Speaker Quinn's Biggest Test

The burgeoning City Council spending scandal took a turn for the worse last week when two aides were indicted for embezzling nearly $150,000 in public money intended for a nonprofit group that, as luck would have it, was based in the home of one of the indicted aides.

The indictments come on the heels of revelations showing that the Council has been appropriating money to fine-sounding and seemingly needy organizations that simply do not exist. And since they do not exist, the Council, in its eagerness to disburse taxpayer money hither and yon to curry favor with supporters, has had to invent them. By appropriating money to fake organizations, the Council has been able to redirect those dollars to real, live groups without the mayor’s oversight or approval. Reports indicate that more than $17 million has been shuffled to phantom groups over the past seven years.

This practice clearly is one of long standing, and it implicates not only current and past council members, but the system itself. Council members believe that their future in elective politics depends not upon their brilliant ideas and progressive legislation, but on their ability to feed the nonprofit beast with regular servings of taxpayer dollars. No doubt many of these groups, when they actually exist, are worthy and important. But many behave as though they are entitled to government largesse, and it is a brave officeholder indeed who would argue otherwise.

The latest scandal involved a community group named in honor of a child who died of cancer and purported to offer private educational services in the Brooklyn community of Flatbush. The group was turned down when it sought money from the Department for the Aging—some eagle-eyed bureaucrat noticed that the group was based in the home of Asquith Reid, chief of staff for Brooklyn Councilman Kendall Stewart, who sponsored the group’s request for funds. The group, called the Donna Reid Memorial Education Fund, wound up getting funding from the Department of Youth and Community Development. All told, Councilman Stewart has directed more than $350,000 to the fund. Nearly $15,000 had first been earmarked for two fake organizations, but was then redirected to the Donna Reid Fund.

Prosecutors charge that about $31,000 in city funds were dispatched to Mr. Reid’s relatives in Jamaica, and other money was used for political purposes. Mr. Reid and a part-time member of Councilman Stewart’s staff were indicted for the alleged misuse of public funds.

City Comptroller William Thompson’s office correctly pointed out that the Department for the Aging should have been more aggressive in following up on its reservations about the Reid Fund. But there is a larger story here—an utter lack of accountability on the part of both the Council and the recipients of members’ largesse. Pork-barrel spending may well be a necessary evil (and may even be a good thing on occasion), but taxpayers have every right to demand that the money is used properly and efficiently.

This scandal has broken under Speaker Christine Quinn’s watch. These abuses preceded her time in the Council, but she simply can’t duck her responsibility as a leader. Her future as a potential mayoral candidate depends on how she handles this crisis.

Speaker Quinn's Biggest Test