The (Very) Earthly Pursuits of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III

Meet the reverend of real estate

Some of the losses at ADC may well have been due to the financial meltdown. Its $7 million stock fund, for example, wasn't the only one to take a dive in those years. But ADC is primarily a real estate developer and Harlem real estate has been solid since 2009—and up substantially over the past year or two. Why the crisis?

There are signs that even during the city's lean years, ADC officials lived it up, spending more than $500,000 on out-of-town trips. While one former ADC executive says the trips were cost-effective and for legitimate reasons such as "team-building," "leadership retreats," or conferences, some insiders contend that many of them amounted to junkets or vacations for favored senior staff—to the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Martha's Vineyard. "The vacations would be very elaborate with maids and butlers and cars," says one former ADC employee. "They would go under the guise of business conferences, and then just swim and go diving or parasail." The Martha's Vineyard trip, an attendee says, was about partying: "There was no conference."

Present during those high-flying trips with the butlers and the parasailing was ADC's CEO and president, Sheena Wright. Wright left ADC in November after a decade to run United Way NYC. An attractive 43-year-old woman who wears her hair in signature braids, Wright was raised in the South Bronx by her mother while her father was in prison. At age 16, she went to college at Columbia University, and then attended law school and worked for a prominent law firm before going to work for ADC.

The West 138th Street lot that ADC bought from a local janitor, Buster Green, for $2,500. Two adjacent lots sold for $800,000 and $980,000. Green is suing ADC for fraud.
Village Voice Media
The West 138th Street lot that ADC bought from a local janitor, Buster Green, for $2,500. Two adjacent lots sold for $800,000 and $980,000. Green is suing ADC for fraud.
Abyssinian Baptist as it looked in 1907, on Waverly Place in Manhattan.
Library of Congress
Abyssinian Baptist as it looked in 1907, on Waverly Place in Manhattan.

During her tenure, a number of high-profile Harlem projects were developed, including 800 units of housing and the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, an offshoot of the Thurgood Marshall Academy High School, which was also founded by ADC. Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed Wright to his New York City Regional Economic Development Council.

In the announcement for her new post, Wright said of her ADC tenure, "In the 10 years that I was there, we were focused on continuing to build on the mission of making sure that the community evolved." In an e-mail she sent to ADC staffers, she thanked God for her decade of service and a city "where all can reach their full potential."

But current and former employees of ADC paint a less flattering picture of their former CEO, and they lay the blame for ADC's woes with Butts for ignoring internal concerns over Wright's stewardship. They say Wright hired unqualified cronies for senior jobs, including a high school classmate and her former hairdresser, whom she employed as a special assistant. They say she was behind the expensive junkets. And during her reign, a number of board members resigned, as did at least one chief financial officer, with a number of other top officials leaving on less-than-positive terms. One departing vice president is said by a former employee to have excoriated management on his way out the door. The former human resources manager was pushed out, the same ex-ADC worker says, for inquiring into a possible labor law violation.

"What killed me is that they would sit at staff meetings talking about integrity and transparency, but you never knew what exactly what was going on," an employee says.

Asked about the changes, Wright sent the Voice a written statement listing her accomplishments and claiming that companies invested with ADC because "they knew their dollars were being used wisely, efficiently, and effectively."

Wright's departure was presented as a promotion to a larger and higher-profile nonprofit. Robert Kueppers, chairman of the board of United Way NYC, said that the agency went through a rigorous process to select her and was impressed with her accomplishments at ADC.

But ADC insiders say it was Butts, a former vice chairman of the United Way NYC board, who found Wright the new role after ADC board members grew weary of the problems she created. And it was Butts who found her replacement in Ralph Dickerson, an Abyssinian Church parishioner who had previously run United Way NYC.

It was a curious form of what might be called executive laundering. Back in 2006, after Dickerson had retired from United Way NYC, an internal review disclosed that he had improperly used $227,000 of the charity's assets for personal expenses, such as hotel stays, dry-cleaning, and paying parking tickets. As a member of the United Way NYC board, Butts must have known about the review. So even as he moved Wright over to United Way NYC, quietly papering over any issues of alleged impropriety, he was bringing in a replacement with a very public—if largely forgotten—history of the very same behavior. A 2006 Times article noted pointedly that Dickerson was a protégé of William Aramony, who led United Way of America for many years until he was sent to prison in 1995 for fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy. (In 2004, another Aramony protégé, Oral Suer, pleaded guilty to theft of $500,000.) The Times story also noted that Dickerson had outfitted his United Way NYC office à la Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski, with a "large Persian rug, a floor-to-ceiling fountain of cavorting dolphins, and a Tiffany-style lamp." Dickerson insisted to the Voice that his time at United Way NYC is "not at all related to this situation" at ADC, and that those earlier issues had been "resolved."

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