Grace Under Pressure

Grace Perez built an influential domestic-violence program. Then she was fired.

In a brief phone conversation with the Voice, Selenikas, the current chairperson, insists that she and her fellow directors want to buy a building for VIP—just not No. 145. Despite its bargain-basement price, the property would have amounted to a gamble, she maintains. "This property at this time is not the right decision." Why? "It's a complicated set of factors," she replies. "It has to do with the cost of the building and a variety of interconnected financial components." She adds, "The board didn't think it was in the best fiduciary interest of VIP."

Or, as another board member who spoke on condition of anonymity puts it: "We reviewed the numbers and we decided we weren't ready."

On January 29, Perez explained her actions in an e-mail to the board. "Since I had no indication that there were any questions about the contract or for that matter second thoughts," she wrote, "I honestly believed I could sign the contract." She had signed every other VIP contract, from insurance policies to funder pacts. She had even executed real estate binders for its eight shelters and 15 transitional apartments, according to Perez. Former board members and senior managers confirm that she was the only authorized person who had signed previous contracts for VIP.

Grace Perez, anti-domestic-violence champion, and the building that proved her undoing
photo: Chad Griffith
Grace Perez, anti-domestic-violence champion, and the building that proved her undoing

"I should have been fired a hundred times over, then," she says, with sarcasm.

And then there are the numbers. Pious Thomas, the VIP fiscal officer, confirms that board members did not broach financial concerns with him. If they had, he would have stressed that, as he says, "this deal was not going to put VIP in a hole." By his calculations, the agency had to come up with $377,000 for renovation costs ($193,000) and rent and mortgage payments and other fees ($184,000) during 20 months' worth of construction. "That's doable," he says, since the agency could plug the gap with grants. To this day, he adds, "I have no idea what figures they looked at."

Neither does anyone else, which has, in part, fueled the neighborhood uproar. When City Councilwoman Viverito heard that the board had passed on the building—and, therefore, chucked her $500,000 allocation—she wanted some answers. Not only was that allocation based on the board's own promise to seal the deal, but also on the City Council's rigorous vetting process, including financial audits and other proof of project feasibility.

Viverito wrote a heated February 13 letter to the board: "I am shocked and disappointed by the Board's cavalier decision." She asked for a formal explanation, listing nine questions. When she got no reply, she showed up at a board meeting to inquire in person. "It was a pretty unbelievable situation," she recalls. "None of them would speak at all."

Eventually, she met with Diaz and three other members at her office, but the exchange only raised more questions. "I didn't feel comfortable with their information," she admits. She'd asked who the board had consulted about the deal. Was it an accountant? A private auditor? They wouldn't say. Still angry, Viverito says, "I think it was lies. They're pulling this stuff out of the air."

Today, Perez and friends have become convinced that the building deal was a convenient excuse for the board to give her the boot. For months, she'd been bumping up against the directors, asking for guidance and getting nowhere. In the fall of 2006, she started seeking the help of a professional mediator to broker a truce. "There was a pattern of me making requests to them and them not responding," she says.

It didn't take long for word of the trouble to leak out into the neighborhood. Yolanda Sanchez, a veteran activist who has spearheaded the Community Supporters of VIP, heard about the friction in December. When the deal unraveled weeks later, she and her fellow activists called the board's leadership, urging mediation. When that didn't work, they targeted Rivera. "We thought, 'Cut off the head. Save Grace,' " Sanchez says. By this time, Rivera, the board chairperson had accepted a post under Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, heading his office's civil rights bureau. Activists worked their political ties, prodding state officials in the Latino community, trying to bend an ear.

On March 26, just days after their phone calls to Cuomo's office, Rivera abruptly resigned. She did not return repeated calls from the Voice seeking comment. But 24 hours after she stepped down, the board fired Perez.

In the intervening six weeks, the six directors have come under fire from angry activists—fielding petitions and phone calls, dodging complaints and labels like "runaway board" and "ghost board." But no one has inspired more suspicion than Kenneth Diaz, the sole male board member at the women's shelter, who has served on the body over the last eight years. Ironically, he came to the agency at the invitation of Perez, who had wanted to include men in its anti-violence mission. Today, her supporters fear that he's managed to plot her ousting and take away her organization.

"I'd say Kenneth is behind this," charges Rosado, the former chairperson, who served alongside Diaz for two years beginning in 2003. At the time, Diaz seemed the quiet yet conniving one, the wizard behind the curtain, the "chair on the side." Rosado has not joined the Community Supporters of VIP, but she echoes its members. "It's like Hillary and Bill," she says. "She was the gal behind the guy and, in reality, she called all the shots. Kenneth is the guy behind the gal."

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