A Bushwick-based nonprofit long linked to its founder Assemblyman Vito Lopez has agreed to a massive internal shakeup as a result of a widening government investigation that charged that workers were taking city funds for programs that never actually existed.
Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council agreed to sweeping reforms that include bringing in an independent auditor and an outside general counsel to improve oversight in the wake of alleged fraud charges.
“[Board members will be interviewed by the mayor’s office] to ascertain their strengths, loyalty and commitment [to the nonprofit],” according to an agreement signed by Ridgewood Bushwick’s Executive Director Christiana Fisher, who is also Lopez’s campaign treasurer.
The move comes on the heels of a 10-page report released last Thursday by the Department of Investigation, which alleges that Ridgewood Bushwick employees defrauded several city agencies of almost $340,000 in taxpayer money.
The report also charges that Fisher failed to monitor the alleged criminal activity of her employees, who falsified attendance sheets and did not keep records of where the money went.
“There was insufficient fiscal or management oversight,” said the report.
Ridgewood Bushwick’s Hope Gardens Multi-Service Center was one of the subcontractors that received $80,000 in funds, but the city found that the center never held any anti-gang youth programs.
Investigators found that Anna Gonzalez, director of Hope Gardens and longtime former chairwoman of Community Board 4, falsely sought reimbursement from the city for “anger management” workshops that were never provided, double-billed two city agencies for expenses incurred in the phantom anti-gang program, and opened her own sham nonprofit which she managed out of Hope Gardens without filing proper tax forms.
Gonzalez died in 2009 while the investigation was underway.
Fisher said she was not aware that the anti-gang program was being conducted at Hope Gardens or any other phony billing schemes, adding that she has no “crystal ball” and is not a “mind reader.”
She initially insisted that Ridgewood Bushwick has proper “internal controls” and that the nonprofit did not need to be improved — though she has now apparently signed off on the city’s recommendations that there must be more verification and accountability when the city’s tax dollars are being used.
Fisher made headlines this week for stunning reports that she earned $659,591 last year working just 17.5 hours per week — a salary increase of 182 percent from the previous year that put her earnings at roughly five times the amount of her peer directors at other Brooklyn nonprofits.
The investigation was spurred by a prior inquiry into how councilmembers’ discretionary funds from a $2 million anti-violence grant made in 2007 were misused by an unrelated nonprofit connected to former Councilman Kendall Stewart.
In addition, the Department of Youth and Community Development launched its own audit of Ridgewood Bushwick’s youth contracts, finding that the nonprofit’s managers failed to produce attendance lists to support expenses for trips and events, claimed reimbursements for goods delivered to locations other than the nonprofit, and made claims for activities that “appeared to be unrelated to its youth center.”
On July 14, Ridgewood Bushwick responded to the agency’s audit in a letter acknowledging it could not produce paperwork for its events, explaining, “[all] of the expenses claimed for the Youth Center were directly for participants that benefit from the Youth Center programming,” but “part of this funding was also allocated to provide support or various community organizations and events that our Council people wanted to support.”
But his board members were certainly criticized by the report, which found that top officials at
Ridgewood Bushwick lacked basic knowledge about the group’s annual budget, financial reports, or even who its executive director was — but always voted “yes” whenever a vote was taken.
The nonprofit has long been linked to political activity that has helped with election-related mobilization efforts on behalf of Lopez for decades.
On primary day this week, hundreds of Ridgewood Bushwick employees took the day off from work and volunteered at the polls to help Lopez win reelection for his state committee race — which he did, taking in about 73 percent of the vote.
Lopez, while he maintains close ties to the nonprofit, including giving more than $330,000 in member items to Ridgewood Bushwick programs last year, was not the subject of any aspect of the city’s investigation.
Mayor Bloomberg, who has attended Ridgewood Bushwick-sponsored senior picnics and Christmas dinner events for the past three years, confirmed this yesterday to the New York Post.
“I’ve known Vito since I came into public life,” said Bloomberg. “I’m not sure the investigation had anything to do with him.”