RIOC “Special Counsel” steps in, resolves PPF grants mess…


A prolonged mess over the handling of PPF grants was finally resolved, last week, and approved by RIOC’s board. That, as well as future handling, needed the aid of Markus Sztejnberg, who was described as “our special counsel” by chief counsel Gretchen Robinson.

By David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Untangling the PPF Grants Mess

Earlier this year, the CBN/RI Senior Center hosted a weekend of mass vaccinations, battling the pandemic. CBN receives PPF grants.

Unfortunately, we’re unable to report any details on how RIOC’s special counsel fixed an unnecessary conflict between its alleged community relations team and nonprofits dependent on PPF grants. That’s because acting board chair Linda Manley, without offering a reason, declared the board in executive session.

The committee then discussed the grant issues over Zoom while the public was shut out. That’s a violation of state law because no reason was given. The law does not allow executive sessions just because the board feels like it. At that, the meeting may have violated its own enabling legislation because it does not have the mandatory five resident members.

Note: Because of Governor Cuomo policies, now honored by Governor Hochul, this meeting took place with nonresident members in the majority. Of eleven participants in the discussion, only two live on Roosevelt Island.

The state agency innovated through the pandemic, keeping a full staff on payroll, working or not. But when it came to the nonprofits, they hammered them for changes made in the same vein.

Creating a free food pantry, being denied funds

For example Roosevelt Island Disabled Association president Wendy Hersh explained, “Unfortunately, due to the COVID 19 pandemic, RIDA was unable to offer the services and events that were planned due to social distancing and sheltering at home. But, due to the food insecurity that we recognized on Roosevelt Island, we stepped up to the plate and offered food distribution and then a food pantry to Roosevelt Island Residents…”

Hersh’s organization was denied 50% of their funding by RIOC’s community relations team.

The community relations team is lead by Erica Spencer-EL who did not attend the board meeting.

Lines for RIDA food pantry
Each Friday, lines are long for free food at the RIDA organized pantry from March 2020. Most RIOC employees, few with meaningful work, stayed safely at home.

Markus Sztejnberg, who bills himself as a special counsel on ethics, seems to have been called in to untangle the mess. But the mess is at least several years old. Inexplicable grant increases and decreases followed an apparent path of reward and punishment. Little logic interfered. And each year brought howls of protest, then fixes.

The issue, this year, is different as RIOC withheld badly needed funds for months without explaining. When push came to shove, penalties for the nonprofits finding their way through the pandemic appeared.

Now, There’s Also a Fix for the Future

After the board emerged from the questionable executive session, it quickly approved releasing the funding withheld from four desperate nonprofits. The session was long and whatever Sztejnberg did in fixing it remained secret. But that and a follow up plan effectively fixed the PPF grants debacle and paved the way for a smoother ride ahead.

Neither before nor after the executive session did Sztejnberg speak, but Robinson gave him full credit for sorting the internal mess out.

As for the future, the board approved a plan for turning PPF grant administration over to the New York Community Trust (NYCT). This effectively removes the activity from the community relations team, turning it over to a firm known for its granting integrity. It’s unknown territory for both RIOC and its nonprofits but better than the painful screw ups of recent years.

The award to NYCT covers three years at $25K per. They will decide how $150,000 in PPF grants are best awarded.

One it-could-only-happen-with-RIOC moment, though, shaded the decision.

But first an anecdote…

Both my dentist and I had fathers who were accountants. We recently shared related jokes. Forget about mine because his was much better. Here’s how it goes…

A human resources manager interviews three accounting job seekers, using one key question: “What does 2 plus 2 equal?”

First candidate flunks, answering “2 plus to is 4, of course.”

When candidate number two said, “Five…?” he was also eliminated.

“Whatever you want it to equal,” the savvy and successful third accounting candidate said.

Back to the PPF grant plan…

That joke came to me after RIOC CFO John O’Reilly answered a question from board member David Kraut.

“Can we afford it?” Kraut wanted to know about the $25,000 to NYCT for managing PPF grants.

O’Reilly volunteered that he’d given “Erica” a report showing how it actually saved money. That, he explained, was because it wiped out the cost of RIOC ‘s own handling. On the surface, that kinda makes sense, but it’s really just a candidate number three answer.

Unless RIOC reduces its staff – no laughing allowed – there are no savings. There’s just less work for a bloated staff now hiding behind frosted glass and locked floor offices with the shades always drawn.

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