September 29, 2014

Queens Library Controversy Expands Into Construction Investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and New York City’s Department of Investigation (DOI) have launched a joint investigation into Queens Library (QL) president and CEO Thomas Galante. The New York Daily News reports that on February 28, federal investigators arrived at the Central Library branch in Jamaica, Queens, NY. There they served subpoenas to Galante and Frank Marino, a construction consultant whose firm has managed 15 projects for QL since 2008—and who works at the Elmont Union Free School District, the same Long Island, NY, school system where Galante holds a part-time consulting position netting him annual compensation in the six figures.

In recent months, questions were raised about the appropriateness of Galante’s contract with the library, which saw him paid nearly $392,000 in salary last year, and also paid for perks, including a personal vehicle. Critics have also taken aim at renovations to QL’s central branch, which houses Galante’s executive office, including an outside deck for meetings that the CEO also uses for cigarette breaks. While Galante maintained strong support from the QL Board of Trustees, the controversy resulted in state senator Tony Avella (D-Queens) calling on Galante to step down, and prompted New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer to call for an audit of QL, Brooklyn Public Library, and New York Public Library, which serves the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx.

Last month, after urging from Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, the QL Board of Trustees voted to renegotiate Galante’s contract in order to remove a so-called “golden parachute” clause that would have guaranteed the embattled library director a severance package worth $2 million if he were let go before the end of his contract. The Board has also approved a study of executive compensation, and made moves toward the formation of an audit committee, as well.

In recent weeks, though, the focus has shifted from Galante’s salary to his relationship with Frank Marino, president of Advanced Construction Group, a Long Island-based construction company. Marino could not be reached for this story, but told the Daily News in an interview that while he did know Galante from their work at the school district, his firm was awarded contracts with QL on the basis of being the lowest bidder. Citing the ongoing investigation, QL spokesperson Joanne King declined to disclose how many QL construction projects Advanced Construction Group had overseen prior to 2008, citing the ongoing investigation. “Every aspect of our capital budget has been appropriately expended,” read a statement from QL provided to Library Journal. “The library will comply with lawful requests for information by oversight or enforcement entities. We are confident that concerns will be addressed satisfactorily and any concerns will be put to rest.”

Neither the DOI nor FBI responded to requests for comment, but while their investigation is ongoing, QL can expect to see more local oversight on its spending practices. Katz has asked the office of Mayor Bill DeBlasio to halt so-called “pass through” project funding at QL, which allows five percent of the funds the library receives from the city to be spend as the library determines, without the usual bidding process the other 95 percent of the construction funds must undergo.

Katz also called on the QL Board of Trustees to appoint an independent third party auditor to take a look at the capital process at QL—one that would report to the board, not library staff. “Both of these measures will help to insure transparency and that the millions of taxpayer dollars allocated to Queens libraries for renovation and maintenance are spent properly,” said Katz in a letter to the board. A full vote by the board on Katz’s recommendations is expected to take place on March 27.

Since 2011, more than $144 million in funding from the city has gone towards renovation and construction of libraries in Queens, a number colored by the devastation wrought by superstorm Sandy in 2012. Despite that spending, a pair of QL branches that were shuttered after being damaged by Sandy remain closed 15 months later. Bidding has not yet opened for a renovation to the Peninsula branch, which has been replaced by a trailer since November 2012, while the Arverne branch is scheduled to reopen later this month.

The controversy surrounding Galante has trickled down into the lives of rank and file QL employees, affecting their daily interactions with patrons and impacted the system’s perception in the community, said John Hyslop, President of the Queens Library Guild. Hyslop also said the guild, whose members haven’t seen raises since 2009, wholeheartedly welcomes the prospect of more oversight on spending at QL. “In my conversations with some funders and elected officials, they’re becoming wary of funding the library, because they don’t know how the money is being spent,” Hyslop told Library Journal. “These oversight measures are going to provide more transparency on how the money is spent, giving funders more confidence that it will be spent wisely.”

Katz told Library Journal that the requests that have been made of the board, such as setting up an audit committee and opening their books to independent monitors, are not out of the ordinary, describing them as “best practices” for any nonprofit. “We need systems in place that send a clear message to constituents and taxpayers that the money going into the library is being spent well,” Katz said.

According to Joanne King, getting those systems in place can’t come soon enough. “The library really looks forward to seeing this matter to put to rest and to continuing to building a bond of trust with all of our stakeholders,” she said.

 

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is the Associate News Editor of LJ.

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