Walk the Walk, headed by Father Coleman Costello of Bayside's Sacred Heart parish at 215-35 38th Ave., had shut down last year while building a shelter for senior citizens, said state Welfare Inspector General Paul Balukas.
The agency's financial problems, which primarily stemmed from the construction of an elderly shelter known as Mary's House in Queens, sparked a state investigation that found about $22,000 in questionable credit card charges Costello made at restaurants and grocery stores, Balukas said in a telephone interview this week.
"Walk the Walk had been having problems for quite some time. There was the shelter that never opened, and (the organization) was shut down on two occasions for fiscal problems," he said. "Those were red flags."
Costello said in a telephone interview that he made the credit card charges singled out in the report legitimately for the advancement of his agency.
"I've reviewed the credit card reports, and I'm certain that all expenses during that period were proper corporate expenses for the benefit of Walk the Walk," he said. "There is no misspending here."
A listed number for Walk the Walk was disconnected. The location of Mary's House was not disclosed because it is a shelter designed to be a haven for abused seniors.
Mary's House was scheduled to open over three years ago, but Balukas said it remained shuttered while the investigation was continuing. He said the shelter's construction was primarily funded with state money.
Balukas said the state's probe into the agency's finances from 2002 to 2003 turned up the questionable credit card charges made by Costello.
"He charged $22,000. Now some of those could be legitimate expenses, but part of the problem was that they kept no records and weren't able to provide us with backup," Balukas said. "Costello admitted that at times he did charge dinners to the Walk the Walk credit card, which was a mistake."
He emphasized that it was difficult to gauge the legitimacy of Costello's charges because of the lack of documentation.
"It's hard to quantify, but there were charges at grocery stores, things near his home out in the Hamptons that were questionable," Balukas said.
"I think he made mistakes. Sometimes, when non-profits have no oversight and your board of directors is not strict, people get sloppy," he said. "He should not be an executive director. It was a mistake for him to be as involved as he was."
Because no criminality is suspected, Costello will not be prosecuted, Balukas said.
"There was no criminal conduct here. It was more (a matter of) mismanagement," he said. "The organization could have been run a lot better and not enough senior citizens were being served. They took a lax approach to that, and they needed more strategic planning."
But Costello's record of supporting senior citizens still speaks for itself, Balukas said.
"Father Costello has been a lifelong advocate for the elderly. He needs credit for that."
The state agency has made recommendations in hopes of eventually opening Mary's House under different leadership.
"Mary's House is there, and it's ready to open. It was way off budget and has taken too long, but it's there ready to be open," Balukas said. "I'm eager to see it open, so that elderly abuse victims and senior citizens have a place to go."
©2005 Community News Group
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