In the wake of two Brooklyn City Council staffers' indictments on federal fraud charges last week, members of the Queens delegation said the system for dolling out pork funding needs to be overhauled.
Asquith Reid, chief of staff for City Councilman Kendall Stewart (D-Brooklyn), and Joycinth Anderson, another Stewart staffer, were formally charged with money laundering conspiracy and mail fraud conspiracy last week for allegedly embezzling $145,000 in Council discretionary funds.
The system used to distribute discretionary funds, commonly known as pork, has recently come under fire after City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) recently acknowledged that millions of dollars in city funding were being placed in fictitious non-profit agencies that were used as holding areas until the money was needed elsewhere.
Borough Council members polled on the topic ranged from guarded optimism to sharp criticism, although each recommended that a more transparent process be imposed.
U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said $14,000 of the money that was allegedly embezzled was funneled to the Donna Reid Memorial Fund a registered non-profit named for Reid's late daughter through two fictitious organizations: the New York Foundation for Community Development and the American Association of Concerned Veterans.
"Discretionary funds are ripe for abuse," Garcia said at a news conference in Manhattan.
Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said the Council staffers' indictments laid the lapses in a faulty system bare. He said the city agencies that administer the discretionary fund requests are required to thoroughly check paperwork filed by a non-profit before they send it to the Mayor's Office of Contract Services for final approval.
"What's unfortunately lost in the public perception is that Council members allocate funding so that these organizations can provide a service. Under no circumstances is anybody able to come to a City Council member and pick up a check," he said. "The mayoral agencies clearly dropped the ball."
Councilman Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) said while the system as it stands may not be perfect, there is a need to have some funding in reserve for needs that crop up during the year.
"It's very hard to allocate $60 billion on July 1 for the rest of the year," he said "In a realistic world, you're not going to allocate $60 billion all at once."
City Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) agreed, arguing that you cannot plan for everything that will occur during the course of a year.
"I don't know of any level of government that doesn't have something for emergencies," Sears said. "How do you think the federal government gets money for FEMA?"
Quinn has proposed overhauling the system through which groups apply for funding by requiring every group to submit a formal request that would need approval from the mayor's office, a plan that has received a cool reception from her colleagues.
"I fully support Speaker Quinn and I believe that her goal is a laudable one. However, the reforms should not involve the advocation of any power from the legislative branch to the executive branch," Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said. "The Council fought very hard to try to be a co-equal branch of government to act as a check and balance as the Constitution requires. It would be foolish to take a step backwards in that regard."
Neither Liu nor Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), both of whom have been critical of Quinn's handling of the situation, minced words regarding her proposal.
"That proposal was pretty meaningless from the start," Liu said "It was just a shoot from the hip political backpedaling."
"That's a last ditch effort to save her own political career," Avella said. "She's thrown everyone to the wolves except herself."
Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@
©2008 Community News Group
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