Part 4: How Roosevelt Island Failed Its Most Vulnerable Neighbors

The RISA Story: When Lies Became Reality

David Stone

"What in the world are people thinking to be telling so many untruths?" wrote a one-time RISA officer, referring to a Main Street WIRE article, a fresh coverup courtesy of "Roosevelt Island's independent newspaper." Another former RISA Board officer shook her head and quietly said, "All the lies..."

Neither was accused of wrongdoing in the RISA scandal that rocked the Senior Center or of cooperating with convicted felon Rema Townsend, although both were victimized by Townsend and her RISA associates.

Rema Townsend in a trailer for the Silent Cries web series, this year, after being given little more than wrist slap after ten years of crime at the Roosevelt Island Senior Center.
Rema Townsend in a trailer for the Silent Cries web series, this year, after being given little more than wrist slap after ten years of crime at the Roosevelt Island Senior Center.

Previous articles in this series:

The "New RISA" style of lying began almost immediately.

Answering a question from Rick O'Conor, publisher of the Roosevelt Islander blog, on June 8th, 2016, days after being kicked out of the Senior Center without notice, new RISA President Barbara Parker said, "No. There is no investigation being conducted regarding the Roosevelt Island Senior Association."

Barbara Parker, earlier this year
Barbara Parker, earlier this year
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Parker was not asked and did not volunteer to explain why the Department for the Aging was so eager to get RISA out of the Roosevelt Island Senior Center that their contract was terminated prematurely. DFTA chose to manage with their own staff until Carter Burden Center for the Aging geared up.

I asked a Board Member, "Was Barbara telling the truth? Is it possible she didn't know?"

"No, it's not possible. We saw the Department of Investigations removing all those files."

And there was another reason Parker must have known.

Just a few days earlier, DFTA Commissioner Donna M. Corrado summoned Parker and fellow Board Members Padmini Arya and Wendy Hersh to her office where they were confronted by her and a staff attorney.

After listening to Parker continue insisting that mountains of forged checks were okay at RISA, where she served as an officer, because "We had permission," the Commissioner decided to terminate RISA's contract immediately.

No investigation?

Really?

A year later, in the Main Street WIRE article mentioned above, Editor/Publisher Briana Warsing lets Parker get away with this, unchallenged:

"Parker remembers that period as 'so convoluted and crazy. People kept saying, 'How could RISA let this happen?' Well, you have to look at the leadership. It wasn’t a strong leadership.”

Parker was a core participant in that leadership, but Warsing allows the evasion among a sea of self-exculpating lies and false accusations about others.

More than a year after being booted from the Senior Center, Parker continued weaving myths to shield RISA from public awareness of what happened and her own role in it.

It Takes A Village to Give Life to a Lie

We started this series with an observation:

"In her 1996 book It Takes a Village, Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote about how a community’s many influences shape the lives of its children. Here on Roosevelt Island, we’ve seen the ugly reverse. Government, media, law, social groups and more pitched in, some unwittingly, some selfishly, to steal from, harm and neglect seniors over a long period."

While we can only wish now that the Roosevelt Islander had questioned Parker's "no investigation" falsehood - it made no sense in context at the time - that was the least of many incidents where community institutions gave RISA a free pass while failing to protect victimized seniors.

Let's start with Department for the Aging.

Padmini Arya, RISA's Treasurer until June, 2016, went to DFTA in 2010 and 2013 to report her concerns about Rema Townsend and her handling of money intended for seniors at the Senior Center.

In neither instance did DFTA take meaningful action. As a result, the thefts of public money continued and maybe even escalated. Each theft took more away from needed services for seniors.

Sometime after Townsend started working for RISA in 2003, the Board, which has legal and fiduciary responsibility for everything that goes on at the Senior Center, ceded control of finances to their Program Director, in violation of DFTA guidelines.

“They [the board] had to come to me for everything: grant-writing, bookkeeping,” says (Rema) Townsend. “The board of directors did not know what they were doing." Excerpted form the Main Street WIRE, page 12, December 10, 2016. See Insider Offers View Into RI Senior Association Meltdown

Townsend told the Common Council's Public Purpose Fund Committee in 2015, "I'm the Senior Center," and she was.

But it was in violation of all the rules and regulations put in place to assure that money provided for the benefit of seniors is spent appropriately.

RISA's Board was derelict, but so was DFTA. Even with City budgets tightening, they kept shipping RISA money and it kept going into pockets where it didn't belong.

Where Negligent Oversight Leads

We will probably never know when or how Rema Townsend changed from a woman who appeared eager and optimistic, determined to find creative ways to help seniors, in 2003. But it's possible that there were always two sides to Rema, one caring and wise, another opportunistic, angry and riddled with greed.

Maybe the best place to get the idea is in her 2015 presentation to the PPF Committee.

Townsend clearly and forcefully expresses both her insight and intentions about improving opportunities at the Senior Center.

Yet, at the time, she was stealing from them, left and right, forging dozens of checks, and had been for years. The contrasts are extreme, as were the results. (Investigators showed RISA Treasurer Arya 92 checks on which her name was forged in a single month.)

There is no way to know the full extent to which seniors were routinely denied life-enriching activities or went hungry.

And it wasn't just the money. It was the failure to provide robust activities to keep minds and bodies healthy and happy.

What we know is that, as early as 2007, Townsend spent time marketing her consulting services, not as a senior services expert, but as "Liaison to the Stars," offering assistance in product placement and sponsorship, shopping deals and distribution, and "all other related services."

Although she'd go on to make the case that she was overburdened at the Senior Center, forced to do all the work that an inept Board dumped on her, in an interview conducted by credulous Main Street WIRE Editors Briana Warsing and Dana Agmon (see page 12), she found time to launch too additional businesses while pulling down $80K per year as RISA's Program Director.

In starting her businesses, Townsend adopted a new name and identity: Rema Rozay and/or Rema Rozay Inc.

As Rema Rozay, she set up a hair extensions operation, taking orders, shipping and receiving, frequently in her office at the Senior Center and using Center supplies.

Better known was Rema Rozay Inc.'s hosting of "Bomb Parties" on luxury yachts, expensive events where the famous and wannabe famous danced, drank and made connections.

"I didn't go, but we (RISA Board Members) all got invited," a former RISA Officer told us.

RISA Board Officers included Wendy Hersh (Vice President), Padmini Arya (Treasurer), longtime President Dolores Green and current President Barbara Parker.

If the Bomb Parties weren't enough to raise eyebrows, Board Officers were also aware that Townsend drove to work in a Bentley, far beyond the means of her RISA salary, and parked it in Motorgate at RISA's expense.

More fuel for the fire came in Townsend's signed confession to three felony counts. 

While taking home a full time RISA salary, Townsend also submitted and was paid for working 50 hours a week as a healthcare aide, from 2010 until 2012, in the Bronx.

Until early 2016, only Padmini Arya tried to sound an alarm. Nobody was listening.

Until They Had To Listen

Early in 2016, a person or persons unknown left packets at the door stations for both Hersh and Arya. A deeply flawed WIRE article (see page 3) claimed the packets were dropped at their doors, which was not the case.

The error should come as no surprise. In a headlong rush to give RISA President Barbara Parker cover, WIRE Editor Briana Warsing couldn't even be bothered to spell Hersh's name correctly, using "Hersch" multiple times, let alone verify Parker's claims.

WIRE Editor Briana Warsing at Cornell Tech in September
WIRE Editor Briana Warsing at Cornell Tech in September
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Inside the packets were copies of RISA's 990 IRS tax exempt filings and a cover letter with areas of concern about malfeasance highlighted. Here, Warsing also tried to help RISA by reporting falsely that "there was no note included to indicate why these forms were provided."

In a Main Street WIRE article written by Warsing in the fall of 2016 (See RISA, staring on page 3), Warsing pointed blame for RISA's losing the Senior Center contract on what happened next.

According to the Main Street WIRE's fictionalized version of reality, "The decision to go outside of RISA for counsel set a chain of events in motion that many believe ultimately resulted in the termination of RISA’s sponsorship contract. It also spawned wild speculation in the community – and more than a few conspiracy theories – regarding the board’s previous accounting practices and personnel issues."

Although Warsing published the effort to denigrate RISA's critics without offering details, the facts eventually disclosed in Townsend's felony confessions were far wilder than Warsing's fanciful "wild speculation in the community." 

Arya and Hersh took the evidence of criminal malfeasance to the authorities as they were required to do as Officers of RISA.

We are unaware of any "conspiracy theories" as claimed by the WIRE.

About the only public official who comes off well in this dreary episode is City Council Member Ben Kallos, although RIOC Board Member Michael Shinozaki would later make a lonely effort to set things right.

His sensitivity to the needs of seniors already well-established, Kallos finally did what DFTA failed to do for six years. He got the evidence into the hands of the Department of Investigations.

As the truth about what was going on at the Senior Center became clear, Kallos also took back a $27K grant he'd set up for RISA and redirected it to Carter Burden.

“I spent my career trying to save them [from themselves]. They went down there and screwed the whole thing up.” Rema Townsend in the the ever credulous Main Street WIRE.

"In the months since June, Townsend says she has faced numerous accusations about her management of the Center, including questions about credit card bills, payments, and the signature on RISA checks, however she said she was never approached by DFTA or subject to any official investigation. For the most part, she believes the accusations stem from a lack of understanding by former and new board members." Main Street WIRE, December 10th, 2016.

Could anything have been more untrue? Yet, it went unchallenged in the WIRE.

RIRA Common Council and RIOC Pair Up to Forsake Seniors

Kicked out of the Senior Center as the result of malfeasance so extensive it was beyond anyone's imagination at this point, RISA's best hope for survival was to get some of the Public Purpose Funds set aside by RIOC from each year's budget.

The total amount is small, $100,000," and not nearly enough to meet the needs of the community's nonprofit needs.

RISA's most recent IRS filing show $2,922 in membership dues, not enough to keep the organization running after having its DFTA contract terminated.

Surprisingly and with little discretion, RIOC prequalified RISA for Public Purpose Funds, less than six months after direct evidence of malfeasance led RIOC's then President/CEO Charlene Indelicato to try closing the Senior Center and just weeks after DFTA found so much misconduct that they shut down RISA's management without notice.

According to the Common Council's Chair of the Public Purpose Fund Committee, Dave Evans, his committee took for granted that RIOC cleared RISA of wrongdoing before forwarding them for consideration.

But RIRA's Common Council made brutal errors of their own.

Behind the spineless leadership of Jeffrey Escobar, the Council allowed their Vice President and RISA Secretary Sherie Helstien along with RISA President and Common Council Member Barbara Parker to participate in selecting the members of the Committee which would decide on the size and advisability of grants being requested.

Compounding that error (and it gets worse after this), Helstien was allowed to participate in hearings on the grants on behalf of RISA.

Sherie Helstien, last year
Sherie Helstien, last year
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

When Evans asks Parker, "How did the former senior center director not get DFTA's contract?"

Note: the contract was actually terminated prematurely by DFTA.

President Parker gives a preprogrammed response: "We cannot really expand on what came about at that particular time."

Evans rephrases: "Weren't you aware of or didn't you learn about an investigation in June?"

Here on RIOC's audio of the event, Helstien suddenly barks an order from the back of the room: "The answer to that question is 'Ask DFTA!'"

Parker ducks for cover: "I am not in a position to disclose because I don't know."

The truth is that Parker participated in a final meeting with the DFTA Commissioner Donna M. Corrado, during which her stubborn insistence that RISA's history of forgeries was okay "because we had permission" provoked the Commissioner to terminate immediately.

Nonetheless, the PPF Committee decided to recommend a $15,000 grant to RISA, far more more than most other applicants, none of which had RISA's troubled history for baggage nor were under criminal investigation.

Remember how I told you it got worse? It did.

When it came time for the full Common Council to vote approval or disapproval of the Committee's recommendation, Helstien was again allowed to participate, now as Common Council Vice President, over objections.

But Helstien wasn't done.

In a mindlessly unvetted Community Column in the always available for her Main Street WIRE, Helstien was allowed to pass off this explanation for RISA's being kicked out of the Senior Center:

"The (RISA) 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.”

The italics are mine, and each represents a falsehood.

It takes a special gift to compress that many untruths and straight up lies in a single paragraph.

With the new, recently elected Common Council waiting in the wings, its predecessor hastily approved the recommendation and passed on to RIOC.

RISA Crimes No Problem for RIOC or the Main Street WIRE

Enough pressure was put on RIOC and RISA that, last December, RISA's request for Public Purpose Funds were put on hold while RIOC devoted time, energy and mothering to help them put put together the paperwork needed to qualify, paperwork all other applicants were required to have in place months before.

Rejecting multiple appeals, RIOC eventually approved full funding for RISA, even after Rema Townsend's felony convictions became public. Read that story here.

Main Street WIRE Helps RISA President Cover Up
Main Street WIRE Helps RISA President Cover Up
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Rubbing salt in the wounds suffered by Roosevelt Island's elderly and Board Officers already subject to harassment by RISA, the Main Street WIRE, in RISA on Defensive after Former Director Pleads Guiltygives over a front page article to let Parker spray more falsehoods around the community.

Among the grossest:

"Parker also points out that she couldn’t have 'paid herself' because she didn’t have signatory authority at that time. Under the prior board, checks had to be signed and approved by former RISA Treasurer Bubu Arya and former RISA President Dolores Green."

The truth is that RISA's Board approved payments, not just Arya and Green. In other words, Parker approved payments to herself.

Here, there's a twist. 

With Townsend gone in 2016, Parker filed RISA's IRS 990 paperwork herself. On page 7, where filers are required to report on any compensation paid to Board Members, Parker submits $0 for herself.

And from the same WIRE article:

"According to Parker, 'Buba Arya made it very clear that every time she left to go to India, she’d sign 50 blank checks. The commissioner said, ‘You have to stop because it’s not legal.’ That’s when I said that Green gave Townsend permission, in writing. The lawyer said, ‘Well it’s not really legal unless she did it with power of attorney and [had it] notarized.’”

Arya denies ever signing blank checks, and this appears to be a peculiar effort to give Townsend cover for the hundreds of times she forged Arya's signature.

Why Parker would want to cover for Townsend is anyone's guess, but this was not the first time Parker teamed with Townsend to harass the soft-spoken Arya. When she refused to sign checks for vendors that had not been approved by RISA's Board, the pair gave numerous angry vendors Arya's home phone number so they could call her to demand money Townsend promised them.

What Commissioner Corrado ordered stopped were RISA's years of forgeries, most attributed to Townsend. Parker resisted and lost the Senior Center contract.

The WIRE also selectively uses recordings provided by Parker to buttress her case. Other Board Officers say they were unaware of being recorded.

Finally...

"The WIRE reached out to Arya. She said she has moved on and declined to comment."

But Arya moved on only in relationship to the WIRE. She lost confidence in Warsing after spending an evening openly sharing information only to find it ignored when Warsing and Agmon published their Townsend coverup story, allowing her to trash RISA Board Officers and specifically Arya by name.

Conclusion

It really does take a village to allow such a long thread of deceit and crime to continue.

It takes a corrupt organization that, leaning heavily on Roosevelt Island's hard provincialism, never was openly blamed for its wrongdoing and never apologized for any of the consequences to seniors.

It takes lax oversight by RIOC that continues to reward RISA in spite of growing evidence of wrongdoing by numerous officials and a history of public falsehoods planted for cover.

It takes a prosecutor willing to devote time to only the lowest hanging fruit and, as a result, lets Townsend keep most of her stolen rewards without punishment.

Crucially, it takes an "independent newspaper" that built trust over decades of conscientious content management being turned into a supportive resource for the worst community behavior, repeatedly publishing lies and falsehoods and never correcting errors.

It takes a village.

That village still has time to turn itself around and, again, make Roosevelt Island a community where crime is not rewarded and trust is restored.

 

Comments powered by Disqus