Journal News reports Libby Pataki oversaw separate fund
By Kevin E. Foley
Putnam County Tourism Director Libby Pataki has come under scrutiny after the White Plains-based Journal News reported on Feb. 3 that besides her $70,000 county job, she also receives a salary from a non-profit county tourism organization she created and controls.
The article by reporter David McKay Wilson, who writes the Tax Watch column for the Gannett-owned daily, reported that Putnam County legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown, was listed as the organization’s secretary and treasurer and signed the required documents filed with the state Attorney General’s office.
Scuccimarra told Wilson she didn’t recall her involvement in the organization, Putnam Tourism Corp., which has 501(c)(3) status with the IRS that allows it to accept tax-deductible donations.
The Journal News report is posted at lohud.com. By late Thursday, Feb. 4, neither Pataki, Scuccimarra nor Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell had responded to requests from The Paper/Philipstown.info for their reactions to the article. Both Pataki and Scuccimarra live in Garrison.
The county tourism director job has paid Pataki $70,000 annually since her appointment in 2012 by Odell. Her salary is paid through the nonprofit Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau, which is funded by the county and state governments. Until recently, Pataki has been on an extended leave as her husband, former New York Gov. George Pataki, ran in the Republican presidential race. Gov. Pataki withdrew from the race in early January.
In 2014 the Visitors Bureau received $197,000 from Putnam County and $108,000 from New York state. Besides Pataki’s salary, its expenses included $94,000 for advertising and $55,000 for events.
According to documents filed with the IRS required of all tax-exempt organizations, Pataki also paid herself $50,000 a year as part-time executive director of the Putnam Tourism Corp. However, the Journal News reported the non-profit apparently does not have a functioning board of directors, so that a board could not have authorized the payments, as required by state and federal law. When Wilson contacted the people listed as being board members, he reported they were either unaware of their role, could not recall any board meetings and did not realize Pataki drew a salary.
Further, Pataki acknowledged to Wilson that she did not disclose the existence of Putnam Tourism Corp. to Odell or the county legislature. Wilson reported that Pataki had founded the non-profit within seven weeks of her appointment with the help of Scuccimarra and a former aide in state government.
In response to McKay’s inquiries, Odell said she had not known about Putnam Tourism Corp. or that it paid Pataki a salary but downplayed the importance of the revelations.
Scuccimarra, according to the article, also sits on the Visitor’s Bureau board, which meets rarely to oversee funding decisions.
In 2014, Putnam Tourism Corp. received $97,000 in donations, including $50,000 from the Lauder Foundation, $20,000 from Trian Partners and $20,000 from Christopher Buck, vice-chairman of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust and a board member of Philipstown.Info, Inc., the 501(c)(3) non-profit that runs The Paper and Philipstown.info.
Buck told The Paper/Philipstown.info he had contributed the money because he was asked personally by Pataki to support the annual Tour de Putnam bicycle event she was organizing. Besides Pataki’s salary, in 2014 Putnam Tourism Corp. spent $41,000 on events, contributed $41,000 to other groups and had an additional $3,000 in payroll.
The reporter’s interest
In an interview with The Paper/Philiptown.info, David McKay Wilson said his report stemmed from his Tax Watch column. “I am very interested in how tax-exempt organizations work,” he said. “I was looking at 990 reports [the annual IRS filings required of 501(c)(3) organizations] for Putnam. I typed in the Visitors Bureau and the other one [Putnam Tourism Corp.] also came up.”
Wilson said he then turned to documents filed with the New York State Attorney General’s Charities Bureau to understand how the second organization got started. That’s when he discovered that Barbara Scuccimarra had signed as a founding trustee, an act she told Wilson she did not recall.
“How many meetings has she [Pataki] convened of these organizations?” Wilson said. “We don’t know. People listed as members didn’t know they were on a board. It’s very troubling.”
Wilson he said he was familiar with the strict standards required by the IRS of 501(c)(3) organizations from his own experience serving as president of the nonprofit Westchester Bicycle Club. “They are the gold standard, the best kind of nonprofit to have,” he said. “People get to deduct their contributions from their taxes. These two nonprofits have no real operating boards. That doesn’t seem right.”
The bike race
The hallmark of Pataki’s three-year tenure as tourism head has been attempting to expand the annual Tour de Putnam bicycle event.
Wilson led the 1,200-member Westchester Bicycle Club for five years, from 2006 to 2011, and is still a member. He recalled that members enjoyed the bicycle event in the years before Pataki changed the tone of the event from a recreational ride into an international race.
“Five hundred to 600 people used to come out for that event,” Wilson said. But the 2013 race in Cold Spring “was not welcoming to recreational riders,” he said. “It was more expensive to register and the route was not particularly desirable even for experienced riders.” Wilson said he and other bicyclists had been disappointed by the overly steep hills, dirt roads and a lack of refreshments despite a $67 registration fee.
In January 2013 many Cold Spring merchants protested the staging of the race, arguing the extended closing of Main Street on a weekend day in 2012 had resulted in lost business rather than any anticipated windfall. Negotiations resulted in different procedures for the race and incentives for merchants to stage a flower-themed sidewalk festival. But many were still disappointed.
Pataki moved the event to Brewster in 2014 on the eastern side of Putnam, where even fewer riders took part. There was no race in 2015.