Sept. 13, 2015 By Columnist John O’Reilly
City Comptroller Scott Stringer issued two scathing reports on the operations of the Queens Borough Public Library in July that uncovered, what he characterized, a “sickening track record of waste, fraud and abuse” engaged by library executives. ( reports: Comptroller Audit QPL and Comptroller Investigation QPL)
One Stringer report noted that “[Former Library CEO] Tom Galante used the Queens Library as his personal piggybank, charging the public for outrageous expenses including endless rounds of drinks, extravagant dinners, and concert tickets.” He spent $260,000 on these expenses.
This and other illicit activity covered in the Comptroller’s reports engaged in by Mr. Galante and by current Interim Library President and CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey (who served as Chief Operating Officer when Galante was in charge) took place while “the Library was eliminating services to the reading public, cutting operating hours of Queens branches by an average of 4 hours per week,” according to Stringer.
We all recall the times between 2008 and 2013 when library branches in Astoria, Court Square, Long Island City, Jackson Heights, Sunnyside, and Woodside, among many others, reduced hours and programs which had a tremendous impact on almost everyone–especially school children and senior citizens.
There was a constant crisis over library funding during those years. The Comptroller reports that during this same 5-year time frame, Queens Library “executives made sure that their own incomes increased, with executive compensation growing by 6.9 percent even as they cut [Library] services staff and their salaries by 2.8 percent.”
The website seethroughny.org reports that Mr. Galante was paid $403,341 in 2014 and Ms. Quinn-Carey was paid $224,832 in 2014. These salary figures do not include benefits like health insurance and pensions.
How has the Queens Library responded since the July 2015 publication of the Comptroller reports?
The Library Board provides a detailed list of “reforms” (QPL Statement Reforms, which at the top of the document reads: “Borough President and Mayor have transformed Board of Trustees with the appointment of 14 new members of the Board since January 2014”.
According to the Library’s web site QPL Trustees, the members of the transformed Board were all in place by March 25, 2015. The Library also published a response dated July 1, 2015 to the Audit in which the Library accepts eight of nine recommendations made by the Comptroller and takes “under advisement” the ninth recommendation which concerns the development of a “reasonable methodology” for allocation of costs among the various funds that apply to Library operations. QPL Response to Comptroller.
Elected officials seem to feel that the Library is “moving in the right direction” and that public confidence in Library governance has been restored. For example, Borough President Melinda Katz announced on August 3, 2015 an allocation of $14 million for capital improvements to library branches, remarked that the Library “continues to move … in the right direction consistent with its educational purpose” under the leadership of a Board of Trustees “which the Mayor and I reformed in 2014 thanks to prompt state legislation.” 08-03-2015 QBP
There are substantial reasons to doubt that the Queens Library has yet turned the corner on the use of taxpayer monies or that the public can have full confidence in the Library Board to make decisions in the best public interest without continued close monitoring by the appropriate authority outside the Library bureaucracy.
What has the Library done to recoup and recover monies the Comptroller characterized as embezzled by its two top executives?
Virtually nothing. Worse than that, the Library now refers to the Comptroller’s findings of a “sickening track record of waste, fraud and abuse” as “allegations,” particularly with respect to the approximately $50,000 the Comptroller says was spent by current Acting CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey on personal items, not authorized, in violation of policy, for which she may owe taxes. Here’s what the Library Board has to say regarding the Quinn-Carey expenses:
“On July 23, 2015, the Queens Library Board met in executive session to hear the preliminary findings of our general counsel regarding the Comptroller’s investigation as they relate to Interim President and CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey. The credit card charges highlighted by the Comptroller relative to Ms. Quinn-Carey are predominantly purchases of goods and services for Library business. Some of the charges continue to be reviewed. The Board will wait for the full review before taking further action. Since the date of these charges this Board has imposed even greater standards for incurring and documenting purchases for all employees.”
A Library spokesperson said that the General Counsel who reviewed Quinn-Carey’s expenditures was Lewis Finkelman, who was hired by Ms. Quinn-Carey.
The precise date of his hire was not made available and there was no public announcement of his hire. Finkelman’s identification as General Counsel does not appear on the Library website (unlike in the past when the General Counsel was identified).
There is an internal staff announcement of his hire dated July 20, 2015. The Library spokesperson said that Mr. Finkelman reports to Ms. Quinn-Carey as the Acting Chief Executive Officer.
More detailed information was not provided by the Queens Library after repeated question.
Therefore, it appears that Mr. Finkelman was hired by Ms. Quinn-Carey sometime in the nineteen day period after the July 1, 2015 Library Response to the Comptroller, and most likely close to the date of the staff announcement, July 20, 2015.
Thus, it appears that the Library Board’s current view of Ms. Quinn-Carey’s expenses is premised on an investigation which may have been conducted in as little as three days by the new General Counsel recently hired by Ms. Quinn-Carey and who reports to Ms. Quinn-Carey.
That’s right, notwithstanding the findings of Stringer’s team of lawyers and data analysts with extensive backgrounds in financial, criminal and public corruption investigations–employed by the City Comptroller to be part of the Comptroller Investigation Unit–who spent six months examining data provided by the Library, the Library Board seems to be ready to OK Ms. Quinn-Carey’s expenses based on an internal investigation done by a lawyer just hired by Ms. Quinn-Carey and who reports to Ms. Quinn-Carey.
Will the Library recoup the approximately $260,000 misused for personal expenses by Thomas Galante, former Chief Executive Officer until December 17, 2014, and possibly obtain other financial recovery due to his improper conduct, as found by the Comptroller’s investigators and auditors? Not any time soon. According to the Library Board of Trustees, “As pertains to the Comptroller’s investigation as it relates to former President and CEO Thomas Galante, the matter is being handled and investigated by outside counsel.”
When, how and who? The Library is unable/unwilling to disclose the “outside counsel” who is investigating Mr. Galante’s expenses or when or by whom the outside counsel was hired. Presumably, the outside counsel is getting paid, but it has been impossible to find out the relationship with the outside counsel because the Library still does not have on its website minutes of Board and committee meetings and because the Library resists through repeated delays providing information requested pursuant to FOIL. FOIL Requests QPL
The reference to another Galante investigation is puzzling because according to news reports when Mr. Galante was terminated on December 17, 2014, the Board acted after “getting a final report on his expenditures”. 12-18-2014 NYDN
It is a virtual truism that when executives of an organization are caught stealing, misappropriating company funds for personal use, swift action is taken to recoup the money through legal proceedings. Embezzlers can be and are sued in civil lawsuits where the burden of establishing a case for restitution is much lower than in a criminal proceeding.
It is important that action is taken quickly before a wrongdoer makes him or herself “judgment proof” by the transfer or hiding of assets, keeping in mind that the person you are seeking recovery from has already demonstrated moral turpitude when it comes to money.
When asked if there is a time table in place or a deadline for completion of the internal Quinn-Carey investigation and the external Galante investigation, the Library said No.
After all this time, all the reports, newspaper accounts, City Comptroller analysis, there’s no end in sight.
The need for another investigation of Galante presumably at additional taxpayer expense and why it is conducted externally and not internally as is the case with Ms. Quinn-Carey, and why the investigation is still pending almost nine months after he was terminated and the Library reportedly accepted a “final report” on his expenditures, are mysteries. Why is the Galante investigation still pending sixty-seven days after the Comptroller’s audit and investigation reports? Repeated efforts to get this information from the Library starting in July 2015, including FOIL requests, have not been substantively answered by the Library.
The explanation for all this, in my opinion, is that the Queens Library cares less about the handling of public money than it does about notions of self-governance; the sense that the Library is an independent self-ruled organization and nobody is going to tell it what to do.
The Library appears to have the corrupt mindset that it doesn’t have to worry about how taxpayer money is being spent because it will always be able to get more funds from elected officials. Even during the period when the top two executives were reportedly stealing library funds—one of whom was later promoted to the acting top executive—while services were getting cut, the Library was given increased taxpayer funding year after year.
If the public is to fully realize the fruits of the substantial efforts of the City Comptroller, greater outside oversight and possible legal intervention on behalf of the public is needed.
These are the opinions of columnist John O’Reilly, not this publication.
O’Reilly is a retired attorney and public official.