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Group Handling Columbia Cash Spent $300K on Consultants With Political Ties

By Jeff Mays | December 8, 2011 9:41am

HARLEM — The West Harlem organization charged with doling out $150 million in community benefits for Columbia University's expansion into the neighborhood has spent more than $300,000 on politically-connected consultants with ties to former Mayor David Dinkins, DNAinfo has learned.

The West Harlem Local Development Corporation (WHLDC) is under investigation by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman after DNAinfo reported the group had spent more on consultants than it had on programming while also failing to successfully organize itself as a nonprofit, hold a public meeting or hire an executive director in the 2½ years since it was created.

Now, DNAinfo has learned that close to half of the organization’s expenditures so far have gone to two top-earning consultants who have already left the WHLDC.

"The idea was that it would be a community-based group and the community would control it," said Walter South, a Community Board 9 member who helped create the idea of a group like the WHLDC to provide a check on Columbia's 17-acre project in Manhattanville.

"They've paid these people $300,000 and what do we have to show for it?" South said. "The money should go for community improvement, not hiring the politically connected."

The WHLDC initially declined to release the identities of the consultants to the press, but it recently released its expenditure list to Community Board 9 member and newly-elected district leader Jamaal Nelson, who shared them with DNAinfo.

Of the $700,000 that has been disbursed from the $3.55 million given to the WHLDC by Columbia, the organization has paid $155,788 to Fordworks Associates, a consulting firm founded by Wallace Ford II, Nelson said.

Ford was the former commissioner of Business Services in former Mayor David Dinkins’ administration and also served as president and CEO of the State of New York Mortgage Agency during then-Gov. Mario Cuomo’s administration.

According to sources, the WHLDC was unhappy with Ford's work and he left the organization. The details of Ford’s consulting contract were not revealed. Ford was not able to be immediately reached for comment.

The WHLDC then hired Fiscal Management Associates, a professional services firm for nonprofits, at a rate of $165,129, Nelson said. The firm’s senior advisor, Gretchen Dykstra, was the former commissioner of the city's Department of Consumer Affairs, and was the consultant to the WHLDC.

Dykstra was the founding president of both the Times Square Business Improvement District and the 9/11 Memorial Foundation, and is married to Nate Leventhal, former president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts who served as Dinkins' transition director.

Dinkins officiated over the couple’s wedding at Gracie Mansion in 1993, according to an announcement in the New York Times. Leventhal has been on the New York City Planning Commission since March 2007, according to his bio, and also chairs Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Committee on Appointments.

On its website, Fiscal Management Associates lists its goal as being to "empower not-for-profit organizations with the knowledge and skills to successfully serve their constituents and fulfill their missions."

According to sources, Dykstra may have left the WHLDC after it ignored her advice.

"She was supposed to be the well-respected downtown heavyweight with a lot of clout who would be able to repair the problem," said a source who requested anonymity to speak freely without damaging relationships.

The details of Dykstra’s consulting contract with the WHLDC were not released. She did not return calls for comment.

The head of the WHLDC did not return calls for comment.

Critics of the WHLDC, which has come under fire for failing to disclose its spending details or reveal the decision-making process that led to its spending, said the list of consultants shows how politicians have taken control of what was meant to be a grass-roots effort to make sure the community benefited from Columbia's expansion into West Harlem.

Dinkins, along with U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, Basil Paterson and the late Percy Sutton, comprised "The Gang of Four" when Harlem was the base for black political power in New York.

Rangel has been an outspoken defender of the WHLDC’s transparency in the face of criticism, and has appointed several of its board members, including one of his current staffers. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright and Councilman Robert Jackson also have staff representatives on the board. Stringer has called for a halt to the WHLDC's spending.

Rangel said he supported Schneiderman's probe. Both Wright and Jackson have said they believe there was no malfeasance at the WHLDC.

Neither Dinkins nor Rangel responded to requests for comment.

Nelson said he was happy with the WHLDC’s transparency, and said he was "confident the board has been executing its responsibilities properly."

Nelson dismissed critics’ concerns about the group as "unnecessarily politicized."

"Applying for 5013c status is an incredibly complex process. Setting up a corporate governance structure for a large community benefits agreement endowment is no small task. In both applying for 5013c status and setting up a governance structure, the WHLDC needed to contract out competent legal and accounting council," said Nelson.

But critics said they had a hard time believing the board was being transparent given the shortage of progress since their inception.

"What's so sad about this is that they've blown through $700,000 and don't even have a website," said Larry English, a member of Community Board 9 who served as CB9 chair until this year.

Vincent Morgan, a candidate for the seat held by Rangel, has spearheaded calls for the group to halt spending pending an audit.

"Ford was brought in to fix the WHLDC. What did he do for $155,000?" asked Morgan, who has filed a Freedom of Information Law request seeking all of the WHLDC's contracts, invoices and expenditures. "We need to know who's making these decisions."

Morgan and others have also criticized the WHLDC’s $300,000 disbursement to the city’s Department of Youth and Children’s Services for a summer jobs program for 220 West Harlem youth, because the WHLDC has yet to finalize its non-profit status. Morgan wants proof the money was spent only on West Harlem children.

The WHLDC also spent $38,817 with the Fund For the City of New York, which has served as the WHLDC's fiduciary agent, $8,000 with the Dow Law Firm and $1,594 for meetings and events.

The group is tasked with disbursing $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.

It's also supposed to ensure that Columbia meets mandates for hiring local residents and minority firms.