Photo by Paul Lowry via Flickr

August 13, 2012; Source: New York Times

Estelle Cooper is a longtime community activist in Queens and she has long championed the restoration and maintenance of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, both as the city administrator of the park and as the founder of a booster nonprofit organization, Unisphere Inc. Now, at age 82 and a year after she retired, she faces charges that she stole from the very organization she founded. The New York Times reports that only a very small portion of any of the money raised on behalf of the park, estimated at $1 million, was actually spent on the park: “In 2004, for example, [Unisphere] raised more than $205,000 and spent just $8,711, the bulk on sponsoring one walk-a-thon.”

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Supporters are flummoxed. The amount allegedly stolen from Unisphere, Inc. is unclear but Phil Ragusa, who filed the organization’s tax returns, discovered the problem when he found a number of ATM withdrawals that were not recorded. If convicted of stealing money from Unisphere, Cooper could face up to 15 years in prison.

Cooper had recently had a stroke and following that questions surfaced about her effectiveness. “She was effective for a while, and then something changed,” said Adrian Benepe, the New York City parks commissioner. “At a certain point it seemed like something went wrong.”

“We were used,” a former board member said. “You raise funds and you expect that good things are happening. She was such a well-respected person in the community, I don’t think anyone questioned that anything was wrong.” NPQ finds this response revealing as an explanation of what went wrong. Board members are part of the checks and balances of any organization. They are supposed to ensure that money in their stewardship is properly spent on the organization’s mission but in this case, over a period of almost a decade, it seems that has not been the standard to which the board held the organization.

“She was sitting on quite a bit of money,” said Ragusa, who has been associated with the group since its inception. “I always told her, you have a lot of money here, you should be spending it on your mission.” –Ruth McCambridge