Questions Raised About Putnam Tourism Office

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.

Libby Pataki (photo by Christopher Peters)
Libby Pataki (photo by Christopher Peters)

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.

Putnam County legislator Barbara Scuccimarra (photo by M. Turton) 
Putnam County legislator Barbara Scuccimarra  (file photo by M. Turton)

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
David McKay Wilson (Journal News photo)

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.

The 2012 Putnam Cycling Classic in Cold Spring (Photo by M. Turton)
The 2012 Putnam Cycling Classic in Cold Spring (file photo by M. Turton)

“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.

7 Responses to "Questions Raised About Putnam Tourism Office"

  1. Annie Chesnut   February 5, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Thanks for reporting on the important work of Mr. Wilson. This is why investigative reporting at the local level is so essential. Let’s hope he keeps his focus on Putnam for a while longer, since I can’t help wondering if this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  2. Russ Cusick   February 5, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    Thank you for reporting on this, Kevin. Full transparency at every level of governance is crucial. I applaud and greatly appreciate Mr. Wilson for his fine investigative reporting on behalf of the taxpayers of Philipstown and Putnam County.

  3. Patty Villanova   February 5, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Glad to see the local coverage of this disgraceful saga and of course kudos to Dave Wilson for breaking the story in LoHud. He is one of the few real investigative journalists out there and this was an amazing article.

    Although I have been dealing with what I thought was the Putnam County Tourism Agency for several years, I had no idea that the County had actually set up a not-for-profit corporation to handle what should have been an actual government office that is subject to all the rules and laws of every other agency including FOIL and the Open Meetings Law. Imagine, let’s say, that Philipstown decided to set up a NFP corporation instead of having its own Highway Department. I think you get the picture. The lion’s share of blame however, lies not with Ms. Pataki but with the Republican-controlled County Exec and Legislature who were too lazy or incompetent to keep an eye on what was happening with OUR tax dollars. (By the way, the reason I stressed the word “Republican” is because many people have claimed that I favor one party in my commentary. Nothing can be further from the truth.)

    Personally, as someone who is an advocate for good government on every level and for the taxpayer, I have to say that not only was I shocked, but I am deeply saddened to find out what’s been going on with the Tourism Agency. More than that, I am deeply concerned as to what will now happen to all the good work that’s been done to help promote our own tourism efforts in Cold Spring.

    To be fair and honest, I have to tell you that whatever other failings she had, Libby Pataki came through for Cold Spring in the last few years, more so than anyone else out there and it’s really a shame that she felt the need to resort to such questionable actions. I have also worked closely with Katie and Frank (the part-timers who were mentioned in the article) and found them both to be extremely helpful in working with us on projects that have helped bring tourists to the Village. These included brochures in GCT, radio and other ads, contributions to our holiday street lights, and many other initiatives.

    No matter what happens, we taxpayers and stakeholders must make sure that the Legislature does not use this as an excuse to take away the important benefits we receive from the County in return for the taxes we are paying. Tourism is Cold Spring’s most important industry and it would be a shame if the “baby was thrown out with the bath water.”

  4. David S. Cooke   February 5, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    I find this very disturbing and very shameful of Putnam County leaders.

    As a former board member of the Putnam Visitors Bureau under the very capable direction of Val Hickman, former Tour Director of the Tour de Putnam Bicycle event and former Cold Spring business owner, I’m alarmed.

    I always scratched my head to figure out how Ms. Pataki got and kept this job. The obvious answer: It’s not what you know but who you know. The County Tourism website (visitputnam.org and/or tourputnam.org) is, and has been since Ms. Pataki took over, horrendous. A high school student would have done a better job. I questioned Ms. Pataki about this in January 2013 and got NO response. Which is not surprising, I guess, what could the response be: I don’t know what I’m doing?

    The businesses in Putnam County should be outraged and surely they have suffered financially due to this dysfunctional agency.

    My concern going forward is what will happen now? Will Ms. Odell and/or the Legislators do anything? Will Attorney General Schneiderman investigate? I hope this isn’t swept under the carpet and I hope the County can find a capable tourism director to help our businesses flourish!

    In closing, I implore the taxpayers and business owners to demand an investigation and demand a change.

  5. Patty Villanova   February 6, 2016 at 10:50 am

    There is another piece today in LoHud by the great David Wilson on this subject that is worth reading. Apparently the Attorney General will be investigating the situation. Mr. Wilson has done a service to the taxpayers of Putnam. It’s too damn bad that our own legislators, particularly the woman who purports to be MY representative (that would be Ms. Scuccimarra) is apparently up to her eyeballs in this mess. How does she keep getting elected? Oh wait, I forgot, the article kind of explains it. It’s really a shame that merit is not a requirement to be a member of The Club.

  6. Cynthia Radovich   February 6, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    I don’t know what’s worse, at best, the apparent abuse of funds intended to develop tourism in our county or, at worst, the complete intentional lack of oversight by our legislators of where our tax money and donations go.

    These statements are outrageous!:

    “We weren’t aware” (Dini LoBue),
    “That’s news to me” (Kevin Wright) or
    “That’s irrelevant to me….we… focus on the greater good” (MaryEllen Odell)

    I worked with the former director of the Visitors Bureau, Valerie Hickman, for many years. With her encouragement we developed Putnam County Theater In The Barn. Under her direction, my husband, Dave Radovich, along with Dave Cooke ran the very successful Tour de Putnam in Kent, approaching 1,000 riders. Might I add, we volunteered these services.

    Since Ms. Pataki has assumed this position not once have we been approached to contribute advice or input. The Tour de Putnam is a dysfunctional disgrace. It takes experience to stage these events. I can’t even begin to express my outrage at her salaries, both of them. When the salaries are approaching more than half the funds going to events in the county something is very wrong here! $70K plus $50K for a part-time job, are you kidding me? I want my county taxes refunded to me so I can pay my employees a little more!

    You might ask also, how did Ms. Pataki get this job? At the time it appeared to us that Ms. Hickman was being forced out for no apparent reason. It didn’t take long for us to figure out why she was forced out. In my opinion everyone can safely assume the same thing we did.

    I have written an email to the Attorney General of New York State demanding an investigation and I suggest anyone in Putnam County who is tired of this kind of behavior also email him. It’s easy to do!

  7. Patty Villanova   February 28, 2016 at 8:08 am

    Here we are, weeks after these reports came out, and things are no better with the Tourism Agency. The “website” is still down, nobody answers the phones, Libby doesn’t respond to emails and basically it looks like this has become a phantom agency. I wonder if everyone is still getting a paycheck? I realize there’s supposedly some kind of investigation going on by the Attorney General, but does that mean they’re not allowed to do any work? The tourism season begins in March in Cold Spring. There are projects and initiatives that need to be started, yet everything seems stalled.

    At the same time, we have three people running for the Village Board of Trustees. Here’s a call to action for them: How about you do something about bringing home the bacon when it comes to getting tourism money for Cold Spring? There are millions of dollars available from the New York State and elsewhere, not to mention the County Tourism Agency under discussion. Instead of complaining there’s not enough money, how about actually doing something that will benefit the Village without costing the taxpayers a dime? They all talk about how wonderful they are, how well they know the problems, blah blah blah. Here’s your chance to show the voters what you can do. Actions speak louder than words.

    And if you can’t figure out how to accomplish this, please feel free to give me a call. I can provide you with all the information you need so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel doing the research.