State Agency Fails Transparency Test Again

Is RIOC Helping Manhattan Park Hide Section 8 Housing Abuse?

Updated 17 weeks ago David Stone

 

30 River Road in Manhattan Park
30 River Road in Manhattan Park
Roosevelt Island Daily file photo

If RIOC wanted to stir suspicion and mistrust, they couldn't have done a better job than they did last week with a bizarre response to a simple information request. 

It started simply enough, part of our ongoing, in depth look at Manhattan Park's electric sub metering operations. Mindful of what appear to be numerous violations of terms demanded by the Public Service Commission incorporated in its ground lease with RIOC, we decided to take a deep dive into Section 8 requirements, where we hadn't looked before, after getting tenant complaints from 2 and 4 River Road.

Section 8 laws establish help for low income residents in paying housing costs in a program overseen by the New York City Housing Authority. (Read a Daily News expose of landlord abuse in Section 8 Housing from 2016.)

In their role as a public utility, approved to sub meter electricity by the Public Service Commission (although that fact is now in dispute and under review), Manhattan Park agreed to specific reporting requirements in their RIOC ground lease.

We emailed RIOC President Susan Rosenthal and Vice President/General Counsel Jacqueline Flug, looking for information:

"Manhattan Park is obliged by law to give RIOC '... a certified statement, in reasonable detail, setting forth the total charges to all Subtenants of the Section B Units and the personal benefit expense credited to all Subtenants of the Section B Units by BUD for the preceding six (6) month period,'" quoting the ground lease.

This requirement is geared to assure fair billing practices and prevent profiteering by landlords by using straightforward, voluntary reporting.

"Can you verify that Manhattan Park has done so on a regular basis?"

Possible responses we considered likely were, "Yes," "No," or "Sometimes."

RIOC has a recent track record of not responding at all to some difficult questions; so, that was possible too.

But what we got was a surprise.

"We are deeming your email a FOIL request and it will be responded to accordingly," wrote General Counsel Flug.

What?

Frankly, we'd never heard of an involuntary Freedom of Information request before, but RIOC's different, if it's anything.

"Why would you do that with such a simple request? You could answer in five minutes," we wrote back. "Makes no sense. Either they do or they don’t. Can you explain your reasoning in refusing to treat this as a simple, straightforward request?"

Now, Flug swung into predictable territory. She just didn't answer.

Letter from Manhattan Park regarding Section 8 Housing requirements.
Letter from Manhattan Park regarding Section 8 Housing requirements.

But a week later, we got a response to the FOIL request we never made. Assistant General Counsel Lada Stasko, with 25 years of compliance, that is, 50 instances, in question, attached a copy of a single "certified" letter from Manhattan Park from last September, raising more questions than it answered.

We had no reason to question whether Manhattan Park ever failed to meet these terms in their ground lease. We do now.

Take, for example, the letter itself, dated September 17, 2017 and signed by Property Manager Brian Weisberg. In it, he certifies his own report. Not only is certifying your own document unorthodox, it's probably invalid, according to legal sources. Weisberg makes no claim to be a notary in the letter.

Neither is there any detail, as required by the ground lease, or any documentation, just a simple statement.

RIOC President Susan Rosenthal, to whom the letter is addressed, is an experienced attorney but did not, as far as we know, object.

Receiving a response like that, coupled with the strange resort to an involuntary FOIL request, raises flags instantly.

Has Manhattan Park failed to meet the requirements embedded in its ground lease? Or did RIOC just bungle their record keeping?

We have no way of knowing except to make an actual, comprehensive FOIL request for 25 years of records.

...And it should've been so easy.

How do you trust a State agency that frequently seems immune to transparency? And why shine an unflattering light on Manhattan Park if there's nothing to hide?

It's weird.

Sometimes, you just shake your head...

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