Part 3: How Roosevelt Island Failed Its Most Vulnerable Neighbors

RISA's False Front Shakes, Then Collapses

Updated 3 weeks ago David Stone

Because local media coverage was limited, deeply biased and incurious, we can never be precise about when RISA's initial misleading makeover began, but it almost certainly started with Program Director Rema Townsend, the only person charged so far and convicted. It's just as likely, with such a broad, long term legacy of crime, that she never acted alone.

Two Faces, One RISA

RISA's False Front Shakes, Then Collapses

The strategy Rema Townsend worked out to evade detection met little resistance and continues, somewhat altered today, carried through in the strategic reinvention of "New RISA." 

The gambit's not much different than when the disgraced and failing Time-Warner Cable reemerged as Spectrum, hoping to erase the past with a name change, gambling they'd be able to pull it off with a significant number of customers.

A false dichotomy cooked up and gradually adopted by the Roosevelt Island Senior Association and, unfortunately, bought into by RIOC and the Common Council was on vivid display in October, 2015, when RISA President Dolores Green as well as Program Director Rema Townsend - then still innocent but soon to be proven guilty - were allowed to make independent presentations to a Common Council Committee set up to recommend Public Purpose Fund Grants.

(Note: RISA has been known to use both "Senior" and "Seniors." To simplify, we're using the singular because that's what they've traditionally used in their tax filings.) 

Powerful, popular and passionate, however limited by two recent strokes, Green talked about RISA in the group's scheduled slot, emphasizing her leadership and commitment over fifteen years.

Limited in recall, she struggled with details and reasons for needing a grant. Questioned by Committee Chair Dave Evans, Green blamed decreased Senior Center funding on broken promises of support from elected representatives, especially City Council Member Ben Kallos.

But, as we later found out, 2015 was actually a banner year for RISA. IRS Tax filings show income topped out at a new high of over $300,000.

No one can confirm the alleged broken promises, and inconsistencies in how RISA reported income and expenses to IRS make it difficult to determine many things. But although Green probably did not know it, income was up, not down.

(Comparing RISA's nonprofit tax reports is like trying to read a novel where the author forgets the plot's major elements with each new chapter.)

An explanation is never offered, but later, Rema Townsend also steps up to make an unprecedented second appeal for funds under the RISA umbrella. No other group has ever been allowed to make double presentations.

Townsend, a study in contrasts herself, makes a structured case for money to underwrite extra pay for popular exercise instructors. She's clear and engaging, impressing the Committee with her grounding on issues affecting seniors.

RISA Secretary Barbara Parker was one of those instructors commanding higher pay, although that was not reported to IRS as required by law.

No one challenges Townsend, and even if they had, it's unlikely Evans's committee would have discovered that Townsend was skimming thousands every year from the Senior Center budget while simultaneously operating at least two separate for profit businesses, practices continued unabated until RISA was finally kicked out of the Senior Center six months later.

One statement that slipped like fresh air through whatever screening device the Committee had in place was Townsend's insistence that "I'm the Senior Center," slicing off any operating connection to RISA.

Only a few months earlier, she'd joined Green and Parker to tell a different story. And no matter what butt-covering concoction "New RISA" pitches the community, Townsend was fully accountable to and engaged with the RISA Board.

You'd have to be Sherlock Holmes to have detected any clues in Townsend's public presentation, but she was then forging dozens of checks every month and, illegally and undetected, using RISA's bank account as a float for her other businesses, taking cash away from seniors to fund the various faces of Rema Rozay Inc.

Three Units Under RISA

In May, the Common Council's Island Services Committee (ISC), alarmed over mounting complaints about inferior services at the Senior Center, asked Rivercross Representative Anne Kanninen and Ron Davidson to meet with RISA to see if they could help.

At the time of their meeting, the Chinese wall later used to inoculate RISA from the adverse affects of Townsend's crime spree did not exist. It was one organization with multiple initiatives, same Board of Directors, same bank accounts, shared offices.

Green, Parker and Townsend explained to the Common Council representatives in what was a surprisingly angry encounter that, in order to understand RISA, they must see it as made up of three parts: the Senior Center, the food service operation and the after hours membership activities.

All three worked together as a unified RISA. There was one Board of Directors, to which Townsend was required by law and regulation to report. Townsend was paid directly by RISA, her self-rewarding forged checks notwithstanding.

Townsend, we later discovered, signed hundreds of checks but never had any proper authority to do so. (Parker, in a fateful meeting, would later argue with DFTA's Commissioner that the forgeries were okay because "We had permission.")

RISA's False Front Shakes, Then Collapses

Because the enormity of crimes and neglect permeating the Senior Center was unknown and unsuspected at the time, the Common Council Committee whiffed on a chance to dig deeper.

As long as they kept up the false front, RISA rolled along, fattened by public money at the expense of the badly underserved elderly.

But then, good Samaritans and whistleblowers knocked down the false front, the scheme unravelled and those who escaped switched cover, reappearing as "New RISA."

Intrigue and Resistance

A question we might never answer is, when did Rema Townsend's fall into crime begin?

When and how did an optimistic, self-made woman who came to the Senior Center in 2002 filled with bright ideas turn into a crook? Theories feature well-known local figures, but there's not enough evidence to name any of them.

In addition to what we learned from when she was allowed to plead guilty to three felony counts, by 2007, Townsend was pitching herself as "Liaison to the Stars aka Rema Townsend," offering "product placement and sponsorship, shopping deals and distribution for certain projects."

Somewhere along the line, she also launched Rema Rozay The Hair Connect, selling hair extensions.

As Rema Rozay Inc., she was listed as a host for Bomb Parties on luxury yachts provided by Hornblower to which RISA Board Members were routinely invited.

She made enough, over and above her modest Program Director salary to drive a Bentley.

According to TRUEcar, "Bentley car prices start at $180,195 and they are typically only within the price range of the most wealthy."

Her Bentley was parked in a reserved spot in Motorgate, paid for by RISA, even as they appealed for Public Purpose Funds.

In the last months before DFTA ordered a reluctant RISA to fire her, as Rema Rozay, Townsend began work on Silent Cries, a dramatic series streamed on the web.

 

And from one of her felony convictions, we learn that, during parts of 2010, 2011 and 2012, she was paid $50,000 dollars of Medicaid money for working 10 hours a day, five days every week, as a personal assistant to a recipient in the Bronx. The agency paying her, Concepts of Independence, has multiple Roosevelt Island connections, including Dr. Jack Resnick.

All this while working for RISA as full time Program Director at the Roosevelt Island Senior Center.

It's impossible to imagine all of this going on without anyone else being aware of it or without her benefitting from some help and guidance. A transformation as complete as Townsend's, one that expands over a decade before law enforcement finally wakes up to it, does not materialize out of thin air.

Insiders who were friends and/or worked with Townsend aren't talking much, and when they do, they don't take your breath away with their candor.

Current RISA President Barbara Parker refused to comment at all, following Townsend's convictions, and Secretary Sherie Helstien declined an opportunity to set the record straight from when she described Townsend's decade long avalanche of thefts as inadvertent errors.

Here's what we pieced together without them.

In early 2016, a Senior Center Member, frustrated at stonewalling by the trio of Townsend, Parker and Green, began looking under the hood, gleaning whatever was available in public records.

Discovered was a decade of false tax filings, some signed off on by Townsend, who had no authority to do so and, in fact, was forbidden to by DFTA, and a puzzling laxity of oversight from DFTA as well as RISA's Board, which had a fiduciary responsibility to oversee her and public funds received for enhancing the lives of Roosevelt Island's seniors.

That spring, a second resident, alarmed after hearing about a disabled man, abused, possibly abandoned and starving to death in an apartment a few floors above the Senior Center, went looking for Townsend to see if meals could be delivered or if someone could at least check on his circumstances.

In their pursuit of Public Purpose Funds, RISA claimed a strong working relationship with the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association, which wasn't nearly as well funded.

"I went there at least six times over two weeks, but I could never find anyone," the upset resident told The Daily.

Townsend and a case worker were both getting full time paychecks from RISA.

In April, the disabled man died, apparently from starvation.

"I just couldn't believe this could happen on Roosevelt Island."

That angry disillusion brought one more researcher, an enthusiastic and inspired one, to the challenge of figuring out what was going on with RISA and the Senior Center and led to Townsend's indictment and conviction on three felony counts.

But even before that and mysteriously, a parallel, more formal investigation started when an anonymous source left packages of copied documents outside the door stations of RISA Board Members Wendy Hersh and Padmini Arya.

Hersh speculates that she and Arya were targeted because whoever it was who dropped off the documents, wishing to remain anonymous, which wasn't possible with other Board Members.

The documents, mostly tax filings, were highlighted with a yellow marker in key places, suggesting fraud and misrepresentation.

RISA's False Front Shakes, Then Collapses

Unsure of what to do with evidence of malfeasance at RISA - you'll recall that Arya had already twice gone to DFTA to report fiscal misconduct by Townsend without getting any action - the pair took their concerns to RIOC President/CEO Charlene Indelicato who, following DFTA guidelines, shut down the Senior Center.

It was soon reopened, under curious, cloudy circumstances, but the seeds of suspicion had been spilled.

With investigations underway, it was curious how little changed in Townsend's conduct, how fierce was her resistance. Also surprising was who lined up to support her and continued doing so, months after she was fired.

Investigations Get Rolling

With RIOC unable to keep RISA out of the Senior Center, Hersh and Arya took their concerns to Council Member Ben Kallos. 

Kallos did the right thing, getting an investigation started by taking the documents to the Department of Investigations, initiating a sequence that led to Townsend's felony convictions.

Ben Kallos file photo from 2014
Ben Kallos file photo from 2014
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Later in 2016, after RISA was expelled, in one of several articles in which the Main Street WIRE helped "New RISA" engineer a coverup, Barbara Parker laid blame on Hersh.

While finding no fault with Townsend, with whom Parker enjoyed a friendly relationship, RISA's new president blamed Hersh for not first bringing the evidence to RISA's Board, thus preventing them from resolving the issue internally.

(In the same WIRE smear-fest, Townsend's given a free hand in absolving herself of any wrongdoing while trashing Arya and other Board Members in a nearly full page article attributed to Editors Briana Warsing and Dana Agmon. More on that in the next article from this series.)

Townsend had already stolen what one observer estimates to be as much as half a million dollars, and after Hersh was asked to step in as Acting President by an ailing and troubled Dolores Green, her efforts to apply checks and balances to Townsend's use of RISA money were rejected by Parker with "She won't do that."

Green because she was ailing and Parker, for whatever reasons, allowed Townsend, for whom they were legally responsible, to run the place without interference, much to the detriment of seniors.

Control Angers Townsend

Now in control of RISA's bank accounts at Green's request, Hersh took steps to wrest control away from Townsend who'd routinely been forging checks - only Arya, Green and, now, Hersh, had signing rights - and misappropriating DFTA funds to finance other businesses.

Townsend blew her stack.

Anger spinning her wobbling into illiteracy, Townsend fired off an email to Green and Parker, calling Hersh a "sick control freak."

Hersh refused to give her access to online banking.

In the same email, Townsend refused to return to work until she regained control of the bank account.

DFTA rules restrict Program Directors from managing senior center finances.

Green, who was ailing and had turned the reins over to Hersh, and Parker were not concerned with this outburst.

A few months later, Parker even publicly made a jaw-dropping recommendation that Carter Burden take on Townsend as their Program Director when they assumed management of the Senior Center.

With the situation deteriorating, Doryne Isley, who runs Roosevelt Landings, including the physical Senior Center, for Urban American, stepped in after hearing about Townsend's activities.

Calling the RISA Board along with Townsend into her office, Isley told Townsend she must stop forging checks.

Townsend promised she would.

She didn't.

Townsend Lashes Out

As investigations advanced and Townsend kept writing checks that ended up in her own bank account, she struck back at Hersh and Arya.

With Arya, whose name Townsend forged repeatedly on checks, the harassment was mild.

When Arya refused to authorize checks for expenses not approved by the Board, her personal telephone number was given to angry vendors who began calling her at home about bills Townsend had promised to pay.

But Hersh's punishment was fiercer and more dangerous.

Using RISA facilities at the Senior Center and, according to one reliable report, in the presence of Parker, Townsend photocopied vicious attacks on Hersh's morals on 8 1/2 X 11 sheets, then had them taped to any available surface around the community.

Thanks to the keen eye of Joyce Short, among others, the postings were soon spotted and taken down.

A Puzzling End to RISA at the Senior Center

Maybe the misconduct was so extensive and went on for so long within RISA's Senior Center management, it just moved along on centrifugal force. For whatever reason, little changed and few lessons were learned as the group careened into disaster.

For one thing, Townsend continued forging bad checks to fake employee that ended up in her personal bank account. The last one, forming part of one felony count, was written on May 25th, just prior to RISA's eviction.

Parker, RISA Secretary and soon to become President, maintained a firm level of support for Townsend, right to the end - and, troublingly, well beyond.

After declining to cooperate with Hersh's efforts to bring RISA finances under control with what she calls "checks and balances," Parker presented an American Express bill that included $7,000 in repairs to Townsend's Bentley at a shop in Pennsylvania.

"Rema says you should pay this right away."

Hersh refused.

With RISA's Senior Center contract in jeopardy, DFTA Commissioner Donna M. Corrado summoned Parker, Hersh and Arya to a meeting in her offices. In an error-filled WIRE article, Parker claimed there were five commissioners, and credulous Editor Briana Warsing, unsurprisingly, published it verbatim.

The RISA group met with the Corrado and a single attorney. The turning point came when Parker repeatedly insisted that the avalanche of forgeries discovered in RISA bank accounts was okay because "We had permission."

Corrado, then, abruptly ended the meeting by announcing that their contract was being terminated.

Again, in the WIRE, in an apparent effort to obscure reality while undermining Carter Burden Center for the Aging, the claim is made that RISA's contract was simply not renewed.

No, it was terminated prematurely, and DFTA scrambled to run it themselves for a month until Carter Burden was able to take over. Even at that, DFTA kept a team in place, working alongside Carter Burden until services for seniors stabilized.

On its One Year Anniversary, CBN's Bill Dionne and Lisa Fernandez welcome the DFTA team that helped them save the Senior Center.
On its One Year Anniversary, CBN's Bill Dionne and Lisa Fernandez welcome the DFTA team that helped them save the Senior Center.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

An Ugly End Is Just the Beginning

Not at all humbled or willing to admit that extreme mismanagement had deprived Roosevelt Island seniors of services for years, RISA never expressed a word of remorse or apology to the community they so badly failed.

Instead, a misleading recovery campaign was launched.

Elected RISA President, Parker immediately told the Roosevelt Islander blog, in response to an inquiry, that, no, her group was not under investigation.

Multiple sources and future developments confirm her statement as untrue.

It would not be the last in a year of erecting elaborate coverups and image rebuilding by RISA while simultaneously working to undermine Carter Burden's efforts to help seniors as the local group had spectacularly failed to do.