Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Met Council Scandal & NY’s nonprofit nightmare

‘Breathtaking” is the word that the state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, used to describe the scheme of grand larceny that has now formally been laid against William Rapfogel, who — until he was fired in August — was executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Breathtaking it certainly is.
What makes it so is not only the scale and the duration of the alleged thievery, though that is something. Rapfogel, who has yet to enter a plea, is accused of padding insurance contracts over 20 years to the tune of $5 million, of which he allegedly took more than $1 million. Investigators say they found $400,000 in cash stashed in Rapfogel’s homes.
On top of that is the scandal of the entanglement of a major charity and the government. The Met Council wheedles government money by the millions, from the state and the city, and uses that money, at least in part, to get more money from the state and city. The governments get the money by forcing it from our already-strapped taxpayers.
I’ve covered Rapfogel on and off for something like 20 years. I met him in the 1990s, when he was starting as head of the Met Council and I was editing the Jewish Forward. His main theme was an often underappreciated fact, that as much as 15 percent to 20 percent of the Jewish community in this city is poor and needs help.
That’s all the more reason for the authorities to open up this case all the way, no matter who gets snared.
And to keep in mind the saying that the scandal isn’t only in what’s illegal but also in what’s legal. If ever there were a case that calls for an aggressive and independent prosecution, it would be this in all its angles.
Including the Met Council’s dealings with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. This is the most explosive element. Not only was Rapfogel a personal friend of the speaker, but his wife, Judy, has for years been Silver’s chief of staff. And Silver has, over the years, steered millions of dollars to the Met Council.
It’s not my purpose here to make accusations against either the speaker or Judy Rapfogel; no one has suggested that either has broken the law. A spokesman for Silver has said that Judy Rapfogel was unaware of the $400,000 allegedly stashed in her homes and the crimes her husband is accused of committing.
It would be hard to overstate, though, the importance of the authorities making their own efforts to confirm that. Spouses can keep secrets from one another, no doubt. But a lot of New York taxpayers will find it hard to imagine that their own spouses could stash $400,000 in their homes without them stumbling upon it.
More broadly, let the authorities open up the whole question of taxpayer money going to nonprofits.
It seems to be the modus operandi of our time. Legislators don’t need to take bribes; they can divert taxpayers’ money to charities to which the taxpayers wouldn’t give voluntarily, then siphon money out of the charities.
Ex- state Sen. Efrain Gonzalez got seven years for bilking a charity, the West Bronx Neighorhood Association, that had received money from a nonprofit to which he’d steered state money. Ex-City Councilman Larry Seabrook is also in prison for a scam involving steering to charities taxpayer money that made its way back to him.
In June, former state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., was sent away for five years, after being convicted of misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Bronx nonprofit Soundview Health Network. In May, ex-Sen. Shirley Huntley was sentenced to prison for looting $88,000 from a taxpayer-funded charity. Brooklyn Assemblyman William Boyland Jr. is facing trial for misusing public money meant for a nonprofit.
So we’re way past the “three is a trend” milepost.
Gov. Cuomo has set up a Moreland Act Commission to look at public corruption. While the commission gears up on the big picture, let Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who oversees charities and whose officers arrested Rapfogel, press the investigation at the Met Council wherever it might lead — no matter how breathtaking.


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