Grand Theft Jobs

Millions are missing at a powerful union-backed worker-training group

This fall, a top official at the city's largest job-training organization quietly told co-workers that he had terminal cancer and only months to live.

The news hit Osei Boateng's colleagues at the Consortium for Worker Education especially hard. Boateng, a native of Ghana, was just 36 years old with a wife and young children. A former state assembly aide with an MBA, Boateng had worked at the nonprofit group for a decade and had risen to become chief financial officer. Thanks to its backing by many of New York's largest unions, the Consortium carries heavy political clout in Albany, City Hall, and even Congress. Once closely aligned with the Giuliani administration, the group played a major role in the city's welfare-to-work programs. Over the past six years, Boateng helped the organization win more than $300 million in government contracts to train blue-collar workers ranging from bakers to hospital employees. He had also overseen a much praised effort to aid workers and businesses devastated by 9-11, using $32 million specially allocated by Congress. He'd only recently finished a painful restructuring of the organization after that funding was exhausted.

Boateng said his ailment was incurable liver cancer, the result of untreated hepatitis C that he'd contracted as a youth. Conventional treatment wouldn't help, he said. Instead, he was moving to Canada, where he intended to try holistic remedies. Up until then, he'd confided his illness only to Dr. Frank Madera, a close friend who headed the group's health-care- training programs. It's true, Madera confirmed. He'd accompanied Boateng to every specialist. There was no hope. Amid tearful goodbyes, Boateng departed.

Hoodwinked: Consortium for Worker Education headquarters on Seventh Avenue
photo: Cary Conover
Hoodwinked: Consortium for Worker Education headquarters on Seventh Avenue

A few days later, CWE officials went looking for an overdue $100,000 payment they'd been awaiting. The money had been paid, officials were told, and the canceled check showed that it had been negotiated through a Brooklyn bank account the Consortium didn't know it had. Moreover, it was just one of several six-figure checks intended for the group that had cleared the account within recent weeks. Alarmed, officials began digging. They quickly identified hundreds of thousands more in missing payments. They called their lawyer who immediately called the D.A.

Today, the Consortium for Worker Education estimates that at least $2.7 million has been stolen. The office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, which is investigating the embezzlement, believes the figure could be higher, possibly as much as $6 million. Much of the missing money was apparently funneled through 10 bogus vendors that had signed contracts to provide services for Madera's health care programs and had been approved by Boateng, CWE officials found. In one instance, more than $350,000 went to a phony medical supply firm in Atlanta. Still more money was stolen via phantom employees whose time sheets Boateng had apparently approved.

Despite his claim to be headed for Canada, Boateng, whose family is prominent in Ghana, was arrested last month at his Brooklyn home. Charged with grand larceny, he did not request hospitalization or special medical treatment at his arraignment. He is currently being held at Rikers Island as a flight risk. His attorney, David Ruck, did not respond to calls.

Madera, who also comes from a politically influential family, in the Dominican Republic, has not been charged. But shortly after the D.A. entered the case, the Consortium suspended him without pay and locked him out of his office. "I know of no allegations against my client," said his attorney, Jeffrey Rubin.

CWE executives declined comment about the events but a lawyer for the organization said officials there were stunned. "Two seemingly high-class and well- respected guys appear to have dreamed up a scheme that victimized CWE," said attorney Andrew Fisher. "We reported it immediately to the district attorney, and we're optimistic that all of the persons involved have been identified to the authorities and the problem is behind us."

But the powerful organization is still scrambling to explain the problem to the local, state, and federal agencies that fund it. Although the organization is audited annually by an outside firm, no one noticed the missing funds despite evidence that the embezzlement was carried out over the past six years.

Since Boateng was the final authority on the group's finances, the auditors wouldn't have detected it, Fisher suggested. "The very person who would be relied upon to verify expenses was the one apparently perpetrating the fraud," he said.

If so, the training group wouldn't be the first organization to be so victimized. Last month, a once trusted Merrill Lynch trader admitted taking $43 million under the very noses of his bosses. But what makes the CWE episode stand out isn't so much the size of its loss, but its high-level political connections on both sides of the aisle. Those ties have helped make CWE the city's most formidable player in the business of training and retraining workers in a time of near-constant layoffs in blue-collar industries.

Ever since it was started by former Teamsters union leader Barry Feinstein in 1985, the Consortium has been a kind of 800-pound gorilla among job-training groups. Feinstein recruited the city's top labor leaders to serve on its board. Current members include Edward Malloy, the president of the city's muscular Building and Construction Trades Council, and Edgar Romney, the regional director of the merged garment and hotel workers' union, UNITE HERE. Much of its funding over the years has been in the form of direct allocations by top state legislative leaders. In turn, the organization has managed a network of education and training programs for the 1 million members of the city's Central Labor Council and, with public funding, operated seven local centers for unemployed New Yorkers to receive help.

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