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Hispanic Legal Fund Struggles To Survive


August 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Cesar A. Perales, who was New York City deputy mayor under David N. Dinkins, state social services commissioner under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and assistant secretary for health, education and welfare under President Jimmy Carter, sits in a modest office in TriBeCa these days in a chair that squeaks under his weight.

"I can't afford to have it fixed," Mr. Perales said, only half joking.

Money is Mr. Perales's official chief preoccupation as the newly appointed interim president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a 30-year-old Hispanic institution with a solid civil rights legacy and a severe financial crisis.

So severe is the problem that the fund's staff of 21 lawyers, paralegals, policy analysts and secretaries is working as little as half time. So dire are the budgetary needs that the organization is two months behind in rent and is trying to hold off creditors while deciding whom to pay first – the landlord, the bank or the fund-raising consultant.

So Mr. Perales, 62, who was one of the fund's founders and its first president, has come back to lead the rescue efforts.

Nowadays, every nickel counts. When a staff member asked Mr. Perales whether he would attend the Hispanic Heritage Awards in Washington in September, he scoffed, "They think we have money for people to fly down and wear a tuxedo."

Then he said, like a mantra: "We. Have. No. Money."

This is hardly the first time that the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a public-interest law group modeled in 1972 after the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., has struggled for its survival. In 1984, a dispute between management and staff over control of the fund jeopardized private funding.

But the timing of the latest crisis could not have been worse. Nonprofit organizations are finding that private donations have become scarce. And Mr. Perales and others say the fund, despite its reputation as a defender of Latino rights, needs to be more aggressive in raising funds and in selling itself as a relevant institution at a time when civil rights is not the premier issue it once was.

Luis Alvarez, 68, a former board member who has come out of retirement to help coordinate a fund-raising group, "Friends of P.R.L.D.E.F.," said the fund needed to market itself better, because, despite its name, it encompasses labor, redistricting and other issues that affect Dominicans, Mexicans and other Latinos. It also needs a legal strategy, he said.

"We have to have a real boutique of lawyers with an agenda," Mr. Alvarez said. "We need to refocus our mission."

In fact, Mr. Perales said that when he returned to the fund, he found only 15 pending cases in its docket, down from what used to be dozens.

Formed "to advance the civil rights of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics through litigation and other legal means," the fund filed class-action lawsuits that brought bilingual education to New York City public schools and bilingual ballots to school board elections in the 1970's. Its court challenges to redistricting plans have helped increase the number of Hispanic elected officials, and its law exam workshops and counseling services for as many as 300 black and Latino students a year have helped create generations of minority lawyers. The fund broadened its work in 1998 by merging with the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, which analyzes government policy and data on issues like underreporting of Hispanic groups in the census.

Once, the discrimination the fund fought was obvious, like the height requirements that kept minorities out of the New York City Police Department. But now, said Mr. Perales, who most recently was a senior fellow at Baruch College School of Public Affairs, the fund needs to be more creative in an era when things may not be as clear cut.

"We've got to learn to find and attack the subtle problems," he said.

But Mr. Perales said that "the vision is the same."

But the organization is short $500,000 of its $1.8 million budget this year, meaning that fund-raising comes first. Mr. Perales, who took over in June at a nominal salary, said the financial situation stemmed largely from bad planning in the face of cutbacks in foundation and corporate financing.

He said the problems were temporarily masked by an influx of more than $1 million the fund received after Sept. 11, 2001, to provide services to those affected by the terrorist attack. That money led to new hiring to help victims with jobs, housing and other needs.

The fund's employees blame poor management by the previous president, Juan A. Figueroa, and flawed oversight by the board of directors for the precarious finances. They specifically fault Mr. Figueroa, who was the fund's president for nearly 10 years, for leaving in January in the midst of a $3 million fund-raising campaign without allowing for a smooth transition of leadership.

The employees said that Mr. Figueroa had warned them of looming financial problems if more private money was not forthcoming, but that managers and board members had denied until May that there was a serious problem.

But Carlos Ortiz, chairman of the 19-member board, said the financial troubles began when grants that were expected early in the year were late in coming. By May, he said, "we could not hold out any longer."

The staff's union agreed to $287,000 in salary reductions over four months but still faces layoffs. "The staff feels betrayed," said José A. Garcia, a policy analyst and co-chairman of the union, the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, Local 2320 of the United Automobile Workers.

Mr. Figueroa, now president of the Anthem Foundation of Connecticut, which gives money for health care initiatives, conceded that "some things could have been done differently."

But Mr. Figueroa, who said he was still involved with helping to raise money for the fund, said the basic financial issue hobbling the organization over the years was too much reliance on foundation grants and what he called a lack of "financial depth," including the tapping of resources within its Latino constituency. Because of its litigation against the government, the fund receives no public financing.

But Mr. Perales's call for financial support is being heeded. Members of the Hispanic legal community in the city are holding fund-raisers and developing plans to enlist new board members and pro bono lawyers.

One of these lawyers, William Malpica, an associate with Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, said he owed the fund his "ticket to middle class." A Puerto Rican New Yorker, Mr. Malpica said that he interned at the fund as a college student and that its preparation course had helped him get into Fordham Law School.

"I wanted to be a lawyer, but I was scared of failure," he said. "They inspired me."

But other supporters note that the fund must prove itself worthy of financial support.

"The challenge is to put together a plan that shows they can secure the agency financially, and that if money is given to them it's not washed away," said Ninfa Segarra, a former New York City deputy mayor and president of the Board of Education who is now executive director of the New York City Police Museum.

But Ms. Segarra, like many others, said the fund must thrive.

"P.R.L.D.E.F. has not outlived its usefulness," she said. "We need it to stay alive and stay strong."

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