Lobbying fines may have led to postponement of AIDS summit by Housing Works

JCOPE fines Housing Works $50,000 for lobbying law violations

The HIV-1 virus (in green) in an scanning electron micrograph of a cultured lymphocyte (a form of a white blood cell).  Advances in medicine and in public health are making it possible for healthcare advocates to foresee the possibility of ending the epidemic in the spread of HIV/AIDS.  However, it will take political will to shape public health policy to work toward that goal.  Source :  C. Goldsmith/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Public Health Image Library 

The HIV-1 virus (in green) in an scanning electron micrograph of a cultured lymphocyte (a form of a white blood cell).  Advances in medicine and in public health are making it possible for healthcare advocates to foresee the possibility of ending the epidemic in the spread of HIV/AIDS.  However, it will take political will to shape public health policy to work toward that goal.  Source :  C. Goldsmith/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Public Health Image Library 

By LOUIS FLORES

The large HIV/AIDS service umbrella group Housing Works, Inc., was fined $50,000 last month by the state ethics board to bring to an end an investigation into reported violations by Housing Works of the state’s lobbying law.

The terms of the Settlement Agreement, entered into between Housing Works and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, revealed that Housing Works had engaged in “reportable lobbying activity in and between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2015,” a period of time which inexplicably covers the remainder of this year.  In spite of having engaged in lobbying activities, for which it was registered, Housing Works did not submit “certain filings that were required to be submitted” to JCOPE during that time period, in violation of the state’s Lobbying Act.  Housing Works claimed in the Settlement Agreement that its failure to file its documents were due, “in significant part, to the misfeasance and nonfeasance” of a former employee, who was not identified in the Settlement Agreement.

The urgent need to pay the $50,000 fine has may have hamstrung some of Housing Works’ cornerstone programming.  Each year, Housing Works largely underwrites a summit organised by the Campaign to End AIDS, a coalition of advocacy groups.  The large fine coïncided with the postponement by Housing Works of this year’s summit, which had been scheduled to have been held last month in Dallas, Texas.  According to the Campaign to End AIDS Web site, Housing Works is the 501(c)(3) pass-through entity for the coalition for federal income tax purposes.  Information about the October summit has apparently been scrubbed from the Internet, and a new date has yet to be announced on either the coalition’s Web site or on its Facebook page.

During an interview with Jaron Benjamin, a Housing Works official, who coördinates the Campaign to End AIDS effort on behalf of Housing Works, the Dallas summit was postponed in order to restructure the program model of the campaign.  However, according to information collected by Progress Queens from posts to the Facebook social media platform, the reason given by Housing Works to explain the Dallas summit postponement was “budgetary constraints.”

A request to interview Charles King, the president and CEO of Housing Works, was not possible.  A communications officer of Housing Works, Mikola De Roo, said that Mr. King was out of the office.  An e-mail of questions transmitted by Progress Queens to Housing Works was not answered. 

The $50,000 fine

Prior to entering into the Settlement Agreement, a lobbying arm of Housing Works, known as the Housing Works Albany Advocacy Center, had been assessed $11,000 by JCOPE’s predecessor agencies for having failed in 2009 to file Lobbyist Bimonthly and Client Semi-Annual reports, according to the Settlement Agreement.  After Housing Works failed to pay the $11,000 in fines from the 2009 violations, the fines were referred to the Office of the State Attorney General for collection.  By the time that referral was made, the outstanding balance on the 2009 violations had increased to $11,486.40 due to fees and interest.

The $50,000 settlement reached in October will be applied to satisfy the $11,486.40 that the Office of the State Attorney General had been attempting to collect, with the remaining balance structured into two payments, payable to JCOPE.  It’s not known how much in legal fees Housing Works incurred in legal representation before the JCOPE proceeding or in respect of the Office of the State Attorney General’s debt collection action.

Mr. King, the long-time head of Housing Works and a political ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-New York), did not execute the Settlement Agreement.  The Settlement Agreement was instead signed on behalf of Housing Works by Carmelita Cruz, who is identified as a director of New York community mobilisation.  In Housing Works’ 2014 annual report, Ms. Cruz is not listed amongst the group’s management.  It’s a common practise by corporate entities to delegate signing authority to bottom-level employees for agreements that include guarantees, significant warranties, or important representations in a weak attempt by senior management to assert plausible deniability if agreement terms are not later honored. 

Housing Works, an umbrella group that operates 14 different nonprofit subsidiaries, including an auction Web site and a string of thrift and book stores in New York City, the proceeds from which fund homeless and HIV/AIDS services and advocacy, is a well-funded agency.  It’s 2014 annual report showed a surplus of $3.5 million from operations that totaled $56.6 million in revenue.  In spite of this wealth, the agency postponed the Dallas summit in the face of a $50,000 fine.

Implications for AIDS-fighting efforts

The postponement of the Dallas summit comes at a time when HIV/AIDS advocacy groups are trying to create a plan to end the AIDS epidemic.  Housing Works was a member of a coälition that pressured Gov. Cuomo to begin funding a state plan to end the AIDS epidemic in New York by the year 2020.  The plan hinges on state funding and the reshaping of public health policy to support measures that would result in lower annual incidence rates of new HIV diagnoses, from the current rate of about 3,000 new reported annual diagnoses to below 750, the latter which represents New York’s annual rate of AIDS-related mortality.  Absent a cure, and at that rate, if sustained, it would be possible for HIV/AIDS to be eradicated over time.  Metrics are set to measure New York's progress.

At the Dallas summit, Housing Works had expected to help representatives of HIV/AIDS advocacy groups in other states to address best practices in respect of creating AIDS-free campaigns similar to the one created for New York, said Mr. Benjamin, the Housing Works official, who coördinates the Campaign to End AIDS.  Already, a campaign to end AIDS exists in Washington, and, in Massachusetts, advocates are attempting to corral support for such a state-wide public health plan.

States with high incidence rates of HIV diagnoses, on a per capita basis, include Florida, Texas, and Georgia, according to 2011 statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  How much the postponement of the Dallas summit sets back the effort to create a plan to end AIDS on a state-by-state basis is not known.  Furthermore, Housing Works announced the postponement of the Dallas summit with about three weeks’ notice, meaning that some HIV/AIDS advocates had already made their travel arrangements.  Since some HIV/AIDS advocacy groups operate on shoestring budgets, many had purchased budget airfares that are generally nonrefundable and subject to high airline fees for changes in schedules. 

On Facebook, some advocates, who had made plans to attend the Dallas summit, complained about the lack of transparency that led to the postponement, the lack of input from anticipated Dallas summit attendees, and the costs of seeking refunds on airline tickets already purchased.  In messages posted to Facebook announcing the postponement of the Dallas summit, Mr. Benjamin of Housing Works asked anticipated Dallas summit attendees to contact him if the anticipated attendees had made nonrefundable travel arrangements.  It is not known how much Housing works has had to pay to the anticipated Dallas summit attendees to make them whole on their travel costs.  Mr. Benjamin would not identify for Progress Queens the size of the anticipated Dallas summit attendance.

Some prominent LGBT activists in New York City have expressed dismay generally with the allegations of ethics violations and the budget constraints suddenly facing Housing Works.  Furthermore, the 2009 and 2015 lobbying violations are not the first time when Housing Works has entangled itself with the technicalities of lobbying law regulations. 

Lack of controls date back to 2002

In 2002, Housing Works had reportedly proposed a tripartite lobbying effort in Albany in respect of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, or SONDA, which had been being considered at that time then by the state legislature.  Housing Works’ proposed lobbying effort would have been paid for by Housing Works, the Empire State Pride Agenda, or ESPA, and the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, or NYAGRA.  That 2002 lobbying effort was proposed by Mr. King, wrote Pauline Park, chair of NYAGRA, in a recounting of those events, adding that the Board of Directors of NYAGRA had rejected Mr. King’s proposal, because there were concerns that lobbying activities would violate restrictions placed on 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups.  A resulting dispute, as documented on a page of Ms. Park’s Web site that also referenced the 2002 lobbying snafu, led to a parting of ways between NYAGRA and Housing Works, and Ms. Parks told Progress Queens in an interview that the dissolution of the working relationship between the groups cost NYAGRA approximately $75,000 in grant funding that Housing Works never returned to NYAGRA, a charge that Housing Works did not address, due to the lack of responses to questions submitted to it by Progress Queens.  If Housing Works provides any response, then that information will appear in a future report.

Ms. Park, an internationally prominent transgender civil rights advocate, said that whilst she was not familiar with the specifics of the ethics violations as alleged by JCOPE, she was “not surprised that they have been reprimanded for bending the rules,” referring to Housing Works, adding that, “From my own experience with Housing Works and Charles King, in particular, it’s pretty clear that they will bend the rules to pursue their own perceived self interests.”

For this article, a representative of a large AIDS service organisation up in Harlem would not comment about the status of the Campaign to End AIDS.  A member of another prominent advocacy group would not make himself available for comment for this article in time before the online publication of this article.  According to information obtained by Progress Queens, another prominent LGBT activist based in New York City would only speak in respect of Housing Works only if he was granted anonymity, with the added restriction that what he divulged was not for publication.  One activist told Progress Queens that Housing Works uses the agency’s wealth to buy the loyalty, if not the silence, of the LGBT and HIV/AIDS advocacy communities.

It's not known what ethics and compliance controls the Housing Works Board of Directors have in place for its management.  In recent years, the leaders of other large HIV/AIDS or LGBT organisations have been removed from office due to various controversies.  Gay Men's Health Crisis CEO Marjorie Hill was forced out of office in 2013 after allegations of mismanagement were made, according to a report published by DNAinfo.  Lisa Winters, the former director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2013 after pleading guilty to embezzling over $330,000 from the Bronx nonprofit group, according to a report published by The New York Post

JCOPE cracks down on nonprofits but not forprofits

The heavy-handed crackdown by JCOPE on the nonprofit Housing Works group overlook a string of controversies from forprofit lobbying firms.

Early in October, the lobbying firm The Advance Group was fined over $25,000 to end a joint investigation by the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the Office of the State Attorney General, which were looking into allegations that the lobbying firm had violated the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that banned coördination between official candidates’ campaign committees and independent expenditure groups.  JCOPE played no role in investigating The Advance Group, even though news reports published by The New York Times and The New York Daily News raised questions about The Advance Group’s activities.

Last April, the NY1 cable news network broadcast a rare investigative report, examining the unregistered lobbying activities of BerlinRosen, an influential firm with close political ties to Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City).  The NY1 report raised questions about BerlinRosen’s unregistered lobbying activities.  JCOPE has yet to publicly announce any probe or action against BerlinRosen.

To government reform activists, JCOPE’s aggressive fines against the nonprofit Housing Works group deliberately overlooked reports of wrongdoing by forprofit lobbying firms, a charge that Walter McClure, director of external affairs for JCOPE, denied.  Paradoxically, JCOPE is currently offering lobbying firms an amnesty arrangement for past lobbying law violations, an arrangement for which Housing Works was not qualified, since Housing Works had been previously warned about prior violations, Mr. McClure said.

“The commission pursues all violations of the Lobbying Act,” Mr. McClure told Progress Queens. 

Mr. McClure noted that Housing Works had violated regulations as far back as 2009, saying that, “There was a history of non-compliance, and they continued to not comply,” adding that Housing Works “knew the law.  They didn’t comply.  Our job is to enforce the law.  If they are going to be lobbyists, they need to comply and to report” their lobbying activities.

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