Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Job-development group BUILD, key CBA signatory, closes down in wake of funding troubles, tax arrears, complaint to Attorney General; Caldwell says BUILD has "honored its mission"

BUILD's front door today
Updated 6 am Nov. 7

The controversial job-development organization BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), a key public supporter of developer Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards plan, has closed its office and will dissolve operations by the end of next week.

The moves come in the wake of funding troubles, tax arrears, a lawsuit, and a complaint about spending irregularities filed by a former staffer with the New York State Attorney General.

It's another repudiation of the "modern blueprint" the New York Times unwisely posited some seven years ago regarding Forest City's ability to "nourish--and then harvest--public and community backing" via the suspect Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

BUILD, while helping hundreds of people find generally low-paid work in retail and services (while absorbing more than $1 million in corporate and public support), did not provide a path to transformative careers with Atlantic Yards, as initially intended.

That promise inspired several people to volunteer at BUILD, work for low pay, and, crucially, rally for the project.

BUILD's history will be debated--was it flawed from the start, or did it go astray?--but Atlantic Yards critics and opponents can surely say that their suspicions about the CBA, and BUILD's role in it, have been validated. The results of a pending lawsuit, as well as a potential investigation, should shape that assessment.

(Update: BUILD left a bitter personal and professional dispute between BUILD officers and the former CFO.)

BUILD's goodbye message

"Sorry we're closed," read the sign yesterday morning on BUILD's office door at 485 Hudson Avenue, off Fulton Street. Another sign on the door offered guidance to those seeking post-storm work from Con Edison.

A staffer opened the door briefly, upon seeing me, but indicated that longtime BUILD CEO James Caldwell was not there. I later called Caldwell, and was ultimately sent the message below, which has been circulated to "community partners."

The message from Caldwell, signing off as "President Emeritus," indicates that BUILD will close down as of Nov. 16. It states that BUILD had "honored its mission and purpose to foster economic self-sufficiency and prosperity amongst socio-economically vulnerable communities" by supporting workforce development, youth development, and more.

Among those he thanked were the family of Marie Louis, BUILD's Chief Operating Officer, who died in late 2011 and whose expertise was not replaced.

"And I still believe that [Atlantic Yards developer] Bruce Ratner is an Angel sent from God," Caldwell stated, echoing a statement he made prominently at several public events, captured in the documentary film Battle for Brooklyn.

Caldwell's letter made no mention of the funding and tax troubles, or the complaint filed with the Attorney General. Nevertheless, it's clear the latter complaint led to uncomfortable moments.

At the Oct. 8 meeting of the 77th Precinct Council, former BUILD CFO Lance Woodward, who filed the complaint with the Attorney General, tried to inform BUILD board members of the complaint. But when Woodward handed those board members envelopes containing the document, Caldwell took them from the board members and ripped them up. (Caldwell wouldn't comment when I quered him about it last month.)

Forest City's valedictory statement

I asked Forest City Ratner about BUILD, and got the following valedictory statement:
"BUILD was a critical partner in the creation of the Community Benefits Agreement and the hiring for Barclays Center. We are thankful for their assistance and insight and their on-going commitment to social and economic justice for the people of Brooklyn. Mr. Caldwell has always believed strongly in the inherent good of people and recognizes that regardless of one's background, we all share the same desire to create a better, safer and healthier life for our children and families. It is a commitment he brought to Atlantic Yards and one that will continue to guide us as we begin the housing portion of the development. As we did with arena, we will continue to work with community groups, the City and other partners to ensure that as many of our employees as possible come from the surrounding communities.”
Note that, while BUILD did hold unpaid customer service training sessions to prepare youth for arena jobs, arena hiring was managed by the city's Department of Small Business Services. Forest City gives BUILD free rent and, when the organization leaves, surely could fill the space.

So it's unclear what groups will fulfill the job-training responsibilities in the CBA. But if Forest City chooses more established organizations, it raises a question as to why BUILD was chosen in the first place.

Bruce Ratner at the arena groundbreaking, 3/11/10, saluted Caldwell as "a man of integrity and a man of dignity, to fight for community job training and he's done an exceptional job."



CBA questions

BUILD was not only active in promoting Atlantic Yards, virtually alone among the organizations formed to "negotiate" the CBA, it had an ongoing office and public presence. 

Organizations that pre-dated Atlantic Yards like ACORN (and its successors) and the New York State Association of Minority Contractors have always had offices. The Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance operates out of the church led by the organization's head, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry.

But other CBA signatories--Brooklyn Endeavor Experience; Public Housing Communities, Brooklyn Voices for Children; Faith in Action--verge on ciphers, with their heads occasionally participating in public events, but offering little public presence in terms of offices or ongoing activities.

So much for the claim, in various legal documents (such as the 4/17/07 affidavit, right, by Forest City's then-Atlantic Yards point man Jim Stuckey, in the case challenging the Atlantic Yards review, that the CBA may set a standard for the city.

The developer never hired a promised Independent Compliance Monitor to evaluate both its own performance under the CBA and that of the signatories; the latter, who are the only organizations with standing to ensure that the monitor be hired, might have their own reasons for not wanting to be scrutinized.

Only such a monitor might have provided definitive data on the number of people hired via BUILD, or the progress of a coveted pre-apprenticeship training program mandated by the CBA.

Lawsuit continues

Forest City and BUILD have reason to remain on good terms; the company and organization, as well as individual executives, are defendants in an ongoing lawsuit filed in November 2011 by seven of 36 participants in that training program.

The plaintiffs claim they were promised construction jobs and union cards, and say they should have been paid for work they did during the training.

Complaint raises questions

As I reported 9/27/12, BUILD, which formed as Atlantic Yards was unveiled and has relied on Forest City for free office space/utilities and most of its funding, had seen its budget run low, even as it owed more than $115,000 in back payroll taxes, according to the letter filed by Woodward.

The last round of funding from BUILD's major funders, Forest City and the Consortium for Worker Education (CWE), had expired; Forest City did not respond to my query in September about continued funding, while CWE said that they were "in negotiations with BUILD."

Woodward's complaint charged that Caldwell had spent money irresponsibly, including for Brooklyn Nets tickets ($8700), rent for five individuals, a car payment, clothing for a subordinate, and for the 77th Precinct Community Council, which he heads. Larger sums were allegedly misallocated to items seemingly part of BUILD's mission--like MetroCards for trainees, part of $38,201 for transportation--but not authorized by its funders.

Woodward, fired August 1 in what he contends was a wrongful act, had urged the Attorney General's Charities Bureau, which oversees non-profit organizations, to investigate.

Initial response

Caldwell responded to my query in late September, saying BUILD was "dismayed that a disgruntled employee, who was dismissed for performance, after we made great efforts to assist him and provide him with employment, would surreptitiously take documents and other materials from our office during and post-employment and provide them to a blogger."

"We will of course review carefully the document you provided, along with counsel, and will respond directly to the Attorney General's office," Caldwell said at the time. "We are not going to have a conversation about Mr. Woodward's allegations, or why we believe he would do this, via the media or your blog."

As I wrote, it was unclear how much the allegedly misappropriated spending--if the complaint is accurate--was aimed to benefit Caldwell directly or to serve as an old-fashioned neighborhood benefactor.

Woodward's letter also indicated that Caldwell operated essentially without supervision from the board, whose members also serve on the precinct council he heads.

BUILD's new web site

Interestingly enough, BUILD appears to have been working on an update to its long-stagnant web site, the latter apparently created in 2005. While there are some new photos, some pages, as in the third one below, were just shells.







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