What Went Wrong Remains Uncorrected

Roosevelt Island's Village of Crime Against Seniors, Part 3

Updated 9 weeks ago David Stone

A criminal enterprise as extensive as the one that gobbled up money intended for Roosevelt Island's seniors can't be the work of a single crook, independent of everyone and everything else. Neither can it be fully erased by a plea deal that covers only a tiny portion of the outrages that went on during RISA's tenure at the Senior Center.

It's one more thing that takes a village, a sick one, a polluted coalition of greed.

RISA: The Alternative Version

Council Member Ben Kallos, shown here informally meeting with constituents in 2016, played a key roll in saving the Senior Center.
Council Member Ben Kallos, shown here informally meeting with constituents in 2016, played a key roll in saving the Senior Center.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

A misleading impression, promoted energetically by local media, visualizes the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association as reinventing itself, making a new start while leaving its nightmarish past behind.

The truth is that they've also been reinventing the past, throwing falsehoods into the air like pixie dust while simultaneously plying for sympathy with classic victimization appeals.

An innocent RISA, the alternative version goes, suffered at the hands of the Department for the Aging and the Carter Burden Network while struggling to get by, depending on the community's generosity by way of RIOC, to serve the elderly of Roosevelt Island.

No group could be more selfless is how the story now goes nor more damaged by unearned mistreatment.

But Program Director Rema Townsend's felony convictions blew that nonsense out of the water, punching holes in an elaborately woven facade of disguise.

Leaning On a Lie From Day One

"No. There is no investigation being conducted regarding the Roosevelt Island Senior Association," Barbara Parker, RISA's new President, told the Roosevelt Islander blog, just a week after her group was evicted from managing the Senior Center.

The statement was preposterous.

RISA President Barbara Parker
RISA President Barbara Parker
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily
DFTA had abruptly terminated their contract after decades, without notice, and brought in the Carter Burden Center for the Aging to rescue what was left of generous space set aside at 546 Main Street for our aging population, a key element in the plan that created Roosevelt Island as a neighborhood.

"No investigation" resonates now like a Trump line about Russia. No collusion? Not possible. The simple truth is that Townsend lacked the skillsets necessary to pull it off alone and go undetected for a decade or more.

An investigation to get to the bottom of the flourishing garden of crime at 546 Main Street was well underway, had been for months, and it was not a secret.

But because no one asked, Parker's spurious statement stood out like a flashing red beacon, warning anyone who cared to look that unidentified dangers lurked nearby.

Oh, one lone voice, commenting on the blog, insisted that an investigation was in fact in progress. He reported observing the Department of Investigations lugging files out of the Senior Center.

But the general tenor was more like that of Janet Falk:

"Congratulations to the new leaders of RISA," she wrote, ignoring the fact that President Parker was not new at all but had been Secretary and a close associate of Townsend's for years. "Here's to your success in expanding the membership, bringing new programs and reinvigorating the ongoing activities."

Parker was not only a Board Member and Executive, she was connected, at least indirectly, with everything that went wrong. It was her admission to DFTA's Commissioner that RISA was awash in forged checks - "We had permission." - that triggered their contracts sudden end.

But no one, at least publicly, demanded truth-telling, least of all the Main Street WIRE, which went on to be the "New RISA's" welcoming platform for myth-making aimed at exonerating itself and its Board.

WIRE content is routinely controlled by special interests with political stakes in the ground. Sherie Helstien shared the titles of RISA's Board Secretary and Circulation Manager for the WIRE.

She was eventually given a platform to make the RISA case, without challenge, but for the critical summer of 2016, the WIRE preferred to pretend there was no problem with RISA's management and whatever got them kicked out of the Senior Center.

In its single summer issue, the WIRE's lazy coverage never questioned RISA's cover story, even though it was thin enough to make Donald Trump look complicated. Instead, they rallied sympathy for a tiny group of protestors, including WIRE bookkeeper Vicki Feinmel, complaining about Carter Burden's exercise offerings during the transition.

That was Carter Burden's first month, starting from scratch, and if you're wondering whether WIRE editor Briana Warsing disclosed conflicts of interest with Feinmel and Helstien, you must be new here.

Of course she didn't.

Missed Opportunities Yield Rewards for RISA

In May, 2015, a full year before RISA's scandalous management of the Senior Center brought it down, as head of the RIRA Common Council's Island Services Committee, Aaron Hamburger asked Ron Davidson and Rivercross Council Representative Anne Kanninen to meet with RISA and explore ways they might help improve services for seniors.

Hamburger was inspired by complaints about failing services and inadequate revenue highlighted in a story featuring RISA President Dolores Green in the Main Street WIRE.

Neither the WIRE nor Hamburger questioned Green's claim of decreasing grants or even asked that they be identified, missing an early opportunity to shed a light on the thefts that were the major cause of depleted funds.

Of course, that's not Hamburger's responsibility, but the WIRE, which claims to be the community's only newspaper, failed as it often does these days to dig past its preferred narrative.

On May 8th, Davidson and Kanninen met with Delores Green, Barbara Parker and Rema Townsend. The meeting was cordial enough that it resulted in a letter of agreement between the groups that promoted a better understanding of RISA issues and included a list of ways they might work together.

Bulletin Board at CBN/RI Senior Center shows a vigorous lineup of activities.
Bulletin Board at CBN/RI Senior Center shows a vigorous lineup of activities.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

But consistent with a pattern that suggested sub rosa dealings with unidentified parties, someone from RISA was soon in touch with Hamburger. The results were incongruous with events so far.

"Unfortunately," Hamburger recalls, "the SC leaders refused to work with the ISC team. We soon realized that Anne and Ron were considered 'poison' to the leadership especially to Dolores Green, the President."

Hamburger decided to back off.

"Dolores Green was going to retire as President and new leadership would soon take over. We felt the proposed new officers were competent, aggressive and had a lot of new, good ideas. ISC decided to temporarily stop our investigation."

"We," Davidson says was Hamburger alone.

As for Kanninen, she emailed Davidson her perceptions:

"Factually Rema Townsend leads the whole operation by manipulating both Dolores Green and Barbara Parker. Any improvements suggested or offered by anybody during several years has been turned down and perceived as attacks. Consequently the sr. center has fallen behind in their services as compared to other sr. centers in the city."

The Village of Crime at 546 Main Street went on for another year with the Common Council's unwitting compliance.

In 2105, Townsend even presented RISA's case before the Public Purpose Fund Committee, winning approval and eventually money from RIOC.

Even after being kicked out of the Senior Center in June, 2016, the reorganized RISA appealed again and was recommended for a whopping $12,000 dollars, more than almost every other applicant.

Since RISA was not then a 501(3)c corporation, according to tax filings, RIOC should have disqualified them from the process but, instead, in spite of intense opposition from Board Member Michael Shinozaki and other Island organizations that had done the work to become qualified, approved the grant.

Dave Evans, the Common Council Member leading the PPF committee recalls, "I embedded in the report a hedge that would free up funds recommended to any organization that during the grant period might be found ineligible by the appropriate authority (RIOC).  I envisioned that, should such happen, the appropriate authority would decide how and if ( consistent with the hedge language I wrote) any funds would be re-directed."

The Main Street WIRE, Rema Townsend and the "New RISA"

"We take our role as the Island’s community newspaper seriously," writes Editor Briana Warsing in the most recent, flimsy WIRE edition.

This makes a good illustration of how versatile the word "seriously" is.

How serious were they in October last year when they allowed RISA Secretary Sherie Helstien to explain the group's dismissal from the Senior Center in this fictitious version of reality, posted in the Community Column?

"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," and bounce RISA from the Senior Center.

RISA Secretary Sherie Helstien in 2016.
RISA Secretary Sherie Helstien in 2016.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Wordsmiths everywhere have to tip their hats at how deftly Helstien inoculated RISA management from responsibility for the debacle, shifted blame to DFTA and some nameless, detached program director while lying twice, all in one sentence.

The "DFTA-vetted program director" was, of course, convicted felon Rema Townsend, vetted by DFTA in 2002, who'd worked closely with RISA President Barbara Parker for years before the sun finally came up over the Village of Crime.

How "unwitting" could Parker be?

Padmini "Bubu" Arya, RISA Treasurer who twice went to DFTA to share her suspicions about Townsend, was certainly not "unwitting" and neither was Board Member and, later, Acting President Wendy Hersh. The pair finally brought the crime spree to an end by bringing their concerns to City Council Member Ben Kallos who promptly took action.

"Unintentional errors crept into the program management" is how Helstien described what would lead to a seventeen count felony indictment, taking advantage of the fact that no reporting had yet exposed the full picture.

But she still wasn't finished constructing an alternative reality intended to reinvigorate public trust sufficient to draw new dues paying members and RIOC Public Purpose Funds.

"...prompting DFTA to dismiss their appointed program director," Helstien adds, divorcing RISA from Rema Townsend who worked closely with Barbara Parker, Dolores Green and others as Program Director at the Senior Center since January, 2003.

The truth is that DFTA did not "dismiss their appointed program director." Rema Townsend never worked for DFTA. DFTA ordered RISA to fire her, something they were unwilling to do, even after years of theft and forgeries became known.

Note: I emailed Helstien a copy of her statement and asked her if she would like to revise it. She did not respond.

The charm offensive, engineered by Helstien and Parker, was in full swing.

Beat Goes On at the Main Street WIRE

By the end of the year, the WIRE was so committed to the "New RISA" cause, in articles teaming Editor Briana Warsing with Publisher Dana Agmon, they trashed both women who'd gathered up the courage to blow the whistle on RISA's crimes against seniors.

Carter Burden Network Executive Director Bill Dionne with whistleblower Wendy Hersh.
Carter Burden Network Executive Director Bill Dionne with whistleblower Wendy Hersh.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

So uninterested in accuracy or in getting a full picture were Warsing, who offers her services online as an editor and writer for $25/hr, and Agmon that they repeatedly misspelled Wendy Hersh as "Hersch," even as they helped RISA shift blame for what happened to her and other unidentified RISA members.

Worse, offering Rema Townsend nearly unlimited space to throw whoever she needed to under the bus, in the same issue, Warsing and Agmon left unchallenged her claim that she "did RISA Treasurer Bubu Arya’s bookkeeping for years," using it as an example of RISA's bumbling leadership for which she said she was unfairly called on to cover.

It's hard to imagine that the WIRE writers were unaware that Board Members, such as Arya, are volunteers, not employees engaged in the day to day work of the business. But they let it stand.

Arya was, in fact, the first to report her suspicions about crimes at RISA to DFTA, in 2010. She persisted, in spite of threats, and her efforts lead to the series of investigations that continue today.

Putting Up the False Front

In RISA Drops Funding Bid Amid Allegations, the WIRE offers an unfiltered receptacle for RISA to dish out a misleading cover story for public consumption, characterizing themselves as innocent victims.

“We feel, at this point, we should table our Public Purpose Fund application while we sort out problems from the former sponsorship,” Parker told the WIRE, implying that there was nothing more than a conflict that needed clearing up.

Parker was already aware of the issue of mountains of forgeries that led to their contracts sudden termination.

Warsing and Agmon help put a pretty face on RISA's story, writing that they "lost their contract," not that they were booted out for malfeasance, and that Carter Burden was "awarded" it instead, as if they'd won a bidding contest with RISA.

In fact, CBN hustled in on very short notice to make sure services to seniors continued uninterrupted.

In an article rife with falsehoods and misleading assertions, too many to cover here, Warsing and Agmon allow RISA-slanted innuendo to tar Hersh.

First chastising her for taking her concerns as a whistleblower to RIOC and Council Member Kallos, "despite a rule mandating that financial matters and other sensitive issues be reported to the executive board first," one they never explain, challenge or verify, the writers acrobatically attempt to flip responsibility for the whole mess to Hersh, not the criminals in charge.

"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," they claim, without sources, as if widespread malfeasance hadn't been the actual root cause.

Warsing and Agmon go on to assert their alleged insight: "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."

"Conspiracy theories" are the most common misdirection used to discredit critics as kooks.

Nowhere is malfeasance, theft or forgery mentioned, and anyway, it's only "...the board’s previous accounting practices and personnel issues" that are of concern.

After letting Parker get away with, "the inquiry, headed by DFTA’s inspector general, has focused on the organization’s finances for May and June of 2016," six months after her own admission about forgeries pushed DFTA to kick them out, Warsing and Agmon extend the coverup story Parker and Townsend give them.

"Members of RISA also went to DFTA to complain about former program director Rema Townsend, a RISA employee. Some former members say that, instead of helping, this signalled to DFTA that RISA was unable to handle the sponsorship contract."  (Misspelling of "signalled" theirs)

They go on, "Additionally, both Parker and Townsend point out that DFTA, not RISA, was in charge of the Center during one of the two months in question," and even allow Parker to take a shot at DFTA: “How could they ask for records and invoices from June?"

And then, it got worse...

In Insider Offers View Into RI Senior Association Meltdown, in the same issue, with almost breathtaking naïveté or outright ignorance, Editor Warsing and Publisher Agmon give Rema Townsend nearly a full page and carte blanche privileges to build an alibi by trashing everyone within reach at the Senior Center.

"Former RISA Program Director blames confusion and Inexperience for Senior Association’s Troubles" reads the poorly edited subheading, and the WIRE then proceeds to help Townsend make her case, never challenging her as she takes little responsibility and blames Board Member incompetence for the demise of RISA and the Senior Center.

“The board of directors did not know what they were doing," Townsend is quoted, explaining why “They had to come to me for everything."

The assertion, which is repeated, goes unchallenged throughout the long article, and Townsend's even allowed to attack Bubu Arya, the Board Member who  blew her in, without questions.

What should be obvious mistakes pepper the article.

For example, playing victim, "Townsend says she was hired by RISA in 2002, fresh out of graduate school, with little knowledge of how to run a center or how funding works in New York."

But the WIRE's own article about Townsend when she started in 2003 reports that she came to the job "after five years at New York City’s Bridges Juvenile Detention Center."

Moreover, she'd graduated from Hunter College, according to the same article, years before.

Admittedly, the Main Street WIRE's web presence is a daunting mess to deal with, but if a reader could find the article, shouldn't Warsing and Agmon have taken the time to check the newspaper's own reporting?

This tells us that, maybe, the writers' goals were not what readers expect.

Readers can scan the full, nauseating article in the WIRE's December 10, 2016 issue, on page 12.

After going on at length about her sacrifices in saving RISA's incompetent Board from itself, Townsend summarizes, “I offered them training, workshops, everything, over and over. I was tired of doing everyone’s work.”

Her ferocity in pushing everyone back, especially Hersh when she tried to sort out the bookkeeping mess that Townsend created, tells another story.

But in fairness, Townsend admitted to some misconduct, which amounted to "...coming and going as I pleased."

But even here, she had a caveat: "It was a quiet, unwritten rule. Was it right or wrong? I am not going to say."

In the end, about the "numerous accusations about her management of the Center, including questions about credit card bills, payments, and the signature on RISA checks," Townsend is quoted unchallenged that "she was never approached by DFTA or subject to any official investigation."

Six months before receiving a seventeen county felony indictment, Townsend sells the credulous WIRE duo this: "For the most part, she believes the accusations stem from a lack of understanding by former and new board members."

Even When It's Crime, It Still Takes a Village

For those of us who find few everyday crimes lower than stealing resources set aside for care of the elderly, there remains, after Townsend's guilty plea, a smoldering frustration.

As we've seen above, the Main Street WIRE, which claims to be a community resources and takes the privilege of jamming its print edition into every local mailbox, wanted or not, made common cause with one of the worst offenders ever to land on Roosevelt Island.

But the newspaper also served as paper for RISA's ugly misleading wall of butt covering baloney.

And what the hell was RIOC doing, allowing this group to skip the hurdles every other petitioner for Public Purpose Funds had to jump over?

And with resources limited, how could the Common Council recommend more funds for RISA than almost every other nonprofit on Roosevelt Island, none of which were under investigation nor had their contract with the City canceled due to malfeasance?

And why is no one asking how an optimistic young woman named Rema Townsend, who came to Roosevelt Island with high hopes for energizing the Senior Center, became a full time thief in only seven years? Who was she learning from?

It takes a village, all right, but it also takes negligence to feed it.

Today at The Senior Center

CBN's Yulisa Santana's door is always open for seniors needing advice on insurance, health care options and more.
CBN's Yulisa Santana's door is always open for seniors needing advice on insurance, health care options and more.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Led by Lisa Fernandez, the Carter Burden Network has now established a vibrant community of activities and services at the Roosevelt Island Senior Center.

But a willingness to try working with the remnants of RISA has been a steady source of conflict. 

Most recently, RISA was caught in the act, striving to create turmoil while characterizing Fernandez as a tyrant, over, of all things, a pool table. 

It was far from the first incident.

Although she left the job, reportedly "burned out" from dealing with RISA's Helstien and Parker, CBN's first Outreach Director Hallie Shapiro closed the door to her office, more than once, to unload about the daily dose of abuse.

For Fernandez, it's been worse, but she has so far refused to speak out publicly or to share threatening emails she's received with the media.

The bottom line is, RISA wants to chip away at CBN's resolve in hopes of getting back control of the Senior Center, especially its funding stream.

They have been enabled by the village that seems to believe, in spite of the crimes and gross neglect of seniors, that a group made up of locals is always better than one comprised of those dreaded "outsiders," no matter how much they've improved a bad situation.

Is this really the face of Roosevelt Island we want to present as we move into a whole new phase of community life? That's a question all of us, especially the enablers among us, need to ask ourselves.

We can and should be better.

CBN Outreach Director Samantha Romero
CBN Outreach Director Samantha Romero
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

This is the last of our series on crimes at the Senior Center. The Daily wishes to thank Ron Davidson for his research and encouragement and also the anonymous sources who still fear RISA retribution. They know who they are.