By Anna Merlan
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By Albert Samaha
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With high expectations and not a little pride, Congressman José Serrano three years ago handed a symbolic check of $1.3 million in federal funds to a new group that would carry out an old dream: the creation of a museum celebrating the culture and heritage of New York City's Puerto Ricans.
The top Democrat on the committee that oversees the federal Commerce Department and other agencies, Serrano had used his clout to insert language into an appropriations bill ordering a little-known scientific-research bureau to allocate the bulk of the grant. The congressman got the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to ante up an additional $400,000 for the effort.
Last week, Serrano glumly admitted that most of that money is now spent, and its goal remains as remote as ever. The group he launched has operated so poorly, he said, that he intends to ask the agency that allocated the funds to recapture whatever remains unspent. Of the original $1.7 million allocation, just $500,000 remain, he said.
"It is very painful for me," said Serrano, 60, who has represented the Bronx in Congress since 1990. "One of my dreams forever has been to document the Puerto Rican experience in New York."
The group, Casa Cultural Puertorriqueña, made little progress in finding a home for the museum and beginning the task of collecting the memories and mementos of the rapidly disappearing first generation of Puerto Ricans who came to New York, according to Serrano.
"I would have hoped by now that there would certainly be oral interviews taking place with lots of seniors in our community; these folks won't be around for long," he said. "I'd hoped people would be coming with their old photographs, and we would be having Kodak or someone offering to reproduce them."
Serrano said the group had failed to detail its expenditures to his office. "I am sorry to say they became a renegade group, refusing to deal with my staff. It got to the point right after the last budget period, we began in our office either freezing or cutting their money," he said.
But the episode is embarrassing as well as painful for the congressman, because the new group quickly became a rewarding supply line for friends and political allies.
To head the museum, Serrano selected the fiancée of Bronx developer and businessman Francisco Lugovina, one of his oldest friends. The two men were young stars in the Bronx's political firmament in the 1970s and '80s, so close that Lugovina agreed to serve as godfather of Serrano's son, José Marcos Serrano, the city councilman now running for the state senate seat held by Republican Olga Mendez.
Their relationship cooled in 1985 when Lugovina declined to back Serrano's failed bid for the borough presidency. But when the younger Serrano sought election to the council in 2001, Lugovina stepped forward to guide his godson's campaign. It was around that time that the congressman asked Lugovina's companion, a public relations executive named Noemi Santana, to take on the job of starting the museum.
Lugovina became a key player as well in his old friend's project, serving as chairman of the board, a post that essentially made him his fiancée's boss. Other board members included business associates of Lugovina and Santana's daughter, who lives in Florida. Lugovina later stepped down as chairman, only to be replaced by another family member: his son-in-law.
The board, in turn, gave Santana, currently the only staff member, the title of chief executive officer at a salary of $92,000 a year and a four-day workweek so that she could continue her private public relations business.
When the organization sought performance space for a theatrical troupe, a side project for which it also received funding from Serrano, it didn't look far afield: It agreed to rent space in a federally subsidized apartment building of which Lugovina is a co-owner. In addition, it retained a consultant firm headed by Lugovina called New Line Inc.
A computer and website consultant was also found close to home: Santana's son was hired to do the work.
And when it wanted a marketing and government-relations adviser to press its cause with politicians, it chose David Rosado, a former assemblyman who served as campaign manager for José M. Serrano when he ran for City Council.
Rosado said he received about $40,000 over a 13-month period from the group. "I helped them do a few things," he said. "What I tried to do was get the Bronx and Puerto Rican legislators interested in the project. I got them a meeting at the 'Somos el Futuro' conference in Albany. [Santana] made a presentation to about 20 people. But it took about three months just to get that meeting."
There were many such outreach efforts by Santana and others, but the group's sudden windfall of federal funds was resented by those who had for years scrambled to find support for their own Latino cultural projects. "It was frustrating and disappointing," said Carlos Torres, who has worked with a South Bronx grassroots organization called Rincon Criollo Cultural Center.
Lugovina did not return calls, but Santana defended her performance. Her salary, she said, conformed to IRS guidelines for nonprofit groups, and was set at a level to match that of top executives at established cultural institutions, such as the Museo del Barrio in Manhattan.