Streams

"Do-Nothing Nonprofit" Actually Does Stuff

Thursday, January 23, 2014

WNYC

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.

Editors:

Karen Frillmann

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Comments [17]

Native New Yorker from New Yorker

The Moreland Commission needs to invest how Andrew Cuomo's #1 donor happens to sit on the Battery Park Authorities Board. How the same developer has left new homeowners screwed by construction defects since he seems to keep getting HPD contracts. How? Follow the money trail. Follow the trail of BFC Construction & L&M Management and how the Cuomo administration then hires sons of developers at Empire State Development. Follow the hiring practices and look at all the authorities and the cronie staff.

Jan. 26 2014 11:28 AM
Louis S from Jersey Shore

I have found that dealing with Orthodox Jews is Unorthodox.I feel I am dealing with a secret clan. They are not interested in our so call Melting Pot idea. Just different.

Jan. 25 2014 07:38 AM

You present an overly-positive piece that attempts to justify a useless, politically connected non-profit and then you cave to those who claim that mentioning that it is an Orthodox (Jewish) non-profit is somehow anti-Semitic?!

Wow. Weak.

This isn't a piece of journalism, it's a PR piece. Who paid for this?

Jan. 24 2014 03:30 PM
Betty Palmer from Upper West Side

A little respect, please ... do we love to bash the Orthodox or is it ordinary antisemitism coming from my liberal radio station? Somehow, I don't see a Black or Hispanic group crowned with the nuances of a similar headline. I need to rethink my supporting WNYC as a monthly sustainer.

Jan. 23 2014 11:09 PM
Benoit Balz from Nyc

Better not offend the "Orthodox Community" or you'll have to change your headline. Big deal, the story stands. How silly. Like I said before, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

Jan. 23 2014 10:39 PM
Tzvee Zahavy

Your original headline was terrible, borderline unprofessional as I pointed out on my blog http://tzvee.blogspot.com/2014/01/wnyc-reporter-robert-lewis-maybe-isnt.html

Glad to see you revised it to less borderline unprofessional. Since when is "does stuff" anywhere near legitimate journalism? Not in this universe. Oh well better than the original weaselly headline that you had, "The Orthodox Nonprofit That Maybe Isn't Corrupt After All". But not by much.

Jan. 23 2014 10:23 PM
Lawrence from NY

This is some really terrible reporting and editing. WNYC needs to have some senior executive review this story as it seems to be a rare piece of mutually bias reporting against both sides: Relief and Moreland Commission. Mutual bias does not equal objectivity.

Title of Story: "Do-Nothing Nonprofit" Actually Does Stuff

According to your story, 3 million was given to the organization and the Moreland Commission found short duration phone calls and little to no street traffic at the address given. What other public records refute or support claims? Nothing? What actual stuff did you find? What new information did WNYC find/uncover to support this headline?

Nothing on the phone calls? Did you call the line? How many times? What were you told? Did you make up different conditions to check on referral rate or referral process?

But, what really takes the cake, is the only easily independently verifiable piece of evidence is the amount of street traffic at the address. Amazingly nothing in the piece on actual street traffic at the address? You have 1 comment from a Ms. Rosen and vague comments about others? And it seems like Mr. Lewis (WNYC Reporter) left the street reporting, the only thing that could be verified, to someone who is not a WNYC Staffer? How many people were interviewed? We don't know.

Others comments have also pointed out that Margaret Spinelli, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a member of Relief’s medical advisory board stated “I have the utmost respect for the organization.” What? How about others in the field besides someone on their advisory board.

In the end your evidence doesn't support your headline and harms your reporting reputation, Relief and the Moreland Commission. A trifecta of harm.

Jan. 23 2014 09:07 PM
Jacob Small, PhD from Brooklyn

As a clinical psychologist who has had the opportunity to work with Relief over the past 4 years, I can say unequivocally that Relief is an incredible organization that provides vital referral and bridging services to the insular and mental health underserved Orthodox Jewish community. Their small, hardworking staff fields several thousands calls a year, placing people in need of treatment with clinicians who are capable of treating them and professionally intervening when cultural issues arise in their treatment. In large part, because of Relief's efforts, patients who desperately need treatment but avoid it because of cultural stigma about mental health problems, are coming out of the shadows to get the help they need. Before you condemn the organization as corrupt, I'd suggest going to their website (reliefhelp.org) and learning about what they actually do.

Jan. 23 2014 06:26 PM
Rosemary Conte from NJ

All the reasons you've given for Relief being looking into initially, sound to me serious enough to warrant an investigation...and esp that Silver was involved. With his history, one can reasonably suspect deception. From all that I know of..."know of"...regarding the Orthodox Community's standards of doing business and it's value system, it is very likely that Relief is a front for deception. My question to the legislature is, why is there pandering to this community? It's sense of entitlement is stunning. A legal analysis that showed no license was necessary? Come on! When will the city cease being intimidated by the OC?

Jan. 23 2014 05:58 PM
Roger Cooper

Let us not forget that the whole member item system is a form of 'legal' corruption. Taxpayer money is being spent at the sole discretion of the legislator, with the amount of money based upon party, seniority and position. Constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process are ignored.

Jan. 23 2014 05:38 PM
Mr. Bad from NYC

So an organization with nothing to hide hires the PR services of Patricia Lynch Associates? WNYC must be DEEP into orthodox dollars to run this sort of story. I have to admit they've picked a good partner, Patricia Lynch was able to wriggle out with only a $500,000.00 fine and being BARRED from the comptroller's office for 5 years last time she was investigated... from the NYT article:

"The lobbyist, Patricia Lynch, arranged campaign contributions, gifts and even a job to gain access to Alan G. Hevesi, then the state comptroller, on behalf of clients seeking investments from the multibillion-dollar state pension fund, which Mr. Hevesi supervised, according to a settlement agreement between Ms. Lynch and Mr. Cuomo’s office. In announcing the settlement with Ms. Lynch, Mr. Cuomo painted her as an emblem of what critics have called an entrenched pay-to-play culture in Albany, where politically wired lobbyists and operatives shower lawmakers with campaign donations in exchange for access and legislative favors."

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/09/nyregion/09lobby.html?_r=0

Jan. 23 2014 08:56 AM
Peter from Brooklyn

I think NPR needs to care more about its own credibility. I could not see any substance in this piece. Why revisit the issue with no actual updates?It sounds like a plug for an organization whose social function is at best unclear.

Jan. 23 2014 08:50 AM
MikeB from Manhattan, ny

Help me understand, you asked several doctors who sit on the charity's advisory board if it's legit and that's pretty much the extent of your "investigative" journalism??

I suspect that PR firm had a heavy hand in this article.

Jan. 23 2014 08:45 AM
Art girl from Brooklyn and Long Beach

Would the title " Another Liberal Anti-Semitic News Organization" be fair to you? Why create such a biased title tying the Jewish Orthodox community to corruption? Do you believe all Orthodox Jews are corrupt or was it that you just needed an attention getting headline or was it poor judgement or poor writing? Please ask yourself, do you feel as free to negatively project any other race or religion. Do you not see that is what you did? This is sad for me. Here I am about to renew my subscription for my favorite radio station and now I have to give it a second thought.

Jan. 23 2014 08:34 AM
SJG from NYC

Is it corrupt? Of course it is. Corruption is rampant. Does it actually do any good work? Maybe. But unchecked discretionary spending has to stop. Scandal after scandal crops up but we never see an end to the practice that is behind so many of them. Elected officials should not have the power to spend taxpayer money outside of the democratic process. As long as this practice continues there is no way the money makes it to the most useful organizations over the better connected ones.

Jan. 23 2014 08:12 AM
Abigail Hepner Gross from Englewood, NJ

Who decided on the email header "The Orthodox Nonprofit That Maybe Isn't Corrupt After All"? If you wanted to grab my attention by choosing an antisemitic headline, you did. These words imply that it's surprising to come across any Orthodox nonprofit that is NOT corrupt. Well, you got my attention. Now I'm unsubscribing from your news feed.

Jan. 23 2014 07:26 AM
Benoit Balz from Nyc

Can't understand why these people were targeted? Because when something walks like a scam and talks like a scam...

It sounds like the "relief" they were looking for was free taxpayer money. Sorry, America shouldn't work that way.

One wonders though, if the alleged abuses are proven and an end is put to " Relief", how many others are going on. You see quite few WIC cards yielded with chutzpah in Brooklyn.

This is the kind of journalism your readers appreciate.

Jan. 23 2014 06:51 AM

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