How RISA Contract Finally Came To An Abrupt End

Enablers, Heroes & Villains: Crimes at the Senior Center, Part 2

Updated 2 weeks ago David Stone
Enablers, Heroes & Villains: Crimes at the Senior Center, Part 2
Image courtesy of Pixabay

On May 31st, 2016, the Department for the Aging abruptly terminated its contract with the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association to operate the Senior Center at 546 Main Street. No credible explanation was given by either party, and falsehoods galore were circulated, many published in the Main Street WIRE, to obscure the sordid story of what happened.

"No. There is no investigation being conducted regarding the Roosevelt Island Senior Association," President Barbara Parker told the Roosevelt Islander blog at the time. That was untrue. We can now share the story of events leading to RISA's dismissal.

Note: In gathering information for this series, we talked extensively with four sources, each of whom confirmed various details supplied by others. Our sources requested anonymity because they fear retaliation by RISA, which has a confirmed and continuing history of harassment.

Part 1 of this story, the tale of RISA Program Director Rema Townsend's guilty plea to three felonies appeared on Sunday, August 6th.

Crimes Hidden for Years

Roosevelt Islanders can't be blamed if they find it impossible to believe that coworkers who were aware of Rema Townsend's owning a Bentley that she drove to work and parked in a RISA provided spot were not also aware or at least made suspicious by her lavish lifestyle, days taken up with luxury vacations and showing off bling, all of it on display on her Facebook Page.

Wasn't anyone worried about where the money was coming from?

One person was - Padmini "Bubu" Arya, RISA Board Member and Treasurer. As early as 2010, she brought her concerns, as a whistleblower, to the Department for the Aging, primary funding source for the Senior Center.

DFTA took no action.

Three years later, Arya pressed her concerns again with DFTA. Same result. Nothing.

What finally triggered action were packets of photocopied information, mostly RISA tax filings, that an anonymous source dropped at the door stations of both Arya and fellow Board Member Wendy Hersh in February of 2016.

Neither Hersh nor Arya know why they were selected, and the person who dropped off the material has never stepped forward to take credit.

But Hersh and Arya suspected that the packages were dropped off because they exposed malfeasance. Neither was sure. At a loss for where to turn, they made an appointment with City Council Member Ben Kallos, a trusted newcomer in Roosevelt Island politics.

Arya never understood why her early complaints had been ignored by DFTA, and she feared telling her story to RISA executives, Barbara Parker and Dolores Green, because of their close, interdependent relationships with Townsend.

In Kallos, Hersh and Arya found the champion they needed to get wheels turning in the right direction.

Kallos told me that he saw it as his responsibility to route serious concerns of this kind to the proper authority. In this instance, that authority was the City's Department of Investigations.

When DOI got involved, DFTA finally woke up. Eventually, the District Attorney was called in to dig deeper into wrongdoing at the Senior Center.

Crimes included in the Townsend's guilty plea go all the way back to the time of Arya's first attempt to get DFTA to investigate.

Crimes Without Pause

Investigators would eventually find evidence to convict Townsend of taking pay from two separate nonprofits, RISA and Concepts of Independence, claiming to work full time in both locations, for two years, starting in 2010.

But first, DFTA worried about how the money they sent to RISA was being used. Hersh was asked to help go over the books.

Among things eventually discovered was that, beginning in January of 2012, Townsend wrote checks to one "Arnold Williams" as compensation for delivering food to homebound elderly serviced by the Senior Center.

No one connected with the Center I talked to remembers seeing, meeting or even knowing who Williams was, although the checks continued until May of 2016, ending just weeks before DFTA kicked RISA out.

Williams, it was finally discovered, is the father of Townsend's son - according to the investigator's report, although no one here is aware of her having a son, just a daughter, Dallas. Townsend even went to the trouble, in 2013, of documenting references she verified in a failed effort to enable his employment.

But it was a more clever ruse than it appeared on the surface. Townsend forged Williams's initials on the checks and deposited them in her own personal account. Investigators found an aggregate total of nearly $23,000 in this scheme.

Our sources have shown us the cliched "mountains of evidence" indicative of numerous other crimes, 265 checks with forged signatures, for example.

Townsend pled guilty to three felony counts and on one misdemeanor, down from seventeen felony charges in the original indictment, but we've learned that there are "multiple, ongoing investigations,"

The story is far from over. No one has yet stepped forward with a credible explanation of how so many crimes were committed over so many years without RISA's Board doing anything about them.

What may be of more immediate interest to Roosevelt Islanders is the sequence of events leading up the RISA's termination.

Forgery As a Standard

Townsend and her associates did not go quietly as the evidence against RISA unfolded. In fact, the Board chose to retain Townsend until ordered to terminate her by DFTA in June, four months after investigations began.

When Hersh accepted a request to dig into RISA's books and try to figure out what had been going on, she encountered fierce resistance from Townsend and little cooperation from Barbara Parker, RISA's Secretary and Townsend's close friend at the time.

In an angry email on April 4th, addressed to Parker and founding President Dolores Green, Townsend reacted to a request for bank account information from Hersh by calling her a "sick control freak."

Still Program Director, Townsend said she would "not be attending work anymore until I have access to my account."

She continued, "This board has allowed this ignorant control freak to manipulate and trick them."

But she kept working for RISA, anyway. When Hersh tried to institute controls over Townsend's use of agency money, she met stiff resistance from Parker. The crimes did not cease.

We will cover the severe harassment Hersh received later, but she was eventually so battered she left the RISA Board to protect her sanity and her career.

When DFTA Brought Down the Curtain on RISA

After Parker, now President, told the Roosevelt Islander in July, 2016, that RISA was not being investigated, she, along with RISA Secretary Sherie Helstien, went on to paint an alternate reality, courtesy of the Main Street WIRE.

We will get into that in our next report, but to wrap up here, we'll share the truth about the proximate cause of RISA's termination from Senior Center management.

As concerns mounted quickly over RISA's management, DFTA Commissioner Donna M. Corrado summoned Parker, Hersh and Arya to her office.

According to two witnesses who were present at the meeting, Corrado confronted Parker about the many forged documents, including checks, that had been discovered.

Parker, witnesses say, told the Commissioner that the forgeries were okay because "We had permission."

The Commissioner, red faced, explained to Parker, multiple times that it was a felony as did a staff attorney. When Corrado had finally heard enough, she announced that she was closing the Senior Center.,

With Townsend still employed, DFTA took control of the Roosevelt Island Senior Center on June 1st, 2016. DFTA ordered RISA to fire Townsend, an act in spite of all the evidence they had been unwilling to make. (Parker then went so far as to recommend Townsend for continuing as Program Director with RISA's successor.)

With the help of Ben Kallos's office and input from State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, DFTA was able to persuade the Carter Burden Center for the Aging (Now, the Carter Burden Network) to come in and take responsibility for Senior Center programs on very short notice.

What happened from there, including RISA's efforts to cover their tracks while simultaneously endeavoring to undermine Carter Burden, will come in Part 3.