"Do-Nothing Nonprofit" Actually Does Stuff

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Very few people outside of Brooklyn’s insular Orthodox Jewish community had likely ever heard of Relief Resources before December despite the fact the organization was one of the biggest recipients of lawmaker-directed discretionary funds.

That all changed when the Moreland Commission that Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed to look into public corruption released its report last month.

Described as "Illustration #1" was an unnamed nonprofit that didn’t appear to do any real work despite receiving $3 million in government funds in recent years thanks to friendly lawmakers. The New York Post and other outlets including WNYC quickly identified the organization as Relief Resources, a Borough Park-based nonprofit with the stated mission of helping the Orthodox Jewish community access mental health services.

The report was damning. It said investigators used a pole camera to monitor the front of the organization’s building for almost a month and observed little foot traffic. They also subpoenaed phone records to the organization and found “the overwhelming majority of calls were very brief, raising questions about how substantive the calls can actually be,” according to the report.

After the report came out, WNYC teamed up with the Jewish Daily Forward to take a closer look at the allegations and Relief.

We found an organization formed by a political operative. At times Relief blurred the line between its lobbyist founder's political activities and the organization's charitable mission. But the nonprofit appears to be respected by mental health professionals and it provides legitimate services to a community where mental illness was long stigmatized.

“I don’t know why these people have gone after them the way they have,” said Margaret Spinelli, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a member of Relief’s medical advisory board. “I have the utmost respect for the organization.”

Other prominent doctors on Relief’s advisory board and some with no apparent connection to the organization echoed the sentiment and said Relief helped get people mental health care in a community where such treatment was long stigmatized.

To be sure, it’s not surprising a commission looking at public corruption might glance at Relief. The organization was founded in part by Rabbi Shiya Ostreicher, a prominent lobbyist and member of the ultra-Orthodox community. Relief paid $15,000 in recent years to lobby for a child tax credit that had nothing to do with mental health. Records show a city council campaign paid another Ostreicher-related organization for voter registration work. The address listed for the organization in campaign finance filings was the same as Relief’s.

And there are questions about some affiliated nonprofits and the work they do. For example, a home for mentally ill girls affiliated with Relief was never certified with the state Office of Mental Health – a requirement for most homes that provide mental health treatment. A spokesman for the organization insisted they got a legal analysis prior to opening the donor-funded home that suggested no license was necessary. But he never provided the analysis despite repeated requests.

But even those question marks don’t explain the Moreland Commission’s focus nor its findings. The commission effectively accused Relief of not existing and, by all accounts, it does.

Michael Tobman, a Brooklyn-based political consultant who regularly works with the Hasidic community, said Relief’s issues seemed like administrative and paperwork issues – not malfeasance.

“I strongly believe there’s no malice involved, no ill intent but rather administrative sloppiness,” said Tobman, a former senior aide to US Senator Charles Schumer. “These are people who – operatives and advocates who in years past understood procedural niceties and crossing t’s and dotting i’s in terms of administrative structure were something people didn’t pay terribly much attention to and now it’s something people take very seriously.”

In the wake of the investigation, Relief has brought on PLA Communications – which was formed by a former aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver – to handle media inquiries.

A former deputy state attorney general, Avi Schick, is representing Relief on the legal front. He said it’s not clear how the organization wound up in the commission’s crosshairs.

“We don’t know where it came from. The good news is we’re confident it’s unfounded,” Schick said.

A spokeswoman for the Moreland Commission said she couldn’t comment for this story because the investigation is ongoing.