In a bombshell announcement Monday morning, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty announced that it had terminated its chief executive officer, William Rapfogel, one of the longest-serving Jewish agency heads in the area, citing financial misconduct.
Rapfogel evidently does not plan to dispute the charges against him, saying later in the day in a statement issued by his lawyer that “I deeply regret the mistakes I have made that led to my departure from the organization” after 21 years of service.
A spokesman for State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Monday morning that the matter is the subject of an “ongoing criminal investigation” together with the office of the state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli. A public intergrity task force formed in 2011 is handling the investigation, the New York Times reported.
“The Board of Directors of Met Council recently became aware of specific information regarding financial irregularities and apparent misconduct in connection with the organization’s insurance policies,” the agency announced in a statement.
“The Board retained outside counsel to conduct a full investigation. Based on that investigation, which is ongoing, the Board has terminated Mr. Rapfogel, effective immediately, and notified the proper authority. To date, the investigation has not revealed evidence that any current employees of Met Council engaged in any wrongdoing.”
The New York Times, citing “people familiar with the investigation,” said the inqury is focused on Rapfogels’s ties to Century Coverage Corporation of Valley Stream, N.Y., and the campaign contributions made by the firm’s employees.
According to its web site, Century Coverage provides “insurance and risk management products and services to businesses, organizations and individuals,” and was established in 1951. Its CEO, Joseph Ross, was a co-chair of Met Council’s annual Builder’s Lunch event in August, 2011, according to Met Council’s web site.
Century employees have a long histry of political contributions, totalling nearly $120,000, according to an analysis by the New York Times. But three candidates for mayor — Christine Quinn, Bill de Blasio and Anthony Weiner — said Monday they would return the donations, while the campagn of a fourth, William Thompson, who received the largest amount, over $15,000, was scrutinizing the funds.
“We are examining records from past campaigns and waiting to see if they overlap with the potentially illegal activity in question,” said Thompson spokeswoman Dani Lever in an emailed statement to The Jewish Week. “Bill Thompson is disappointed by Mr. Rapfogel’s alleged disregard for the law and the damage he has caused this charitable organization, which does important work for people and families in poverty.”
In his role at Met Council, Rapfogel presided over its growth from a small beneficiary of UJA-Federation to a network of programs that serve 100,000 needy New Yorkers each year, utilizing strong connections with local elected officials — incuding Assembly Speaker Sheldon SIlver, whose chief of staff is Rapfogel’s wife, Judy — to win state and city grants. The organinzation’s mission has been not only to serve the needy but to break the stereotype that most Jews are wealthy.
The organization’s annual legislative breakfast, usually held immediately prior to the Celebrate Israel Parade, draws scores of elected officials and honors their work on behalf of the Jewish poor, and the annual Builder’s Lunch honors developers who consruct low-income housing.
As of Monday afternoon, Rapfogel did not respond to a message left on his cell phone voicemail that morning.
The shakeup at the anti-poverty group, which provides employment services, crisis intervention, emergency food and other programs, comes at a time when the number of people in poor households in the Jewish community is seen as doubling in the past two decades. According to data from UJA-Federation’s Special Report on Poverty, that number rose from 180,000 to 360,000, with about 90 percent of those households located in New York City. Poverty in the suburbs grew 82 percent since 2002, the report said.
The agency stressed in its statement that its programs would continue without interruption and that its board of directors “will work diligently to appoint a replacement as quickly as possible.”
Prior to his role at the Met Council, Rapfogel worked as an assistant New York City comptroller and as an aide to Mayor Edward Koch.
In his apology to Met Council staff and board members, Rapfogel, though attorney Paul Shechtman, said “I particularly hope that my family and friends and all who care about Met Council can find it in their heart to forgive me for my actions. I will do everything possible to make amends. My failings should not reflect poorly on an organization that continues to serve so many people with dignity and kindness every day.”
In a statement Monday afternoon Silver said “I am stunned and deeply saddened by this news. While there is still much that we don’t know, we do know that the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty has given tens of thousands of New Yorkers of all faiths and backgrounds lifesaving help over the past four decades. Met Council also played a critical role helping our communities recover from Superstorm Sandy, and its work should in no way be diminished by these developments.”
Jeff Wiesenfield, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council and former state official who is a longtime friend of Rapfogel, speaking on his own behalf, said he found the news, which he heard over the weekend, “very upsetting.”
“No one should lose sight of the fact that he built Met Council from nothing to an unprecedented Jewish-oriented anti-poverty network, with a very supportive donor base, which accrued to the benefit of of Met Council clients and UJA-Federation as a whole,” Wiesenfeld told The Jewish Week Monday. “I don’t know what transpired but he is a dear frend.”
Marketing executive Menachem Lubinsky of Lubicom, who was president of Met Council when Rapfogel was hired in the early 90s, said he could not discuss the nature of the investigation or the alleged wrongdoing, but said “the evidence was sufficient enough to have been fired and not even suspended.”
Lubinsky said he had always viewed Rapfogel as “the epitome of an upstanding capable professional and very ethical. I felt very comfortable with him and thought he did an incredible job building Met Council from the ground up into the structure it is today …
“So, on a personal level it’s an extremely sad development that I could not have envisioned in my wildest dreams.”
In an emailed statement, UJA-Federation spokeswoman Leslie Lichter said the umbrella agency had spoken to the leadership of Met Council and was satisfied appropriate measures have been taken. “In light of Met Council’s referring the allegations to the authorities and the ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for UJA-Federation to provide any further comment,” she said.
As word spread about the emerging scandal on Monday, Jewish community councils that partner with Met Council to provide local services reflected shock, but determination that it not affect programs.
“I have no idea what happened,” said Brad Silver, executive director of the Bronx Jewish Community Council, who said he had “about 15 minutes notice” before the matter became public.
“Everybody works very hard, everybody is motivated by their ability to help people who are in trouble,” Silver said. “We intend to continue working with their [Met Council’s] staff to ensure that people get services.”
Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Coumcil said “We were all stunned by this. It’s not going to affect the work that we do — we serve the poor that is not going to change, especially [with the holidays approaching].”
She said Rapfogel was “a champion of the Jewish poor.”
JTA contributed to this report.