Since Brad Lander took over as the city’s fiscal watchdog in January, his comptroller’s office has approved nearly $550 million in contracts with nonprofit organizations that are members of an umbrella organization his wife oversees, a Daily News analysis of city contracts shows.
Lander’s wife, Meg Barnette, is the president and CEO of Nonprofit New York, which serves as a lobbyist and as an advocate for about 900 member nonprofits across the city.
Nonprofit New York is one of the key entities behind a push to ensure nonprofits that do business with the city are paid in a timely manner. Barnette serves on a joint task force focused on the issue that was formed by Lander and Mayor Adams.
More than 35 organizations that count themselves as members of Nonprofit New York have contracts that Lander’s office has reviewed and signed off on since he became comptroller in January, records show.
According to a News analysis of those records cross-checked against the group’s online list of members, those contracts add up to at least $544 million in city business.
The relationships between the umbrella group Barnette oversees, the nonprofits it represents and her husband, the comptroller, raise the question of whether the web of connections represents a conflict of interest or could be construed as one.
Nonprofit New York’s primary stated goal is “member-building,” and one of its main revenue sources is membership dues, according to the group’s website.
Richard Briffault, the former chairman of the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, said that to avoid the appearance of a conflict, Lander should disclose the connections between his wife’s nonprofit and its members publicly and institute an internal policy laying out how he would recuse himself in matters related to Nonprofit New York’s clients.
“It would be wise policy to say, in effect, I’m going to recuse from anything involving these entities,” said Briffault, now a professor at Columbia University Law School. “It would certainly be good of him to make clear he is going to recuse from anything having to do with them.”
A former comptroller’s office official agreed based on the “optics alone.”
“It plants a seed of doubt,” the source said. “It doesn’t exactly instill public trust.”
Among the Nonprofit New York members approved for city contracts since January are Riseboro Community Partnership, Make the Road New York and Westhab Inc.
City contracting records show that Westhab alone has secured more than $334 million through three contracts from the city this year. One costing more than $278 million is for providing shelter services for homeless people in Queens. Another, listed under the purpose of “316 Beach 65th Street Assignment” is projected to cost the city $56 million and a third is for $25,000.
Riseboro has registered six contracts with the city since January — three for summer youth employment programs. The contracts add up to a little over $6.8 million.
Make the Road New York has taken in a more modest haul, mostly for “competitive grant services, as well as services for immigrants. Since January, it has registered four contracts worth a total of $125,000.
Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s former public advocate and executive director of the good government group Citizens Union, said Lander should at the very least seek guidance from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board on how to proceed.
“He should be seeking some permission or some oversight from them,” she said. “There has to be oversight.”
Lander’s spokeswoman, Naomi Dann, described Nonprofit New York as a trade association that has had a relationship with the comptroller’s office before Lander took the job.
The group “advocates for the nonprofit industry as a whole,” she said.
Dann said that while that means that every nonprofit makes up its constituency in a sense, none are represented directly in Nonprofit New York’s dealings with the city.
“Throughout his career, he has worked closely with organizations that help homeless New Yorkers obtain homes and jobs, offer seniors meals and social activities, and provide enrichment and care to our kids,” she said of Lander.
Dann noted that the contracts that go through the comptroller’s office for review typically fall under the supervision of Charlette Hamamgian, deputy comptroller for contracts and procurement, and her team.
The former official in the comptroller’s office confirmed that contracts would initially be reviewed by the deputy commissioner of contracts, but noted that if the contracts were red-flagged, they would be brought to the comptroller as well.
Barnette declined to comment through Nonprofit New York spokesperson Ian Benjamin, who said the entity “does not engage with the comptroller’s office or any other New York City agency or department in relation to individual nonprofit organizations or around individual contracts.”
Dann confirmed to The News that Lander has not sought any guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board, specifically when it comes to approving contracts with entities that are members of the network his wife oversees.
But Lander did seek guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board on another matter involving his wife. According to correspondence with COIB, Lander sent a letter dated Nov. 29, 2021 seeking a waiver so he could appoint Barnette to his and Adams’ Joint Task Force to Get Nonprofits Paid On Time.
In its response, the board noted that while his wife would obtain “a private advantage” through a position on the task force, several factors weighed in favor of him making the appointment, among them that the post would be “uncompensated and brief” and that the task force’s recommendations are “not binding.” After considering those factors, the board opted to grant Lander the waiver.
“Lander is working hard as comptroller to fix our procurement process, using the tools of the office and in partnership with the administration,” Dann said. “In the first six months of his tenure, the average time it takes the comptroller’s office to register contracts has dropped to 16.3 days, lower than the 30-day timeline required by the City Charter.”
A spokesperson for COIB declined to comment on Lander approving contracts to nonprofits that are members of Nonprofit New York, citing confidentiality restrictions imposed by the City Charter.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Nonprofit New York is listed as a lobbyist in records maintained by the city Clerk’s Office.
So far in 2022, Barnette and Nonprofit New York’s Vice President Chai Jindasurat are listed in city records as having pushed City Council members to enact a law establishing a “living wage floor in nonprofit contracts from the city” as well as other policies.
Lander, who served as a Brooklyn Councilman before becoming comptroller, was lobbied by Jindasurat a year earlier on a bill to relieve lobbyists of “various administrative requirements,” records from the clerk’s office and City Council show.
According to public records reviewed by The News, it does not appear that Lander has been lobbied by his wife.
The situation involving his wife’s company and its members is not the first time Lander has raised eyebrows about his choices when it comes to ethics.
In 2019, he apologized for violating ethics rules after using his city email account to solicit cash for Local Progress, an entity he helped to create. In his most recent financial disclosure filing with COIB, Lander described Local Progress as “a project of the Center for Popular Democracy,” a nonprofit he allocated $10,000 to in the city’s 2016 budget without disclosing his connection to the group.
At the time, Lander was absent for the Council’s budget vote, where members are required to disclose whether they have a personal stake in where they’re allocating funding.
Dann suggested that such a disclosure wasn’t necessary at the time because Lander did not serve on the board of the Center for Popular Democracy and was serving on an advisory board that didn’t have governing or financial authority over Local Progress at the time.
In previous financial disclosure filings with the Conflicts of Interest Board — from 2016 to 2018 — Lander failed to disclose the fact that he served as the board chair for Local Progress, a position he took up in 2016.
It was in filling out his 2019 disclosure — after his apology for violating ethics rules — that he included Local Progress on his COIB form.