Estelle Cooper (Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
A red light shines at the apex of a weathered pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a relic from the 1964 World’s Fair, warning aircraft to steer clear of the decrepit monument. The task of repairing the light when it burns out has fallen to a nonprofit group that has, over the years, raised about a million dollars toward improving the park, according to the New York Times.
Today, a month after the group’s 82-year-old president and founder was indicted on charges she stole money from the group, the red light still works — and appears to be one of the only physical improvements to the park the group ever financed.
Estelle Cooper, the group’s president and founder, had long been the park’s most visible booster both as the city administrator for the park for 17 years, a position she left in January, and as the founder of Unisphere Inc., the nonprofit group she ran with the stated goal of raising private money to help support the park.
Even as she earned praise from top city officials for her work sprucing up a property that for many is something of an afterthought, accusations of mismanagement of the park’s monuments and of the nonprofit group’s money dogged her career.
“She was effective for a while, and then something changed,” said Adrian Benepe, the New York City parks commissioner. “At a certain point it seemed like something went wrong.”
Though Unisphere threw yearly fund-raising parties attended by prominent Queens residents and political figures, its official tax filings show that it frequently spent only a small fraction of its donations on things like fixing water main leaks at playgrounds and park cleanup work. In 2004, for example, it raised more than $205,000 and spent just $8,711, the bulk on sponsoring one walk-a-thon.
“She was sitting on quite a bit of money,” said Phil Ragusa, a certified public accountant who has filed the nonprofit group’s tax returns since it was created. “I always told her,” he said. “You have a lot of money here, you should be spending it on your mission.”
Ms. Cooper, who faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the Unisphere thefts, could not be reached for comment.
Spanning 1,255 acres, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is home to Citi Field ballpark, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and the Queens Museum of Art. It was the site of two world’s fairs, in 1939 and 1964; and more than eight million visitors come each year to see the surviving remnants, like the Astro-View observation towers and the huge steel globe of the landmarked Unisphere.
There are few outward signs of mismanagement. Newly functioning fountains, defunct for many years, dance around the Unisphere, freshly planted flower gardens blossom, and pockets once haunted by vagrants now host family picnics. New facilities opened in the park under Ms. Cooper’s tenure, like a $66.3 million pool and ice skating center.
But she faced criticism for the state of other structures, including the New York State Pavilion, once glass-topped and colorful, now a skeletal hulk of concrete. Those concerns led an advocacy group, the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park World’s Fair Association, to call for Ms. Cooper’s resignation five years ago.
“We wanted them to spend good money on the monuments in the park,” said Greg Godfrey, the association’s president, who now lives in Chicago. “That was part of her job.”
When the red aviation light at the top of the pavilion went out in 2006, the nonprofit organization spent about $78,000 to fix it, but other improvements were hard to see. In recent years financial documents showed larger amounts of money being spent, but Mr. Ragusa said that the expenditures now appeared to be questionable and that the tax filings were being revised.
Mr. Ragusa, who is also the president of the Queens Republican Party and has known Ms. Cooper since she ran as a Republican in a failed bid for the State Senate in 1978, was the person to discover that more than $50,000 was missing from Unisphere’s coffers last fall. The discovery was eventually reported to the Queens district attorney.
At the time of the discovery, Ms. Cooper was already being pressured by the parks department to resign, according to a department official. She had had a stroke and appeared to have difficulty getting around. Even her biggest supporters, who admired her ability to enlist backers across party lines and for her good humor and wit, were concerned about her effectiveness.
Among the concerns were that Ms. Cooper’s daughter, Ilene Balsamo, had been permitted to run a summer camp in the park without paying the proper fees, according to an inquiry by the city’s Department of Investigation.
Ms. Cooper resigned her city post last January and, shortly after, left her position at Unisphere.
What, if anything, the missing Unisphere funds may have been spent on remains unclear. Ms. Cooper lives in Whitestone, Queens, in a modest colonial-style house. Court records show that she was sued by several credit card companies, beginning in 2009; some of those cases are unresolved.
Those who sat on Unisphere’s board of directors, which was stocked with prominent figures in Queens, have only now begun to question how Ms. Cooper spent the money they raised. “Exactly what they did for the park I’m not sure,” said a former member of the board who asked not to be identified because the investigation was continuing.
“We were used,” the former board member said. “You raise funds and you expect that good things are happening. She was such a well-respected person in the community, I don’t think anyone questioned that anything was wrong.”
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