Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Feed the Hungry This Holiday Season, and Pay For My GameStop Purchases

Today's JIM THOMPSON/ JAMES M. CAIN AWARD recognizing NYC-Style Chicanery of the First Magnitude goes to Bronx resident Stephen Riley and his consort Myra Walker (nominated here partly by virtue of simply being named Myra Walker, one of the best names a lady con artist can have), founders of the brilliantly lucrative and deliciously fishy United Homeless Organization, which was just trying to get by like everyone else, when along came Arnold Diaz

But who gets the BankofAmerica/WellsFargo/Ameriquest/GoldmanSachs award for rendering a large percentage of the US population homeless in the wake of the bonus-generating subprime loan scandal? Alas, we have no nominees for that award, because we're not smart enough to figure out who perpetrated that brilliant scam.Apparently no one else is smart enough either to find nominees for that illustrious award, including the US Attorney General's Office.

It's easier for the NY State AG to focus media attention on a couple of nickel-and-dime grifters than it is for the US AG or Congress to take on investment banks and sub-prime lenders who have paid their workers billions in bonuses to run the US economy into the toilet and render large chunks of the US population homeless. FOX5 should send Arnold Diaz to DC, not Union Square---maybe Attorney General Holder will follow Diaz's lead, as NY State AG Cuomo did after seeing Diaz's "Shame, Shame, Shame...Shame On You" segment busting the UHO!

But back to our award-winning grifters.
According to the NY State Attorney General's Office, Riley and Walker have been living large up in 'da Bronx since the early '90s, perpetrating a lucrative scam known to New Yorkers as the United Homeless Organization, a not-for-profit organization which, since 1993, has enjoyed thoroughly tax-exempt status and no financial oversight whatsoever.

If you've ever tried to buy a book at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, you're familiar with the UHO workers, who set up tables on the sidewalk of East 17th Street and harass passersby day and night, begging for " JUST ONE PENNY! JUST ONE PENNY TO HELP FEED THE HOMELESS!" UHO's aggressive panhandlers are recognizable to NYC pedestrians by their folding tables, water-cooler jugs, and color-coded hats and aprons bearing the familiar UHO logo.

According to the Attorney General, UHO founders Walker and Riley charge their "workers" rental fees of up to $15 per "shift" to stand behind the tables and beg for donations, holding clipboards bearing what the NY Daily News describes as "phoney-baloney" paperwork (extra points for getting the NYDN OpEd page to use the term "phoney-baloney"). Riley and Walker would let the workers pocket a portion of whatever they collected after workers paid their fees, but  the lawsuit filed by the AG's office also says Riley and Walker use the workers' donations as a "personal kitty" while disregarding nonprofit or charitable solicitation laws.

The majority of the cash, earned from up to 50 tables set up every day across Manhattan, goes toward paying for Riley and Walker's rent, restaurant tabs and traveling expenses, in addition to a fleet of "UHO vehicles" and purchases from GameStop, Home Shopping Network and an online Weight Watchers account.

The alleged scam netted enough money for Riley and Walker to report revenue ranging from $60, 000 to $98,000 in annual filings from 2003 to 2007, and to withdraw, from 2005 to 2009, more than $173,000 from the UHO's bank account.

However, the AG's office says Riley and Walker did zilch to officially help the homeless, unless you count the leftover pittance the pair allowed its workers to keep after paying their 'shift' fees. Despite the claims by UHO panhandlers that donations would go towards "churches", "homeless shelters" and "feeding the homeless" the AG's office found that UHO operated no soup kitchens, homeless shelters or food pantries, and it did nothing to fund other charities' efforts on behalf of the homeless. In addition to allegedly lying about its donations to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, the UHO failed to maintain any records of money collected and paid out, and was operated without a board of directors, which NY State law requires of all charities.

The lawsuit goes on and on, and basically seeks to have UHO dissolved, and seeks, as well, to have Riley and Walker barred from ever soliciting charitable contributions again. However, no criminal charges will be filed, which is OK with us, since Riley and Walker did help some people out a bit, even if they made some goodly bank doing so.

But is all the attention on this alleged crime against humanity any worse than those of predatory lenders luring would-be homeowners into signing up for  sub-prime loans which would end in foreclosure and eventual economic collapse of the entire US economy?