The collapse of the Corona-Elmhurst Center for Economic Development, a nonprofit partly organized by State Senator Jose Peralta, remains a mystery
By LOUIS FLORES
A Queens-based nonprofit group that has never publicly accounted for its use of $500,000 in funding has conspicuously escaped a corruption investigation. The nonprofit group, the Corona-Elmhurst Center for Economic Development, is politically connected with some of the city's highest elected officials and campaign consultants. Government reform activists question whether those political ties precluded any prosecutorial investigation into the nonprofit's finances.
When State Senator Jose Peralta (D-Queens) was only an Assemblymember, he helped to form the Center for Economic Development.
In 2009, The New York Daily News reported that the Center for Economic Development had failed to file its tax returns, amongst other controversies. In addition to financial irregularities, the Center for Economic Development's executive director had separated from the nonprofit. According to the Daily News report, State Senator Peralta and his top political consultants continued to seek additional funding for the Center for Economic Development in spite of the nonprofit group's difficulties. Reportedly, another nonprofit, the Audubon Partnership for Economic Development, was identified as assisting the Center for Economic Development during its financial and leadership crisis.
An e-mail sent last week-end to State Senator Peralta, requesting the Center for Economic Development's Form 990's, was not answered.
The Audubon Partnership was founded by Luis Miranda, a political consultant, who has worked in the past as a campaign consultant for State Senator Peralta. The Audubon Partnership's Form 990 tax returns for the years 2010, 2011, and 2012 available, online through GuideStar, do not show any shared activity or funding with the Center for Economic Development. If the Audubon Partnership maintained a material relationship, even if temporary, with the Center for Economic Development, or if the Audubon Partnership's financial statements including any funding earmarked for the Center for Economic Development, then that information does not appear to have been disclosed in the Audubon Partnership's Form 990's for the years 2010, 2011, and 2012. An electronic message sent to two e-mail addresses at the Audubon Partnership, in which the Audubon Partnership's Form 990's tax returns for the years 2008, 2009, and 2013 were requested, was returned as undeliverable over the week-end. A voice mail message left with the Audubon Partnership's phone number was not returned.
In New York politics, the campaign consultants of elected officials routinely become involved with nonprofit organizations that depend on elected officials for funding. Besides being involved with the Audubon Partneship, Mr. Miranda is also involved with the Hispanic Federation. From the City Council slush fund in the Fiscal Year 2015 city budget, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito steered over $800,000 to the Hispanic Federation. Like State Senator Peralta, Speaker Mark-Viverito has also employed Mr. Miranda as her campaign consultant. The campaign consulting firm headed by Mr. Miranda is called The MirRam Group. In addition to The MirRam Group, State Senator Peralta has also employed the campaign consulting firm known as The Parkside Group. The blurred role of campaign consultants between elected officials and nonprofit groups with close ties to the same elected officials is further complicated by the fact that some campaign consulting firms also double as lobbying firms.
For all of the front page-making public corruption cases in Queens, the disappearance of $500,000 in funding earmarked to the Center for Economic Development has been ignored by prosecutors. By comparison, former State Senator Shirley Huntley was charged with crimes over the mismanagement of $80,000 in nonprofit funding. The mismanagement of seven multiples of that smaller amount has not attracted the attention of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, or U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch. For a brief time, State Senator Peralta retained the law firm of Stroock, Stroock & Lavan to represent him during a spin-off federal investigation from State Senator Huntley's case, but, predictably, nothing has appeared to have come from that spin-off investigation. The criminal case against State Senator Huntley was brought by Attorney General Schneiderman, but the venue for that case was chosen to be Nassau County. No major, recent public corruption investigation of Queens' elected officials has ever been overseen by Queens District Attorney Brown. For this article, e-mail messages to the offices of the Queens District Attorney and the State Attorney General were not returned, neither was a voice mail message left with the federal prosecutors' office in New York's eastern district, which is overseen by U.S. Attorney Lynch.
U.S. Attorney Lynch is the highest ranking prosecutor covering Queens County politics, but her staff of federal prosecutors has failed to bring any of the charges in the long spate of recent public corruption cases against Queens officials, even though prosecutors with New York's eastern district are believed to be safely removed from the corruptive influence of local campaign consultants and lobbyists, some government reform activists say.
In this vacuum of prosecutorial leadership, government reform activists have looked to the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern districted, headed by Preet Bharara, as an alternative. U.S. Attorney Bharara has led the charge to prosecute public and official corruption across New York state, well beyond the borders of his office's southern district. In doing so, some government reform activists hold out hope that he can lead a once in a lifetime renewal of government integrity. However, it is not known if U.S. Attorney Bharara's team of federal prosecutors are looking into the mystery surrounding the Center for Economic Development. A voice mail left last week with the chief of the southern district's Public Corruption Unit, Arlo Devlin-Brown, was not returned.
Government reform activists frequently complain that district attorneys in New York City are too close to elected officials, especially by way of shared campaign consultants, to rigorously prosecute public or official corruption. Queens District Attorney Brown, for example, refused to prosecute officials with the New York Police Department after the police department retaliated against a whistleblower, Adrian Schoolcraft. The retaliation by police officials, under the direction of Deputy Chief Michael Marino, including kidnapping Mr. Schoolcraft and holding him against his will in the psychiatric ward at Jamaica Hospital. Local district attorneys are loathe to take adversarial positions against the NYPD, especially since the prosecutorial record that district attorneys obsess about depend on the continual cooperation of the police department. Furthermore, in order to first run for office and to keep running for reëlection, the Queens District Attorney must run with the approval of the chair of the Queens Democratic Party. This is due to the fact that the Democratic Party is the dominant force in Queens politics. In other counties, the chair of the controlling political party will also have a say in determining which candidate for the respective, local district attorney's office will receive institutional campaign support. Conflicts of interest for the Queens District Attorney may also arise through the various campaign consultants and lobbyists employed by other politicians, who share such relationships with the chair of the Queens Democratic Party, some government reform activists say. The chair of the Queens Democratic Party is U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley. In the past, Rep. Crowley has also employed the services of The Parkside Group.
One prominent political blogger, who is based in New York City, said that Queens District Attorney Brown's decision to not investigate the NYPD for criminally retaliating against Mr. Schoolcraft may be explained by the political realities facing many elected officials. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the blogger said that elected officials, such as the Queens District Attorney and others, may not have wanted to earn the scorn of either large, vocal voting blocks, such as the police officers' unions, or any political retaliation from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Peer pressure from other powerful officials may act to dissuade some district attorneys from investigating political or official corruption. The source also pointed to a lack of political will by many elected officials to stand up to Mayor Bloomberg, Commissioner Kelly, and to the city's many district attorneys to put a stop the NYPD's unconstitutional use of stop-and-frisk. Once noticed in one area, the lack of political leadership to press for government reform can be seen in other areas, as well. In the respect of the Center for Economic Development's financial improprieties, could peer pressure be an unexamined factor in the failure by the Queens District Attorney to investigate the Center for Economic Development ? Judging from the uniform refusal to comment from all the parties involved, it is difficult to say, except that a consistent non-response does communicate an unvarying approach that ties all of the parties together.
Of the $500,000 in unaccounted funding directed to the Center for Economic Development, $250,000 originated from a federal grant co-sponsored by U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and Rep. Crowley, the Western Queens Gazette reported in 2006.
Adding to the mystery surrounding the Center for Economic Development, there is no mention of the nonprofit's controversies on State Senator Peralta's entry on Wikipedia. Apparently knowing that the information on State Senator Peralta's entry in Wikipedia is stilted, editors of the online encyclopedia have labeled the State Senator's entry with warnings that include that the entry reads like an advertisement. According to reverse IP address searches, the entry was originally written from a computer connected to the New York State Senate's network in Albany.
An e-mail requesting the Center for Economic Development's Form 990 tax returns was not answered by the office of State Senator Peralta. A voice-mail message and an e-mail seeking comment from State Senator Peralta's office were not returned.
This article was amended to clarify the role of the staff prosecutors working for U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.