Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shirley Huntley Steered $33,000 Member Item To Top Aide Ruben Wills, Now Running For Council by Chris Bragg - City Hall News

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Ruben Wills’ non-Profit never filed tax returns, purpose and expenditures remain opaque...

In the City Council special election to replace the late Tom White, Ruben Wills is citing his work for a non-profit called New York 4 Life—an organization he founded in September 2006 and still runs—as one of his prime qualifications.

What that qualification actually entails, though, is unclear: New York 4 Life lacks a website, and few details about the organization’s work exist. Wills has never filed a tax return detailing the organization’s spending. The non-profit is registered to Wills’ residence at 194-19 115th Drive in St. Albans, Queens.

And the group has just one apparent source of funding: a $33,000 member item steered to it in 2008 by State Sen. Shirley Huntley—for whom Wills was then serving as chief of staff.

Wills left Huntley’s office in June 2008 to run for Congress against Rep. Greg Meeks, three months after the cash for New York 4 Life was approved. He soon dropped the bid, and instead ran an unsuccessful 2009 Council primary against White.

A December 2009 document filed with the attorney general’s office—more than three years after the group was incorporated, and more than a year after the member item was included in the budget—explains New York 4 Life’s purpose: to “empower residents to positively impact the community at large from changes made within themselves by providing immediate information on matters of finance, health and overall quality of life.” A 2008 press release sent out by Wills’s congressional campaign, meanwhile, said the group’s intent was to promote “civic literacy, financial empowerment, and with there [sic] single parent initiatives has touched over 600 single mothers to date.”

In an interview, Wills defended the group’s work, saying that the IRS had never required him to file a tax return because New York 4 Life never had any revenue apart from funding out of Wills’ own pocket.

The original start date for the contract to deliver the member items was set to be Dec. 7, 2009, but the contract was not actually approved by the comptroller’s office until Aug. 19, 2010, according to data from the state comptroller’s office.

Wills said he had voluntarily delayed receiving the money because he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest that could have come from getting money as he was running for Congress in 2008.

I didn’t want the appearance of impropriety,” Wills said, discussing the member item grant from Huntley.

Wills said he had yet to actually receive the $33,000 from the state, but expects the money will primarily go to cover out-of-pocket expenses the non-profit incurred the past four years. That includes advertising for an event for single mothers and food purchases for an anti-obesity program, he said. Wills said he plans to recoup these costs from the state grant when it arrives.

In an initial interview last week, Wills offered to provide information detailing the non-profit’s expenditures, but later said his accountant could not immediately produce the information. He had also offered to provide records of news accounts highlighting the New York 4 Life’s work. He did not produce those either.

The December 2009 document registering New York 4 Life with the attorney general’s charities bureau lists Wills as its president and executive director of the group; Sharon Carnegie as treasurer; Manelva Herrington as secretary; and Ray Trotman as chief financial officer.

All of them also worked on Wills’ campaign in 2009 for City Council against White, and they had similar job titles. Carnegie served as treasurer for the campaign, pulling in more that $20,000; Herrington made $300 petitioning; and Trotman made $1,250 for audit compliance services, according to campaign finance records.

Though the non-profit is still registered to Wills’ home, Wills said that New York 4 Life is now actually run out of the office he used during his 2009 Council campaign, in a residence at 134-03 Liberty Ave. in Jamaica. (Wills said the non-profit gets its mail at yet another address, 229-19 Merrick Blvd.)

Wills rented the space from the property’s owner, Doreen Totarum, for $650 a month during the Council race, though she donated more than $2,600 to the campaign, offsetting most of the cost of office rent. Wills said that Totarum is now giving him the space rent-free to run the non-profit.

In a subsequent interview, though, when Wills was asked where he his office for his new Council campaign would be located, he said it would also be run out of the 134-03 Liberty Ave. address—the location where he initially had said New York 4 Life is housed.

Wills said that New York 4 Life office would be moved from the Liberty Ave. address to another address in southeast Queens.

Everything we’re doing,” Wills said, “is to avoid a conflict of interest.”