidence, elected to reward RISA with $15,000.

That's more than a dollar for every resident of Roosevelt Island, regardless of age or means.

What the hell's up with that?

CBN/RI Senior Center First Anniversary Celebration. A crowd overflowing with satisfied seniors applauds.
CBN/RI Senior Center First Anniversary Celebration. A crowd overflowing with satisfied seniors applauds.

 

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