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Queens Chronicle

Dispute Between Smith, Parks Group Boils Over

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Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2006 12:00 am

The acrimonious dispute between state Sen. Ada Smith and a Southeast Queens nonprofit group took a bizarre twist this week, when the organization released a year old recording of a voice message from the senator that includes alleged threats against its employees.

The recording was left in late May 2005 on the voice mail of Peter Richards, the operations vice president of Southern Queens Park Association. It reveals Smith identifying herself and then irately demanding to know the location of Gary Wells, a fiscal officer for the organization, who failed to deliver a $56,000 check for a senior trip in a timely fashion.

“I don’t care who this guy is,” Smith said in the recording, which was obtained by the Queens Chronicle Wednesday. “I want an address because I’m sending somebody to his house and he better be dead because if he’s not, he will be. And that includes you too. Bye.”

Smith said the message was left after repeated attempts by her staff to reach Richards, Wells and Southern Queens Park Association President William Nelson. She said employees of the park association told her staff that they did not know of Wells’ whereabouts after he left the organization’s headquarters in Roy Wilkins Park several hours earlier with the endorsed check.

“They didn’t know if he had absconded with the check. I called after about 20 calls from my staff. They were supposed to bring a check and their staff person got lost. They said they didn’t know if he was dead or not,” Smith said.

Wells returned with the check the next day at which point it was delivered.

When asked about the conclusion of the message, Smith said she did not intend to cause anyone harm. “It’s an expression. You can tell by the tone of voice that it wasn’t a threat,” the senator said.

The dispute between Smith and Southern Queens Park Association began last year during the organization of an excursion to the Catskills for senior citizens. The state Office of Children and Family Services allocated $95,000 to the parks group to run the event, while Smith’s office took the lead in organizing the trip.

Smith’s staff arranged for transportation by Campus Bus Lines at a cost of $10,832, and room and board at the Friar Tuck Resort, Spa & Convention Center from May 26 to May 29, 2005 for $56,638. Southern Queens Park Association was responsible for the payment of both bills.

Richards said the money needed to cover the costs did not arrive from the Office of Children and Family Services in time for the trip. The organization expected an electronic payment, but instead received a check in the mail a week after the event, according to Richards.

Although the organization did not have the money to cover the payment, Wells cut the check for the Friar Tuck Resort on the day before the trip. Because of the large amount of the check, it required two signatures, including Nelson and another authorized signature. It was while Wells was traveling to get the second signature that Smith allegedly left the phone message.

“He did not come back, he went home instead. So we could not deliver the check to the senator,” Richards said.

The check was delivered the next day, but it bounced when Friar Tuck Resort tried to cash it. Smith said the organization also bounced a check to Campus Bus Lines. Richards said that payment was charged to an American Express card.

Although the dispute is now more than a year old, the recording remained out of the public eye until an anonymous letter notified reporters last week of the senator’s phone message. Nelson said the letter did not come from South Queens Park Association.

“Reporters are calling us left and right, but we’re not in the business of picking fights with legislators and senators. Folks in the community knew that the (senator’s) comments had been made for a long time,” Nelson said.

He added that the reason he kept the tape was because it contained threats against his staff.

Smith questioned the timing of the release of the tape, since members of Southern Queens Park Association recently protested at her office over funds Assemblywoman Michele Titus allocated to another organization.

“I think it’s cute that they wait until now to do this,” she said.

Smith declined to make any connection between the release of the recording and her upcoming election. “I don’t want to look for conspiracies everywhere,” she said.

Politics may, however, be part of the conflict. The senator is already facing a misdemeanor assault charge for allegedly throwing coffee in the eyes of a staffer before threatening to kill her. Two challengers, anti gun advocate Liz Bishop Goldsmith and community activist Joseph Marthone, have already announced their intentions to run for her 10th Senatorial District seat.

In addition, William Struhs, the ex chief of staff for former city councilman Allan Jennings, has organized protests against Smith and Titus because the assemblywoman allocated $1.6 million in state funds to the Eastern Queens Alliance for the restoration of Idlewild Park in Brookville.

Southern Queens Park Association claims the money had been promised to them for waterfront parks on Bergen and Thurston Basins. The parks group said that Smith pressured Titus—her former chief of staff—to change beneficiaries as punishment for bouncing the check to Friar Tuck.

“She would like to torpedo this organization. We have been in existence for more than thirty years, long before she was even a senator,” Richards said.

Smith has repeatedly denied involvement in Titus’ decision to allocate the money to Eastern Queens Alliance.

“I wouldn’t know how to find Assembly money. If I did I would have a lot of it,” Smith said.

Welcome to the discussion.