A New York City Councilman is demanding that the Department of Investigation investigate possible conflicts of interest between Comptroller Brad Lander and his wife’s role as a consultant for nonprofits that his office is supposed to oversee.
In a letter obtained by the Daily News on Friday, Councilman Bob Holden (D-Queens) made the request to DOI Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber and Carolyn Miller, executive director of the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, last month.
As The News first reported in July, Lander’s office, which serves as the city’s fiscal watchdog, approved approximately $550 million in contracts with nonprofits that are members of an umbrella group overseen by his wife, Meg Barnette.
Lander has repeatedly stated that he received approval from the Conflicts of Interest Board for his office’s review of contracts with nonprofits affiliated with Nonprofit New York, where Barnette serves as CEO and president.
But Holden believes that is insufficient.
Barnette “has an interest in the success of over 4,000 nonprofit organisations,” according to the councilman’s letter dated Nov. 29.
Some of them have contracts with the city that Lander’s office approves.
“There must be transparency so that New Yorkers understand that there is no conflict of interest between what is best for New York City taxpayers and the financial interests of Brad Lander and his family,” Holden wrote.
“Media reports routinely feature nonprofit social-service providers who are not fulfilling their contractual obligations and, in many cases, committing criminal acts,” he continued. “Unfortunately, the Comptroller’s office never publicly audits these providers. The public should know if the Comptroller’s wife consults for the same nonprofits that the Comptroller is supposed to oversee to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Lander spokeswoman Naomi Dann accused Holden and The News of “willful misunderstanding of basic facts.”
“The Conflicts of Interest Board has repeatedly stated that there is no conflict,” she stated.
The News reported in October that the comptroller’s office had registered five contracts with The Door, a nonprofit that had agreed to pay $13 million to settle a federal false claims lawsuit. Two of those contracts had start dates after the settlement.
Given The Door’s prior legal troubles, Michael Lambert, a former deputy city comptroller, described the situation as “unusual” and “uncharacteristic of how the process is supposed to work” at the time.
“The vetting process is designed to weed out potential illegality and fraud,” Lambert explained at the time.
The comptroller’s office is in charge of registering city contracts. Contracts are typically reviewed first by the deputy commissioner of contracts as part of that process. Contracts that are flagged for any reason can also be brought to the comptroller’s attention.
Holden wrote to Lander in January, requesting an audit of the Cooper Rapid Rehousing Center, which is run by Westhab, a Nonprofit New York member with contracts from the city’s Department of Homeless Services.
“DHS required Westhab to provide residents with employment services, broker outreach for housing assistance, and life skills programming. “Unfortunately, residents of the shelter come into my office informing us that none of these services are available,” Holden wrote at the time. “We must be proactive in ensuring that our social service providers meet their contractual requirements and assist those in need. I am ready to assist you in any way I can.”
Holden’s subsequent letter to the Department of Investigation and the Conflicts of Interest Board stated that he still hadn’t received a response to his January missive to Lander, who served on the City Council before becoming comptroller.
“When I requested that the Comptroller audit Westhab, I was met with silence from his office,” he wrote in a November letter. “In the best of circumstances, the sheer volume of city and state contracts for nonprofits makes transparency difficult. I request that you look into this matter so that all New Yorkers can be assured that their tax dollars are being spent wisely.”
The DOI confirmed receipt of the letter but declined to comment. COIB also declined to comment, citing legally mandated confidentiality.