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BOE commissioners hire close to home

Michael Michel serves as the Queens Republican commissioner at the city Board of Elections.
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Months after City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) prevailed against a Queens GOP Party-backed opponent in his ultimately unsuccessful 2012 state Senate bid, he huddled with two Republican colleagues and used a loophole to replace the county party’s top appointee at the city Board of Elections.

As Ulrich’s pick, Michael Michel, took over from ousted commissioner Judith Stupp in January 2013, a flurry of personnel changes swept through the Board of Elections. At least six people loyal to the Queens County Republican Committee, which backed Ulrich’s opponent in the primary, left the BOE within Michel’s first six months. Amid the turnover, Michel hired his daughter’s fiancé, Joseph Cintron, and did not abstain from voting when the commissioners governing the BOE promoted his future son-in-law to administrative assistant, BOE records and sources indicated.

“This type of nepotism should never be allowed,” said an individual close to the borough’s Republican Party. “I hope that there is an investigation that comes to a termination and leads to results that are fair to everyone involved.”

Election law

For years, critics have argued the bipartisan structure of the BOE leads to the recruitment of staff for their partisanship rather than their professional pedigree and places an agency charged with organizing and administering elections in the hands of unqualified employees.

Election law requires the BOE to equally represent the two major political parties in its ranks and stipulates that 10 commissioners — one Democrat and one Republican from each borough — oversee the board.

Although the law permits county political committees to recommend candidates for commissioner to the Council, it does not establish a role for the parties in other personnel decisions.

Yet a report released by the city Department of Investigation in late December found that most board positions are not publicly posted. Rather they are filled by turning to the county committees for a list of prospective candidates, many of whom have collected signatures on petitions, fund-raised or otherwise promoted the parties’ political endeavors.

Investigators chronicled pervasive efficiency and accuracy issues at the board, suggesting that patronage may be behind its struggles. After noting 69 BOE employees are believed to be related, the inquiry highlighted the case of a commissioner who hired his wife to get health benefits for their family and later employed his sister-in-law.

Personnel records obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests and a source identified the unnamed executive as Queens’ Democratic BOE Commissioner Jose Miguel Araujo.

“Close to 10 percent of the staff at the Board of Elections is related to one another, which suggests significant problems in terms of nepotism in hiring,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said while testifying in February about the report at a meeting held by two Council committees. “If you had a standardized hiring procedure, if you had public postings for jobs, a standardized procedure for interviews and a rigorously enforced anti-nepotism policy and a transparent hiring policy, I think that would get us a long way towards preventing some of the problems we’ve seen.”

The BOE declined to comment on instances where Queens’ Democratic and Republican commissioners hired relatives or those engaged to a family member, saying it did not discuss personnel matters with the press.

The commissioners were also quiet. Michel did not return calls for comment. Araujo declined to comment through staff at Renfroe Driscoll and Foster LLP, where he works as an attorney.

Ulrich, who has an adversarial relationship with the Republican Party leadership but managed to hire Michel, declined to comment.

The Democratic Party, led by U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), did not respond to requests for comment.

Queens hire

The board’s personnel director told investigators hiring temporary employees and staff at borough offices, where Joseph Cintron got his start, only required approval from the two commissioners in that borough — in this case Queens’ executives.

Cintron started at the Queens BOE office in May 2013 as a trainer assistant making $24.16 an hour, personnel records and BOE minutes show. He transitioned into an administrative assistant role with a $40,628 salary in November 2013 and was promoted to an administrative associate with a $48,289 annual pay rate in January, according to BOE documents.

He included his girlfriend, Janine Michel, as an emergency contact and indicated that the two live together in personnel paperwork. Cintron’s résumé listed the elder Michel as a reference, noting that the commissioner works as president of Christ the King High School in Middle Village, where Cintron was last employed as a custodial engineer.

Minutes of the BOE commissioners’ Nov. 12, 2013, meeting did not list Michel as abstaining from voting on Cintron’s first promotion. The notes also did not include a vote breakdown, which is often detailed when commissioners oppose one another.

Board hires require the approval of a majority of the commissioners when they entail filling permanent positions at the executive office, the DOI report said.

Unclear actions

It is unclear whether Michel’s actions violate the city’s conflict of interest law, which forbids public servants from using their positions to obtain any advantage for themselves or those associated with them. According to the DOI report, those who would fall under this category include spouses, domestic partners, parents, children or siblings.

The city Conflict of Interest Board, which is charged with interpreting and enforcing city ethics laws, declined to comment and said it cannot discuss specific allegations or cases.

Nevertheless, the hiring has prompted questions.

“There’s clearly a relationship there that would create a perception that the fiancé may be getting favorable treatment or consideration,” said Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy for Citizens Union, a good government group that has been pushing for BOE reform.

DOI

Across the aisle in the Democratic camp, the DOI said it substantiated charges of nepotism involving the commissioner who hired his spouse. He told investigators his position did not come with health benefits, so he gave his wife a gig to acquire them.

He terminated his spouse when this raised concerns during his reappointment, investigators said. That along with the commissioner admitting he hired his sister-in-law were referred to the Conflict of Interest Board, the report said.

Araujo, who documents and a source identified as the commissioner singled out by investigators, lives in East Elmhurst with his wife Rita and four children, according to his law firm’s website.

When Rita Araujo joined the BOE’s Queens team as a temporary clerk in February 2010, she listed her emergency contact as her husband Jose M. Araujo. He was again described as her spouse in a health benefits enrollment form and named as the father of her child in an attached birth certificate.

Rita Araujo, who indicated she graduated from high school or had acquired an equivalent education on personnel paperwork, earned $12.49 an hour at the BOE by February 2012.

The documents do not disclose when she left the agency.

The commissioner hired his wife’s sister, Raquel Torres, in March 2012. Payroll records show she started as a temporary clerk earning $11.90 an hour, rose to a clerk with a $27,927 salary by June 2012 and was named an administrative assistant with $40,628 in annual compensation in October 2012.

Torres opted to include her sister, Rita Araujo, as her emergency contact in hiring paperwork. The documents state that Torres attended but did not graduate from Fordham University, had a secretarial certificate and typed up to 45 words per minute.

Investigators emphasized that Torres’ start at the board and subsequent promotions came with the consent of the Democratic county committee.

“The commissioner stated that after his sister-in-law approached him seeking work, he spoke with the county political committee and recommended that the committee consider her for a temporary position,” the Department of Investigation report said. “The commissioner stated that he discussed the recommendation of his sister-in-law for the supervisor position with the county committee, and that she was promoted.”

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.

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