Investigations are underway regarding at least $90,000 missing from the accounts of the nonprofit Unisphere Inc., the fundraising arm of Flushing Meadows Park.
The New York Post broke a story Saturday that links former Flushing Meadows Park Administrator Estelle Cooper, 82, with the missing funds. Cooper, who also led Unisphere and was paid $7,500 for her services, resigned in January to head a new political consulting firm in Queens with her grandson, Michael Balsamo.
But insiders said at the time that the real reason Cooper left was because of the embarrassment she caused the Parks Department over a day camp run at Flushing Meadows by her daughter, Ilene Balsamo. It was alleged that Balsamo did not pay some camp counselors and vendors last summer.
In addition, although the tuition ran from $900 to $2,675 for two- to eight-week sessions, the camp reportedly only gave the city $1 per camper. Cooper was advised not to support the camp in the park.
Now emerges even more disturbing allegations about the use of funds for Unisphere. Phil Ragusa, a CPA who was hired by Cooper to keep the books, told the Queens Chronicle on Tuesday that he noticed problems. “Some things were out of line,” Ragusa said. “Estelle gave excuses that she couldn’t find bank statements and this was over a two-year period, but once you look at the bank statements, you see the discrepancies.”
Ragusa immediately notified the Unisphere president, Bruce Bendell, and told him to cancel the Unisphere credit card. “2011 was worse than 2012,” Ragusa said. “And I think it’s going to end up way over $90,000 that’s missing.”
Unisphere raised $66,000 at its most recent annual gala and, according to the Post, is supposed to have a balance of nearly $281,000.
Mark Scheinberg, who recently quit the Unisphere board, told the Post that debits were being made multiple times and on the same day, many of them in Atlantic City. He did not return calls, but Ragusa confirmed that withdrawals were made from ATMs, some in Atlantic City and some at Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway.
“She did repay a little of it, but she wasn’t authorized to take out money, even if she paid it back,” Ragusa said. “It’s tragic in a way because people trusted her.”
The city Department of Investigation and the Queens District Attorney’s Office are investigating the case.
Cooper’s salary as park administrator was $101,500. She held the position for 17 years.
Ragusa, who also heads the Queens Republican Party, said it was particularly difficult for him because he’s known Cooper for more than 20 years. Cooper, who lives in Whitestone, is the GOP’s former secretary and ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1978 and for borough president in 1986.
Several insiders said there have been rumors about Cooper for years and not all were shocked at the latest allegations. She did not return calls to the Chronicle.
Greg Godfrey, president of the Flushing Meadows Corona Park World’s Fair Association, said he wasn’t surprised at all. “There was talk that she used Parks Department workers for her garden at home and a lot worse things,” Godfrey said.
Also not a fan of Cooper is Terence Park, a Flushing activist. He said his son attended the day camp at Flushing Meadows and was lost for more than two hours the first day. “It was a nightmare for me and my wife,” Park said. The boy was found on the wrong bus.
Park took his son out of camp, was given the runaround and never received his refund. Later, he said, the camp office shut down, rent was not paid and other people were still owed money. “What a despicable family,” Park added.
As to her consulting firm, no one interviewed for this article was aware of any clients.
Several sources asked to remain anonymous and questioned if Cooper has a gambling problem. She suffered a second stroke several months ago, and others wondered if she is being manipulated by her family.
As one insider said, “You really never know people even though you may be acquainted with them for years. I hate to say it, but I think she’s guilty.”