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City: Vito’s charity boss cooked the books

The Brooklyn Paper
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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.

But the probe widened in September last year after Fisher and Battaglia’s skyrocketing pay raises were reported, and city and federal investigators subpoenaed Ridgewood Bushwick documents.

The city investigation into the nonprofit’s $69-million worth of contracts with city agencies is ongoing.

Reach reporter Aaron Short at ashort@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2547.

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Reader Feedback

Dino from Breezy Point says:
Vito's gonna skate.

Hynes daughter was on Vito's assembly payroll for years.

One hand washes another
Nov. 21, 2011, 1:35 am
Dennis sinneD from Williamsburg says:
Dino, you really think so? True on the fact that Vito's been doing this for years, but that doesn't mean he [or his people] can survive a case or two, and it seems they're heading for that.
Nov. 21, 2011, 7:01 am
al pankin from downtown says:
no wonder this city and state are broke, they are run by a bunch of "community" organizer crooks..all self dealing with taxpayers money..ther problem is that you send one to jail, two more pop up..
send them to Florida..
Nov. 21, 2011, 7:14 am
Dennis sinneD from Williamsburg says:
I think we all can agree that Lopez's tenure has been problematic, but the idea that "this city and state are broke, [because] they are run by a bunch of "community" organizer crooks" is Pankin's attempt once again to misdirect the issue. Is Mike Bloomberg a "community organizer"? Is Cuomo? Are the heads of JP Morgan, Chase, Citibank? Are any of these people "community organizers"? Are any of the international heads of state "community organizers"? Is the UN? Is the President of Iran? Is Putin in Russia? Is Berlusconi in Italy [oh!]?

These are the people responsible for the economic state we live under--not your local organizer. Beside me on one side is Los Sures and El Puente--neither compels the economic record. On the other side, the People's Firehouse--same there.

Pankin is smarting that his bigotry extending towards "community groups" was roasted alive on another thread, so he has to come here, find Lopez and with that one single example attempt to generalize ALL community activists.

Wrong again.
Nov. 21, 2011, 10:20 am
judahspechal from bedstuy says:
"The Pimping"

by JudahSpechal
Starring: Vito & the Crew
EXT. Da Hood- B'WAY & FLUSHING AVE
The tragic Woodhall Hospital dominates the background.
Corporate & Political pimping is strong. VITO, 60ish a man who has clearly devour everything in his wake. Thugs on his suspenders with both thumps. He speaks effortless, without much passion.
VITO
Give me your vote, I am one of you, I'll
have your back.
A passing J train above block most of his words.

ANGLE - "URBAN" CROWD
The URBAN CROWD erupts in loud cheers!
MAN IN CROWD
U got my vote VITO.
The URBAN CROWD explodes once again.
As another J train pass above, surrendering tears flows down several faces in the crowd.
VITO
My Brothers my Sisters, my Compadres &
Companiones. On your way home, I have free
turkeys for you. Along the way some folks may
ask to check you blood pressure, your eyes and
teeth. They are friends of mine. Community
Service I call them.
The URBAN CROWD explodes on cue with another J train arrival.
VITO
My friends remember if you know a senior
who needs a hot meal or a ride downtown,
remember every street corner in Brooklyn &
home is my office. Holla and am there for
you.
As 2 Jtrains pull into the El station, VITO bunny hops of the slightly elevated piece of sidewalk he was standing, to frenzied, euphoric hand claps, tears & cheers
Nov. 21, 2011, 11 am
Katie is Steve Levin from Brooklyn says:
It's so weird that this article has been up for hours and "Katie" & her other well-spoken comments-section troll personalities haven't yet rushed in to defend "her" hero, Vito.
Nov. 21, 2011, 11:37 am
judahspechal from bedstuy says:
sc#2: "The Pimping"
by Judah spechal

INT. DARK SUV
The SUV moves along Union Ave. VITO cleans his teeth with a toothpick. He turns to the person sitting next to him.
VITO
Did the turkey guys come thought?
WOMAN
(OFF CAMERA)
Yes the turkey guys came thought.
VITO
Brilliant! You got an invoice?
WOMAN
Of course! Who do you think I am? I even got a few blanks.
VITO
Sweet! Good for you. And me!
His lower lips moved slightly, but not enough to discern a smile or a smirk.
VITO turns to the driver.


VITO
Hey! Go thru that Mickey D’s drive thru before you hop
on that BQE. I need something for the traffic jam.
DRIVER
Yes BOSS!
VITO turns back to the unseen WOMAN next to him.
VITO
They got 2 big macs for buck fifty.
WOMAN
(O.C)
Two BIG MACS for $1.50? Only in America!
Nov. 21, 2011, 12:06 pm
judahspechal from bedstuy says:
sc#3 "The Pimping"
by Judah Spechal

EXT. BUSHWICK AVE
VITO waddles along the sidewalk. SOMELOBBY, a meticulously dressed & groom man in his 50’s steps from between two houses & saddles up to VITO.
SOMLOBBY
MR. VITO, I am SOMLOBBY.
VITO
Good to meet you.
SOMLOBBY
You seem to be heading places.

VITO
Yes, I’m going to have lunch on the seniors. Ooops! I mean with the seniors at the Senior Center.
SOMLOBBY
Hmm! Sounds delicious! Is there a plate for me? I am willing pay.
He hands VITO a stuff envelope. VITO finger curls around the envelope.

VITO
Yes of course there’s a plate for you. My daddy always said set an extra plate. You never know who will drop by.
He smiles to himself without showing teeth as they move down the sidewalk.
Nov. 21, 2011, 12:08 pm
bill from glendale says:
vito his girlfriend and fisher should be in jail period end of story mayor and governor and attorney general indict them we the tax payers are fed up and i will plan a protest at the center shortly
Nov. 21, 2011, 7:44 pm
Chip from Engel says:
Where is Bahara on this ? John Liu he is sending Agents and this Italian godfather he is putting a blind eye ?!
Nov. 21, 2011, 8:35 pm
mr.g from williamsburg says:
great job in making williamsburg/bushwick a happening place. bad job if you, the new thinkers have no clue and no response to the fact that mr. lopes is not your friend and you have failed your obligation to confront those that abuse the system while still talking green this and that while millions of dollars are leaving your zip code. i use zip code so you can view many private and gov't stat's and websites verifing the same.
Dec. 4, 2011, 2:47 am

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