A report in the Albany Times Union says that a charity event, chaired this year by Assemblywoman Michele Titus of Far Rockaway, gives less than 10 percent of the proceeds of its annual gala to those for whom the funds are intended — scholarships for minority youth.
Assemblywoman Michele Titus, who represents the eastern end of the Rockaway peninsula as well as some mainland South Queens communities, is often call the “invisible woman,” because the former Department of Education attorney seems to show up in person only around election time. It is a low profile that is often joked about on the peninsula.
It seems, however, that she keeps anything but a low profile around the state capitol at Albany, where fundraising seems to be the name of the game.
The top Albany daily newspaper, the Albany Times-Union, recently ran an investigative story about one particular fundraising event that embroils Titus in a way of business that has brought down several other state officials who represented Rockaway.
According to the Times-Union, each February, dozens of minority legislators from the state Assembly and Senate descend on downtown Albany for a weekend of partying, panel discussions and networking.
The stated “main goal” of the ritzy event is to “raise scholarship money for minority youth entering college,” according to a note from Queens Assemblywoman Michelle Titus, the chairwoman of the charity that runs the event, that appears on the nonprofit’s website.
Yet according to tax returns filed by the Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators, Inc., less than 10 percent of the money raised by the group through the years has gone to scholarships.
Instead, the funds have largely gone to support the annual weekend gathering, including expenses such as “limo services,” pricey concerts and well-paid speakers. In its most recent tax return, which covers the 2015 retreat, the Association reported $565,000 in revenue. Of that, just $36,000 or 6.3 percent went to grants for “education/scholarships,” the Times-Union story says.
According to the records filed by the Association, $157,926 went to food service, $83,355 went to fund the concert, $64,238 to equipment rental, $43,180 went to hotel accommodations, and $89,045 went to “other.”
Fundraising experts say that the 6.3 percent amount that went to scholarships is much lower than other non-profits chartered by the state, where the norm is around the 65 to 75 percent level.
At the upcoming Feb. 17-19 event, eight separate receptions, dances or concerts are planned, running from Friday night to late into Sunday evening, according to a schedule posted online. And while the exact amounts of funding given by event sponsors are not clear, the charity receives substantial amounts of money from entities with business before the state legislators that participate in the annual gathering.
The Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators, Inc. is the nonprofit arm of the state Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, a potent voting bloc in the Assembly that includes Carl Heastie, the chamber’s Democratic speaker.
One former caucus member, speaking to the newspaper on condition of anonymity, said there had been long-standing internal grumbling about the amount of spending on entertainment by the charity, which can take tax-deductible donations. The charity’s tax returns state its mission is to empower “African American and Latino youth through education and leadership initiatives” by “providing opportunity to higher education.” But although it’s not stated on the tax return, charity officials say the mission is much broader.
Tickets for the charity’s annual Sunday night gala, which this year features political commentator Roland Martin as a speaker, raise money to fund scholarships. The amount of scholarship money is based on tickets sold, and that elected officials can designate scholarships of more than $2,000 if they sell more than two tables’ worth. Major elected officials — including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — have attended the gala in recent years. This year, tickets are $175.
The charity, which was formed in 1985, has in the past vowed to increase the percentage of its revenues that it spends on scholarships. In the nonprofit’s official program for the 2015 retreat, then-Chairwoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes — an Assembly member from Buffalo — stated that “we intend to double the amount of scholarship funds given to students in their respective districts.”
That didn’t appear to happen, however, The group’s tax return covering the prior year’s retreat showed $32,000 going to scholarships, while the return covering 2015 boosted that amount by only $3,700. An aide to People-Stokes noted scholarship spending was basely solely on lawmakers’ tickets sales for gala. “So it’s always the goal of that year’s chairs to increase the number of scholarships given, but that’s solely determined by dinner ticket sales,” she said.
Besides a concert and the annual gala, the charity pays for an invite-only “chair’s reception,” awards ceremony and a VIP reception, according to Peoples-Stokes’ office, but it does not pay for other receptions sponsored by various groups.
In a written statement, Titus said the retreat was also a chance for attendees to speak formally and informally about legislative policy, as well as provide input about budget priorities.
“The goal of the Annual Conference is broader than the scholarships which are generated from table sales at the gala,” Titus said. “There is overhead for the event which includes the space rental for the educational forum, workshops and seminars, craft expo & business partnership fair, dinner gala and entertainment in addition to the scholarships.”
The current chairman of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus — the legislative group affiliated with the charity — is Assemblyman Nick Perry, one of the highest-ranking members of the chamber. Asked if he had ever solicited donations from lobbyists to pay for the conference, Perry said, “I do make contacts with a lot of kinds of folks that need to be a part of what’s being done in Albany. They ask me how they can help the caucus, but I don’t actively solicit them. I tell them to contribute to the Association.”
Titus said that elected officials that serve on the charity’s board cannot raise money for the nonprofit. (Perry is not on the board.)
In 2015 — the most recent tax year to be reflected in public records — the charity reported spending $6,200 on “limo services,” $24,500 on an event speaker, $85,000 on a concert, $157,000 on food service, $64,000 to rent equipment, $43,000 on accounting services, $36,000 on printing, $30,657 on “event decor,” $4,500 on “awards and certificates,” and $43,000 on “hotel accommodation.”
The event speaker was actor Danny Glover and a concert at the Convention Center featured Eric Benét and Regina Belle. This year’s Saturday evening concert will be headlined by the rap artist Big Daddy Kane. Tickets are $75.
The $6,200 in “limo services” were required as part of “contracts for artists and keynote speakers,” according to Titus. She said lawmakers are responsible for paying for their own lodging and transportation, and that the heavy spending “hotel accommodation” paid for rooms for speakers, clergy and artists.
Last year, more than a dozen Assembly members, including Heastie, Perry and Titus, took taxpayer-funded “per diem” payments for the caucus weekend that are available to lawmakers on official business. The current per diem rate is $175 to cover food and lodging when lawmakers travel on legislative business.
Lawmakers also have taken reimbursements for car travel costs.
Substantial policy discussions do take place during the weekend, especially in Saturday policy panels. The weekend gives everyday New Yorkers who attend the conference access to lawmakers, said Bronx state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who is charged this year with organizing dozens of expert panel discussions.
State law bars a legislator from taking a gift worth more than $15 from entities or lobbyists with business before the state if it can reasonably be presumed the gift was meant to influence the lawmaker. The state’s ethics and lobbying watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, is currently investigating a nonprofit set up by de Blasio that took large donations from such interests. In that matter, however, the money was intended to push de Blasio’s policy agenda, not to fund a weekend retreat for lawmakers. State ethics regulations do allow lawmakers to accept food and drink at a “widely attended event.”
Titus said special interests’ sponsorship of conference posed no conflict. That’s because the money goes to the charitable organization, which besides the entertainment pays for the educational and fundraising events, she said.
Beyond the various black-tie receptions over the weekend — a number of which are invite-only— there are luncheons and awards ceremony honoring adults.
There is a Saturday “youth summit” for children. For instance, the 2015 youth summit featured Dr. Steve Perry from BET’s “Save My Son.”
On Sunday morning each year, attendees go to service at Albany’s Wilborn Temple First Church. That itself was a $3,000 expense, according to the group’s most recent tax filing.