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Last September, an organization with a long name and a low profile suddenly made news. The National Museum of Catholic Art and History, a seemingly benign nonprofit that wanted to use an East Harlem park to host a fundraiser, was shaken down by Parks Commissioner Henry Stern for $20,000. Tabloid headlines charged Stern with requiring mandatory "contributions" like this one to a city foundation that he controlled.
The art museum balked, an outraged City Council Speaker Peter Vallone squawked, and strangely, an "anonymous donor" came up with the fee. The hubbub led to combustible City Council hearings that revealed that the Parks Department required sizable "donations" from 73 groups and corporations in 2000, diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into the commissioner's preferred park uses.
The controversy was the media debut for this previously obscure organization that has spent a decade raising $6 millionwith another $5 million in the offingfor a museum that still doesn't exist. A board of Catholic prominenti led by Al Smith IV, the great-grandson of New York's first Catholic governor who hosts the annual archdiocesan dinner that even attracts presidents, and Ed Malloy, the president of the state's 200,000-member construction work- ers union, has helped make the museum a high-priced cause célèbre. Vallone, for one, rarely misses its events, which have also attracted the likes of Hillary and Bill Clinton.
The buzz about Stern's $20,000 demand helped generate a turnout of 700 guests and a gross of $1.2 million at the museum's fundraiser. And the anonymous donor shed his cover in a day. William Fugazy, the 77-year-old ex-limo company magnate whose lobbying firm once employed Vallone's brother-in-law, stepped forward. Mayor Giuliani had asked his old and tainted friend Fugazy to make the payment and settle the dispute. One of the museum's most active trustees for at least seven years, Fugazy has long attached himself to Catholic causes, though this one is quietly shunned by the archdiocese.
Attorneys for Cardinal O'Connor tried unsuccessfully to persuade state officials to take the word Catholic out of the title of the organizationwhich is not affiliated with the churchwhen it was granted a charter in 1995. And sources say that the archdiocese remains, under Cardinal Edward Egan, upset about the misperception that the church is connected with what has turned out to be a rather exotic entrepreneurial adventure.
Exposed in last week's Voicefor gross financial irregularities and the sexual manipulation of several of its powerful patrons by executive director Christina Cox and ex-associate director Stephanie Parker ("Beauty and the Big Shots,"June 12), the museum has also been a magnet for the shadowy side of the church elite. It even operated out of Fugazy's Madison Avenue office for most of 1996, moving shortly before he pled guilty in 1997 to a federal felony (a day that's rarely mentioned by the gossip columnists on whose pages he frequently stars).
What the stories about his $20,000 "donation" also failed to note was that Fugazy, who had 122 judgments against him totaling $65 million and went bankrupt years ago, didn't pay it himself. He got a nonprofit that he chairsthe National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO)to pay the fee.
Christina Walker, a top museum official who was talking to Stern's aides at the time, said Fugazy insisted on making the payment "even though it was unnecessary" because she was negotiating it downward. Then a couple of months later, when the press went away, the museum quietly reimbursed NECO for $15,000. Fugazy, who told the Voicethat he "always knew" he "was going to get the money back," let the remaining $5000 debt cover the cost of his group's table at the museum's fundraiser.
Grandstanding is hardly the only form of flimflam in Fugazy's history. Charged by the feds with "transferring assets" prior to filing bankruptcy, then lying under oath about the transfers, Fugazy pled to a perjury count, though he still claims he "committed no crime." Fugazy's recent pardon on the perjury conviction, according to the Daily News, was facilitated by a board member and major contributor to the Clinton presidential library. Prior to the bankruptcy, a federal judge in a civil lawsuit found that he'd done much the same thingcommitting "serious misconduct" by concealing an asset "in direct, willful contradiction" of the law. A federal jury in a civil racketeering case found him guilty of four separate acts of fraudwire, mail, bankruptcy, and securities.
The U.S. Attorney in New Jersey accused him of making $72,613 dollars in payments that were "plainly kickbacks," but did not indict him (he says he appeared with immunity in the grand jury on the case, which did result in the conviction of a Fugazy business associate). Perhaps most importantly, Al D'Arco, one of the government's top mob witnesses ever, testified in 1996 that he'd met Fugazy in the late '60s and that Fugazy was "an associate of the Genovese crime family." Fugazy denounces D'Arco, though an FBI supervisor said that "in thousands of hours of conversations with him, we have never caught him in a contradiction."
As peculiar a résumé as this might seem for a trustee of a Catholic museum, Fugazy actually fits right in. The museum is headquartered at the former Palma Boys Social Club on East 115th Street, where Fat Tony Salerno presided over the Genovese crime family, and federal bugs were planted that decimated the nation's most powerful criminal enterprise. "If it wasn't for me, there wouldn't be no mob left," Salerno was once heard to say from his lifelong clubhouse perch.
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