The new CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty says he is placing less emphasis on building cozy relationships with politicians, and more on running efficient programs, as he works to right the ship at the scandal-plagued agency.
In his first interview since taking the helm last summer, David Frankel told The Jewish Week he knows from his experience in government that doing programs well is the best way to gain support from the city and state.
“I’m not naïve enough to think relationships aren’t important,” said Frankel, who was the New York City finance commissioner when he took the Met Council job. “However I just came from government, so I know that it is much more focused on quality and efficiency of the services that you deliver than whose name is on the [office] door.”
“If we see that 10 people can be fed for a thousand dollars a year, I want to know why we’re not feeding 12 people,” he said. “We want to provide all our services in an efficient yet compassionate way.”
Frankel’s predecessor, William Rapfogel, was fired last August after an internal probe turned up overpayments to an insurance company, which investigators and prosecutors said were used, in part, to bundle donations to city and state elected officials. Met Council relies heavily on social service grants from legislators to fund its programs for the city’s poor. (While founded to address Jewish poverty, all programs are nonsectarian.)
Rapfogel, who faces charges of money laundering, grand larceny and tax fraud as one of four people charged in the scheme, vastly expanded the scope and scale of Met Council’s programs during his 20-year tenure, increasing housing from 75 to 2,000 units as well as crisis intervention and food distribution capabilities, while building a $9 million endowment from scratch.
Positioning himself as a top political player who doled out public recognition to candidates and elected officials, private and commercial donors for their help to Met Council was a large component of his success.
A key ally to Met Council is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who employs Rapfogel’s wife, Judy, as chief of staff, and successive City Council speakers have also been on Willie Rapfogel’s speed dial.
Frankel spoke to The Jewish Week in his Lower Manhattan office, where, other than family photos, his most prominent personal effect is a yellow metal boot for obstructing cars, a memento from his time at the finance department, which collects the city’s parking fines. The sparse decoration was in stark contrast to the dozens of photos of Rapfogel with elected officials, from city councilmen to U.S. presidents, that hung there until August.
‘David is not as political as Willie,” said George Arzt, a New York-based political and public relations consultant who knows Met Council well. “Willie was much more of a networker than David is, but … people will want to meet him and help the organization. It’s important to have a person there who has the reputation of watching the buck.”
Frankel said he never met Rapfogel, before or after the scandal, but “heard his name.”
In contrast to Rapfogel (who declined to comment for this article) Frankel — who has worked in both the public and private sector — was anything but a Jewish organizational insider when he was hired weeks after the scandal in August.
In fact, Frankel said he had been unaware of the extent of Jewish poverty in the city, estimated at about one quarter of people living within 250 percent of the federal poverty line, or $22,000 a year for a family of four. That’s about 500,000 people.
“It was astonishing what I have discovered since I got here,” said Frankel, referring to the extent of programs and level of need. “It’s been a terrific privilege, frankly, to try and serve that community.”
As part of an agreement reached in December, Met Council is committed to paying about $1.2 million in restitution to the city and state for the misappropriated funds tied to Rapfogel and three others implicated in the scheme.
Cooperating with investigators and publicly apologizing for unspecified “mistakes,” Rapfogel has paid back around $800,000 to Met Council from a retirement fund, and more money may be coming from the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who have collected funds from Rapfogel and the other defendants.
Civil action by Met Council related to the fraud in the future is under consideration, Frankel said, though he would not specify details.
A first step toward regaining Met Council’s political luster will be its annual Legislative Breakfast, drawing officials from all levels of government. The first post-scandal breakfast is slated for June 1, as always preceding the Celebrate Israel Parade in Manhattan. Extensive participation would be a strong step forward after last year, when some candidates returned funds linked to Century Coverage, Met Council’s insurer and, according to investigators, facilitator of the overpayment scheme.
Taking the helm on Aug. 18, Frankel’s first priority was to regain the confidence of City Hall.
But he also had to reassure the agency’s 253 employees.
“People were fearful about the future of the organization, our ability to deliver services and their jobs,” Frankel recalled.
After funds were unfrozen by the state comptroller, state attorney general and the mayor’s Office of Contracts, “I could give people assurances that we would be around for a long time. But before that, I was honest with them about our challenges.”
While staff struggled to keep programs operational, Frankel’s focus was to “understand the financial picture, the cash flow. We were determined we were going to keep all our services despite the fact that much of our funding had stopped.” Thanks to emergency donations, most programs were maintained but in the first four months some staff in career services had to be dismissed.
The Fun Begins
For now, Frankel said he is beginning to pull back from his work negotiating with the city and state to focus more fully on day-to-day operations. “Now we begin the fun part,” he said. “How we can help people.”
That means resuming wide-scale fundraising, which was suspended after the scandal.
“Until we resolved our issues with the city and state we could not do our own fundraising, other than to talk to our board and a very few select donors,” as well as UJA-Federation, said Frankel.
The first post-scandal fundraiser will be the third annual $500-a-ticket Food for Life reception April 3 at the Pierre Hotel, raising money to expand food pantries and similar services as Passover approaches. The fundraising is important because even with taxpayer funds authorized it still takes weeks or even months for checks to clear the vast bureaucracy.
Asked if he anticipated Met Council being able to soon attain the same funding levels for emergency food relief, crisis intervention, senior housing and other programs as before the scandal, Frankel said, “I anticipate being able to do much more. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. … People recognize the good work we have done but also need to regain confidence in the organization. We are taking all those steps [required by the city and state] and frankly, more than anybody [else] would take to do that. The board has been tremendous in this and every other regard. … I don’t know how five or six of them ever did their day jobs in the first two or three months I was here.”
Arzt said that as a victim of fraud rather than perpetrator, Met Council could easily move past the scandal since it has severed ties with anyone connected to the misappropriation of funds. “They just have to run a good operation and make sure the practices of the past have been erased completely,” he said. “It’s important that [the Legislative Breakfast] be well attended, and it will be.”
Met Council’s political stamina will also be tested in the current city budget process. City Council members have traditionally channeled large sums to Met Council and its subsidiary agencies in Jewish neighborhoods through discretionary funds, a process known as member-item funding that is under fire because of recent unrelated corruption cases.
Keeping Tabs On Funding
Early indications are that City Council members are sympathetic, and members elected last year are aware of the agency’s work because many worked as staff to previous Council members, Frankel said, though he says he has no inside information about the future of member items. “I read what you read,” he said.
Ron Soloway, UJA-Federation's managing director of governmental and external affairs, said Met Council appeared to be on its way to rebuilding relationships with city and state agencies. "I believe they are well-positioned to maintain and expand their government funding to help poor and vulnerable individuals in the Jewish and broader community," said Soloway.
"I think they are looking closely at all their programs to ensure that, going forward, they focus on those programs that are most effective, meet the greatest need and are finanially viable."
In reforming the discretionary funding process the City Council could choose to apportion money based on the needs of the district, or through a participatory process in which district residents vote on the neediest causes.
But Frankel said basing funds only on census demographics could result in mistakes because numbers don’t always give a full picture.
The Columbia Law School and Tufts University graduate came to Met Council with extensive management experience, having served as managing director at Morgan Stanley, head of global operations for AIG Trading Group, deputy commissioner of New York’s Department of Housing and Preservation and as special counsel to the Commissioner for the Department of Correction But he said fundraising is something he has to learn on the job.
“I’ve never had a job where fundraising was a big part,” he said. “I’ve been on the other side of talking to government, so now I’m on the side [of looking for money] as opposed to people coming to us.”
But he cautioned against putting too much focus on the management struggles rather than on Met Council’s clientele.
“I was at our Brooklyn food warehouse [for a press event] and a reporter asked me how do I feel about all this,” he said. “It’s not about us, but allowing [clients] to have dignity and feel their lives are their own. A poverty organization’s greatest achievement would be not being needed anymore.”