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City Paid Magazine Publisher to Devote Entire Issue to DDC Commissioner

 City Design and Construction Commissioner Feniosky Pena-Mora graced the cover of the Diversity/Agenda magazine in Spring 2016, just months after he gave the publisher, Renee Sacks, contracts with his agency. The entire issue was devoted to DDC's achievements under Pena-Mora.
City Design and Construction Commissioner Feniosky Pena-Mora graced the cover of the Diversity/Agenda magazine in Spring 2016, just months after he gave the publisher, Renee Sacks, contracts with his agency. The entire issue was devoted to DDC's achievements under Pena-Mora.
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Cover of Diversity/Agenda Magazine

LONG ISLAND CITY — The city's embattled Department of Design and Construction commissioner paid for good PR, giving a contract to a magazine publisher that included her devoting an entire issue to his accomplishments, according to records and agency sources.

DDC Commissioner Feniosky Pena-Mora, whose time at the agency has been marred by accusations of cronyism, gave $55,000 in city contracts to Renee Sacks in the past year — despite negative reviews of her work and his top advisors discouraging him from continuing to give her business, agency sources said.

As part of one of her contracts, Sacks' firm, Sacks Communications, made its spring 2016 issue of Diversity/Agenda magazine all about Pena-Mora. The cover of the glossy is a headshot of Pena-Mora, followed by 34 pages of fawning coverage of him.

Sacks started getting the business after a trade association she runs honored Pena-Mora with a prestigious industry award, records show.

In total Sacks' firm received seven contracts with the DDC, the first coming two months after the Women Builders Council feted Pena-Mora at a March 12, 2015, gala and honored him with its Champion Award.

Sacks, the executive director of the Women Builders Council, received a $10,000 contract on May 14, 2015, to organize DDC events that promote the use of minority-owned and women-owned businesses. She received $10,000 more in contracts a month later, according to city records.

But DDC insiders said that agency staffers complained about Sacks' work for an event in October that linked minority-owned and women-owned firms with contracting firms that routinely do business with the agency.

"The event was a nightmare — incorrect equipment, incompetent staff and amateur marketing materials," a DDC source said.

After the event, Pena-Mora's closest aides advised him not to continue using Sacks, but he brushed off their warnings and gave her even more work, according to sources. This time Pena-Mora tapped Sacks to run the DDC's "Ready to Build" seminars, a pilot program in which 40 small and emerging firms learn about city contracting at monthly get-togethers.

City records show Sacks Communications received an additional $20,000 in contracts Oct. 19 and Oct. 23 in 2015. The contracts, like all the others, were registered under the vendor name Renee Sacks Associates, records show.

One of the contracts helped pay for good publicity of Pena-Mora, whose stint at the DDC has been marred by accusations of cronyism and frivolous spending.

The spring issue of Diversity/Agenda showcased Pena-Mora's push to increase diversity among contractors and create education programs that teach city students about science and engineering. Before the issue ran, the articles had to be proofread by DDC staff, according to sources.

Then, on May 2, Pena-Mora gave an additional $15,000 in contracts to Sacks, records show.

A day later, the Women Builders Council honored Maggie Austin, Pena-Mora's longtime friend and the DDC's chief diversity officer.

The DDC said in a statement that the DDC followed the city's procurement rules for contracts.

"Inclusion in Diversity/Agenda was a small part of a standard events package Sacks offers clients related to the production and management of conferences," the statement said. "DDC did not pay extra for media coverage, nor did it pay for awards, and DDC did not award contracts based on media coverage or awards."

The agency also defended the work of Sacks Communication, noting that the October event it coordinated brought in 545 participants — double the attendance of the same event a year earlier.

The DDC added that Sacks' "Ready to Build" seminars have gotten good reviews from participants.

Pena-Mora did not seek advice from the Conflicts of Interest Board before giving Sacks the contracts, according to a DDC spokesman.

The city charter prohibits public servants from using their position "to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect, for the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant."

The city's Conflicts of Interest Board declined to comment when asked if the contracts were a conflict.

Sacks said in a statement that her firm has a long history of contracting with government agencies. 

“In business for over 30 years, Sacks Communications has been contracted by numerous private clients and government entities to further our shared mission of increasing diversity within the construction industry," she said. "I have the utmost respect for all of the individuals who were honored during this year’s Women Builders Council (WBC) awards gala, including Commissioner Peña-Mora and Magalie Austin, Esq., both of whom are well respected in our industry and were rightfully presented with WBC’s Champion Awards in 2015 and 2016."

Sacks also said she was proud of the services her firm has provided DDC.

"We have delivered top-quality and quantifiable results for NYC DDC, as we do for all of our clients,” she said.

Deborah Bradley, the president of the Women Builders Council, said she and her board members nominate the honorees for their Champion Award.

"As executive director, Renee Sacks has been an invaluable asset to our organization and we highly respect the work she does to increase the role of women and minorities in the construction industry," Bradley said in a statement. "However, her work does not in any way directly impact who WBC honors as an organization."