Rangel Says AG Right to Investigate Group Handling Columbia Cash

By Jeff Mays on November 9, 2011 5:28pm | Updated on November 9, 2011 8:45pm

U.S. Rep Charles Rangel said State Attorney General Eric Scheiderman would be
U.S. Rep Charles Rangel said State Attorney General Eric Scheiderman would be "derelict" if he didn't investigate allegations about the way a group is handling $150 million in funds associated with Columbia University's expansion into West Harlem, but that the group has done nothing wrong.
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Spencer Platt

HARLEM — U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel said Wednesday that he supported State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's decision to subpoena a group responsible for disbursing $150 million in funds associated with Columbia University's expansion into West Harlem — but he denied the group had done anything wrong.

The Attorney General's office subpoenaed the West Harlem Local Development Corporation for its records, after DNAinfo reported that the group has spent more of its money on consultants than it has in programming.

The WHDLC has spent $700,000 of the $3.55 million given to it by Columbia University. Approximately $400,000 has gone to consultants while $300,000 has been spent on a city-run summer jobs program for West Harlem youth.

"The attorney general called and said he wanted information to refute the allegations," said Rangel, who is among the elected officials who has a staff representative on the WHDLC, said Wednesday. "The attorney general would be derelict if someone makes an accusation and he doesn't look into it."

But Rangel, who was speaking Wednesday at a career expo at Columbia University, said he preferred to call the subpoena an "inquiry" as opposed to an investigation. He said the group's expenditures were within reason.

"How do you wait for jobs during the summer? How do you set up without outside expertise?" Rangel said. "Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?"

The money was set aside under a community benefits agreement that is part of Columbia University's $6.4 billion Manhattanville campus expansion. The WHLDC is responsible for giving away $76 million in cash and making sure Columbia delivers $30 million for construction of a new K-8 school in conjunction with Teachers College, $20 million for an affordable housing fund and $20 million in in-kind benefits. The group is also charged with ensuring Columbia meets certain hiring mandates for the project.

Congressional candidate Vincent Morgan believes the funds that have been given away so far are illegal and has asked for an audit because the group has not finalized its non-profit status. Morgan also said the public was not clear how the WHLDC's representatives were chosen or what their qualifications were to serve.

A rendering of Columbia University's Manhattanville campus expansion on West 130th Street would create a public plaza.
A rendering of Columbia University's Manhattanville campus expansion on West 130th Street would create a public plaza.
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Columbia University

In the two-and-a-half years since the community benefits agreement was signed, the WHLDC has not formed as a non-profit, held a public meeting, set up a website, established a headquarters or selected an executive director. WHLDC chair Donald Notice said he expected many of those goals to be accomplished by the end of this year.

Notice declined to turn over records after a Freedom of Information Law request from DNAinfo. The group's fiduciary agent, the Fund for the City of New York, also declined a FOIL request, saying it was a private non-profit not subject to the public disclosure law.

Several elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and State Sen. Bill Perkins, and Community Board 9, have criticized the group for a lack of transparency. Perkins resigned his seat on the board in 2010 and Stringer has called for a halt to spending.

Stringer, Rangel, Assemblymen Keith Wright and Councilman Robert Jackson all have staff representatives on the WHLDC. Wright has said he was not in favor of the group funding programs run by a city agency but that there was no "malfeasance" at the agency.

In a statement issued Wednesday evening, Jackson responded to Schneiderman's subpoena by saying "the board has nothing to hide." In addition, Jackson said he has "personally encouraged the board's leadership to take the appropriate steps to increase transparency to the overall public about its operations, decision making process, and its accomplishments."

Jackson called questioning of the board's integrity "unwarranted," saying that the "WHLDC is free of any intentional wrong-doing or unethical dealings."

Morgan said that elected officials associated with the WHLDC should be able to provide the public with more accountability.

"When you have elected officials that have chiefs of staff and deputy chiefs of staff on the board they should be better educated about the process," said Morgan.

"Release the information and explain how the process works," said Morgan, who has threatened to sue if the data is not released. "Explain how the decision was made to give money to a city agency."

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