Those expecting a vote on a Creedmoor development plan at the Community Board 13 meeting Monday in Bellerose were disappointed as the decision was postponed until next month due to a procedural issue.
But that wasn’t the only controversy. Just before the discussion ended a board member accused the nonprofit group proposing the development of inappropriately trying to curry his favor.
Seymour Finkelstein, a CB 13 member for the last 31 years, surprised attendees when he accused members of the Indian Community and Cultural Center, who are seeking to build two nine-story apartment towers on the grounds of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Bellerose near the Queens Village border of trying to win him over by offering him a consulting job.
This is not the first time the group has been accused of impropriety. State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) noted at the initial CB 13 public hearing on Sept. 26 that the ICCC deal is being investigated by both the state attorney general and inspector general to determine if there was any inappropriate or criminal behavior associated with the plan and with several current and former elected officials, something he said further clouds the ICCC’s credibility.
Finkelstein said he received a phone call from a board member, whom he did not name at the meeting, but later said it was V. M. Chacko, asking to meet with him and two members of the ICCC — Koshy Thomas, the group’s spokesman, and K. George Varkey, who represents the engineer — for a meal and he agreed. He met with them at the Burger King on the corner near where he lives on 258th Street in Floral Park.
“They told me I was very well versed on the community and everything and they could offer me a consultant [job],” Finkelstein said. “I didn’t ask if it was a paid consultant or not. I didn’t want anything to do with it and that’s how the meeting ended.”
The ICCC’s zoning lawyer, Jordan Most, told attendees that those who were at the meeting wanted a chance to respond. Varkey stood up and was about to head over to the microphone when a discussion arose among board members as to whether he should be allowed to speak since he did not pre-register for speaking time. Board member Corey Bearak noted that they would have to take a vote in order to change the agenda.
“It’s not public speaking,” interjected CB 13 Chairman Bryan Block. “He’s making an accusation. Basically he’s saying someone tried to bribe him.”
“You can’t just leave that out there,” added First Vice Chairwoman Tanya Cruz.
But Finkelstein quickly fired back, stating, “I never used the word ‘bribe.’”
The board didn’t arrive at a conclusion and Varkey didn’t respond. The discussion got sidelined when Block and Cruz told Finkelstein that he had an obligation to bring the matter to the Ethics Committee and there was some back and forth as to whether he would or not.
Chacko did not attend the meeting and could not be reached for comment. CB 13 community associate Stephanie Rainkie said Tuesday that the board has also been trying to reach him by phone but were unsuccessful.
Later, Finkelstein said Avella, who was also at the meeting, told him he would make sure the issue was brought to the attention of the proper officials.
After the meeting, Thomas said he had “no comment” regarding the accusation and Most added that the ICCC would be sending a response to the community board in writing.
“The ICCC denies any claim by Mr. Finkelstein that the ICCC attempted to ‘hire him as a consultant,’” Vinoo Varghese, the attorney representing the group in the state investigations said in an email statement. “Furthermore, if Mr. Finkelstein believes that the ICCC engaged in any type of wrongdoing, then he should have reported this promptly, rather than waiting to slander the ICCC at a public hearing.”
Board member Peter Richards said since Finkelstein did not accept the consulting position offered by the ICCC, it was not a conflict of interest. But Block interrupted, noting “That is not for us to decide,” and once again reiterated that the issue be brought before the Ethics Committee.
District Manager Larry McClean later said that it was a “serious matter since board members are public officials, and it should be investigated.” He added that to his knowledge, no other board members had been approached by the ICCC with similar offers.
CB 13 Executive Secretary, Sanu Thomas, son of Koshy Thomas, was noticeable absent at the meeting. McClean said the younger Thomas asked to be excused, but did not provide a reason.
As for the vote on the ICCC’s development plan, it was tabled by a vote of 22 to 13 with six people absent, because the Land Use Committee did not have a chance to meet and make a recommendation on the plan.
In 2008, the group purchased two parcels of land at Creedmoor, approximately 4.5 acres adjacent to the houses on the west side of 242nd Street, from Union Turnpike to 82nd Avenue. They are seeking a variance because the northern parcel where the apartments would be located is a commercial zone that prohibits residential use.
CB 13 received 146 letters — a handful of variations of form letters — in favor of the project, and a few from those who oppose the plan. Many more spoke against the proposal at a public hearing the week before and at the CB 13 meeting on Monday, stating that the apartments, which the ICCC said will be affordable housing for seniors, would be out of context with the residential area and were not what the ICCC originally told them it intended to build — a community center, parking lot and athletic field.
The board will vote on the ICCC request for a variance at its next meeting on Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bellerose Assembly of God church, located at 240-15 Hillside Ave.