Bronx Cash Cow

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.

The group was hamstrung for many months, she said, by its failed bid to acquire the old Bronx Borough Courthouse on 161st Street, a beaux arts wonder that was auctioned off to a pair of real estate speculators during the Giuliani administration over community protests.

"We are trying to develop a museum in the roughest part of the city," said Santana. "It isn't easy and it takes time. As for our books, they can stand up to any audit."

Aside from its large federal grants, the group has managed to raise a single $5,000 contribution from a private foundation, and a gift of office furniture from the state power authority. "It is not that easy to fundraise for an idea, as you might imagine," she said.

Although she said she has not met with Serrano's office for the past six months, Santana said it had been kept apprised of all decisions. "We went well beyond what anyone expected of us," she stated.

But not much was expected of the group by the federal agency charged with overseeing the grant funds. In one of those peculiar, but not uncommon, congressional maneuvers, most of the money Serrano raised for Casa Cultural Puertorriqueña was funneled through the National Institute for Standards and Technology. An arm of the Department of Commerce, NIST handles such tasks as developing neutron microscopes and evaluating the material causes of the collapse of the World Trade Center.

The museum project "is not really part of the normal NIST operations," said agency spokesperson Michael Newman. "We essentially serve as a clearinghouse."

But that's Washington for you. Congressman Serrano said he wasn't sure how the allocation wound up in NIST's lap, but he acknowledged that the funds were approved after he rose to the level of ranking minority member on the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary.

"When we do [budget] earmarks, we put these things where they fit," Serrano said.

As for Casa Cultural, it has made sure that everyone knows who its patron is. A color photo of the congressman hangs prominently in the group's tiny two-room office on Melrose Avenue. A brochure describing the project also boasts Serrano's picture, crediting him for the effort. His is also the opening image in the group's most tangible product to date, a 10-minute video of interviews with prominent and venerable first-generation Puerto Ricans talking about the hard times during their early days in the city.

Serrano said that such tributes were not requested and are unnecessary, and that he had barely glanced at the video. "I think they sent it to me by e-mail," he said.

Despite the long wait, Santana insisted that the project is moving ahead. Although she declined to offer specifics, she said the group is in negotiations to purchase an old warehouse on Rider Avenue to house the archives the museum hopes to accumulate. The owners are asking $2.4 million for the property, she said, and the remaining money from the original funding will go for a down payment. "We will obtain a mortgage for the rest," she said.

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