The Roosevelt Island Seniors Association, facing an ongoing investigation and internal finger-pointing, has withdrawn a request for thousands of dollars in public funding.
The group, known as RISA, had applied for the money under the Public Purpose Fund program and was slated to receive $12,100. The disbursement was scheduled to be ratified by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) at its board meeting on Thursday.
“We feel, at this point, we should table our Public Purpose Fund application while we sort out problems from the former sponsorship,” said RISA President Barbara Parker.
The withdrawal is the latest setback for a group struggling to regain its financial footing and community standing after being stripped of its control of the Island’s Senior Center amid accusations of mismanagement.
Historically, RISA was composed of two branches, each with separate bank accounts: membership and sponsorship. The sponsorship funding was provided by the Department for the Aging, or DFTA, and was meant to help the group manage and run the Senior Center, paying instructors, providing meals, and hosting events and seminars. Former RISA boards controlled both the membership and sponsorship sides of the organization.
On June 30, RISA lost its sponsorship contract for the Senior Center which was instead awarded to the Carter Burden Center for the Aging. Since then, RISA has had to rely entirely on their $15 annual membership fees to keep operating.
Further complicating matters, the group has a new board, headed by President Barbara Parker, and the current directors say they weren’t privy to many of the financial decisions made by the previous body. Parker says, “We are just now ourselves finding out.” She explained that they went to the bank and discovered that, as of October 31, the signatures of two former board members were still on a RISA account holding $6,700. Parker says the account information was not shared with them.
Beginning of the End
Questions about why RISA lost its sponsorship contract and the nature of DFTA’s financial inquiries have led to numerous accusations and growing distrust among former and current board members.
According to many accounts of events, including those of former board members, current board members, and the former program director, months of infighting and power struggles within the RISA board finally came to a head last February when someone anonymously left envelopes outside the doors of two then-board members, Treasurer Bubu Arya and Vice President Wendy Hersch.
The women say the envelopes contained multiple years of RISA’s Form 990 tax documents. Such forms are used by non-profit groups to provide financial information and help ensure that organizations don’t abuse their tax-exempt status. Parts of the documents were highlighted for emphasis, but there was no note included to indicate why these forms were provided.
Concerned that the forms indicated malfeasance that the board would be liable for, and aware that the then RISA President Dolores Green was ill, Hersch confided in a friend outside of RISA about the situation, despite a rule mandating that financial matters and other sensitive issues be reported to the executive board first.
Word of possible wrongdoing at RISA eventually reached RIOC, reportedly by a conference call between Wendy Hersch, Lynne Shinozaki, and former RIOC CEO Charlene Indelicato who directed Public Safety Department (PSD) to close the Senior Center and post an officer at the door for the members’ protection. DFTA rules say the Center must be closed when there is concern of malfeasance.
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.
Accusations of fiscal mismanagement are currently being investigated by DFTA. According to Barbara Parker, the inquiry, headed by DFTA’s inspector general, has focused on the organization’s finances for May and June of 2016.
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. According to members of the new board, DFTA claims they owe money varying from $7,000 to $37,000. But Townsend asserts – as did all former board members interviewed for this story – a DFTA-assigned accountant went over RISA’s accounting books monthly during the entire contract period.
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. Parker said, “How could they ask for records and invoices from June? [The records] would have been theirs.”
DFTA Director of Public Affairs, Zenovia Earle, declined to answer any questions about the investigation.
[Editor’s note: RISA’s current board took office in July of this year. Although current president Barbara Parker was secretary under the previous board, all of the other board members are new to the board and were not involved when the events in question took place.]