Walt Whitman Birthplace may owe county $21K

Walt Whitman Birthplace may owe county $21K

Suffolk Comptroller's audit of Walt Whitman Birthplace Association cites trouble with financial practices

Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center. Photo from Facebook.

Suffolk County is seeking more than $21,000 in repayments from the nonprofit Walt Whitman Birthplace Association after an audit allegedly found multiple issues with its financial practices.

Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy (R) performed an audit of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, a nonprofit organization that operates the state historic site and interpretive center in Huntington Station, after receiving an anonymous hotline complaint and tips from people he described as “those familiar with its operation.” The Jan. 19 report alleged the birthplace association overbilled the county by $24,365 in 2015.

“I have the utmost respect [for nonprofits]; they put in a tremendous amount of hours for benefit of the local community and educational community,” Kennedy said. “There is also a select segment who seem intent on gaming the system.”

We have a curator who was submitting his hours on the back of looseleaf paper.”

— Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy

The comptroller said he found it “absolutely horrendous” the organization’s executive director doesn’t keep time sheets or oversight of employee hours, which were byproducts of the audit. Kennedy said despite selling tour tickets and running a gift shop, the organization had no point of sale system or manual bookkeeping. He said his staff also found an active credit card still in the name of a former trustee.

“We have a curator who was submitting his hours on the back of looseleaf paper,” he said. “It’s crazy, absolutely crazy.”

The association receives roughly half of its funding through Suffolk’s hotel motel tax, which sets aside 8 percent of the tax revenue for “the support of museums and historical societies, historic residences and historic birthplaces.” The organization receives 1.5 percent of that 8 percent set aside, under county law, for a total of $138,789 in 2015.

“We had hoped this would be a collegial and cooperative enterprise when they said they would audit us,” said William Walter, president of the organization’s board of trustees. “We thought we would find some improved procedures and not this type of report where they want to take money back from us that we need to run our programs.”

Kennedy said the nonprofit has 30 days to come up with a plan to repay the funds.

In response to the county, the organization has admitted to overcharging more than $2,000 in expenses but disputed most of the audit findings.

We had hoped this would be a collegial and cooperative enterprise when they said they would audit us.”
— William Walter

Walter said Executive Director Cynthia Shor is a salaried employee, not subject to time sheets under state law. The $2,587 disallowed by the audit for paid lunches to its part-time staff has been a standing company policy, according to the board president.

“We have no health insurance for employees, no pension, no benefits, no vacation,” he said. “The one thing we thought we could give them was a paid lunch hour, which is a half hour.”

The nonprofit board president also pointed to several policy changes enacted since 2015. An audit committee was formed in September 2017 to provide oversight of the organization’s finances and a point of sale system has been installed in recent months. That credit card in a former trustee’s name Walter said is slowly being paid off so the organization can close it out and replace it with a debit card.

The comptroller said he will be forwarding the county’s audit both to Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) and New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (D), as both provide funding to the organization. Huntington spokesman A.J. Carter confirmed the town gave $21,000 to the birthplace in 2017, an amount that has remained consistent since 2015.

Walter said the organization has hired an attorney, Melville-based Tenenbaum Law, to defend itself against the county’s allegations.

“We’d rather not have to take it to court or get into an adversarial position with them,” he said.

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