The top official handpicked by Assemblyman Vito Lopez to run his Bushwick charity forged documents to give her and Lopez’s girlfriend massive pay raises — and then lied about it, a bombshell city investigation charges.
Christiana Fisher, the CEO of the Lopez-founded Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, received a $446,000 raise in 2008, bumping her already lavish $336,000 salary to $782,000, while Ridgewood Bushwick’s housing director, Angela Battaglia, collected a $145,000 raise in 2008, jumping her salary from $198,000 to $343,000.
Board documents show that the sky-high salary hikes — plus a lump-sum payment to Fisher of $218,659 — were approved on Feb. 4, 2008. But executives at Ridgewood Bushwick testified they did not see the board documents until nearly two years later, when Fisher sent them to be prepared with the group’s federal tax returns.
In August, 2010, Fisher faxed a copy of a key tax document to her accountant that showed that the board had OK’d the pay raises — but the document did not have any board member signatures on it.
Three weeks later, Fisher faxed another copy of that document, which suddenly contained signatures of all eight board members, to the city.
The charity’s federal tax return stated that executive pay had been reviewed, deliberated, and approved by its board and an independent committee — but several board members cast some doubt on that.
Ridgewood Bushwick’s then-chairwoman Lucy Cusimano told city investigators last year that the signature on the document was hers, but added that she did not remember signing it.
She also said she had no idea how much Fisher and Battaglia were being paid.
“Nobody ever told me what they made,” said Cusimano, who is no longer on the board.
Another board member, Virginia Torres, said that the board discussed a salary increase for Fisher in late 2009 or early 2010, not in February, 2008, as stated in the documents Ridgewood Bushwick sent to the city.
The charity’s human resources director, Antoinette Kozlowski, also told city inspectors that the first time she saw any board documents concerning executive compensation was when Fisher gave her three separate resolutions from meetings in 2008, 2009, and 2010 at the same time in the summer of 2010. Fisher told her that the original files had gone missing and these resolutions were “re-created.”
In addition, city investigators found that Ridgewood Bushwick’s 2009 tax return was riddled with “inaccuracies.”
The return did not include Fisher’s full compensation from a Ridgewood Bushwick home-care subsidiary, about $96,000, which she also managed.
The tax forms did say that an independent committee was monitoring Ridgewood Bushwick salaries, but the charity’s then-Chief Financial Officer Wesley Hitner said that he was not aware of such a review
In May, Ridgewood Bushwick filed an amended tax return with more than 20 alterations from its prior return, including the startling admission that Fisher’s salary “was not approved by the entire board” and its process for determining executive salaries was flawed.
Ridgewood Bushwick’s attorney told the Daily News, which first reported the city’s findings, that the charity has since replaced nearly all its board members and Fisher’s salary was incorrectly recorded on tax forms.
But Fisher’s salary grab made other Ridgewood Bushwick executives skittish.
Ridgewood Bushwick’s Youth, Education and Training Services Director, Maria Elena Zullo, told Fisher on several occasions between 2008 and 2010 that she was “not comfortable” receiving a 32-percent raise that increased her salary to $219,000 in July 2008, according to Zullo’s testimony. Fisher told her she “felt strongly” that Zullo’s work justified her salary, but agreed to reduce to $150,000 in early 2010.
Fisher defended the pay increase as “retroactive compensation” for salary owed to her since 1999, according to the city’s interviews with Ridgewood Bushwick’s CFO and accountant. She refused to directly answer questions from city investigators and calls made to her attorney and her Bushwick office were not returned.
But Ridgewood Bushwick’s accountant Francis Bowen testified that Fisher’s retroactive increases only occurred for a year-and-a-half period between February 2007 and July 2008, not the nine years stated in the 2008 board resolution.
And Battaglia, Lopez’s girlfriend and a City Planning Commissioner, told city investigators that she did not notice receiving a $145,000 raise until she saw an “unusually high balance” in her checking account in 2008 that she “had not expected or requested.”
When Battaglia asked Fisher why her annual salary rose from $198,000 to $343,000, Fisher told her she was receiving a “retroactive” salary increase for two years of work.
But the city was unable to verify Battaglia’s salary and hours worked because Fisher never required her to fill out timesheets. And Fisher was unable to produce her own time sheets for 2008 and 2009, upon the city’s request.
Even Lopez, who was not named in the report, distanced himself from Ridgewood Bushwick’s financial mess, telling the Daily News he does not have a role in the daily operations of the charity he founded, but defended its 30-year legacy of revitalizing Bushwick. Lopez’s office did not return a call for comment.
But that was enough for Mayor Bloomberg to call major changes at the Bushwick charity.
“Corrective action needs to be taken to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again,” said Bloomberg spokeswoman Julie Wood, adding that Fisher’s resignation could be one of the actions.
And Democratic District Leader Lincoln Restler called on the City Council and state agencies to halt funding to Ridgewood Bushwick.
“The obscene compensation packages represent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars that should have been spent on meals and home health care visits for Brooklyn’s seniors,” said Restler. “Public dollars intended for Ridgewood Bushwick should be reallocated to local organizations that serve Brooklyn honestly.”
The city’s latest report stemmed from an investigation launched last spring that found a Ridgewood Bushwick employee falsified attendance sheets for city-funded programs held at a Bushwick community center that did not exist.
The city investigation into the nonprofit’s $69-million worth of contracts with city agencies is ongoing.
Reach reporter Aaron Short at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2547.