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Serrano May Cut Ties To Cultural Group


August 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

Casa Cultural Puertorriqueña plans to buy this building on Rider Avenue.

PHOTO: Shannon Stapleton for The New York Times

A little-known South Bronx cultural group with ties to a Bronx congressman has received more than $1.1 million in federal grants despite having little to show for its efforts besides fund-raising pitches and a Web site, according to an examination of the group's financial records and interviews with government and cultural officials.

The group, Casa Cultural Puertorriqueña, was established in 2001 as a pet project of Rep. José E. Serrano, who said he wanted to create an institution to archive and showcase the history and contributions of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Representative Serrano, a Democrat, helped secure $250,000 from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and $904,000 from a branch of the Department of Commerce for the project, which was to be used to purchase a building and develop program plans.

But the organization has yet to find a home to locate its museum, and it operates out of a storefront at 747 Melrose Avenue in the Bronx.

Further, those most involved with the project have had close political ties to Mr. Serrano. Its board was led by Francisco Lugovina, a onetime Bronx Democratic party operative who is godfather to Representative Serrano's son, City Councilman José Marco Serrano. Mr. Lugovina's fiancée, Noemi Santana, is the group's executive director, and she received a salary of $82,515 in 2002, according to tax returns. Among other expenses were more than $36,000 in consulting fees to David Rosado, a former state senator who as district leader helped Councilman Serrano win his seat.

Representative Serrano says he chose Ms. Santana and Mr. Lugovina on their merits and that he was untroubled by their personal relationship. However, he now says their selection was a mistake and that the group had become "a renegade program" that was overstating its connections to him while refusing any oversight from his staff.

Mr. Serrano, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said his Congressional office could not get basic financial information from the group. But copies of the group's 2001 and 2002 tax returns were obtained by a reporter on Monday, hours after they were requested from the New York State attorney general, who keeps them on file.

Mr. Serrano said that while he never thought the group broke any laws, he was seeking to freeze whatever funds remain and transfer them to another entity that can turn his cultural center into a reality.

"This was a project that needed people to put it in place," he said. "It is clear to me I chose the wrong people. Upon finding out, I did what I needed to do."

During interviews on Monday afternoon, various people involved with the project spoke as if they still had Mr. Serrano's support, insisting they were part of a noble effort that was about to take off.

"This project is a legacy for the Puerto Rican community," Ms. Santana said. "When nobody else stepped up to the plate to consider the fact that Puerto Ricans are about to disappear in terms of their contributions to the city and country, Serrano stepped up to the plate."

She and others said the group tried but failed to purchase the old Bronx Courthouse on 161st Street and Third Avenue. She said they would soon enter into contract on the purchase of a four-story loft building on 139th Street and Rider Avenue in the Bronx, and the group's Web site says they will move into the building's first floor in the fall.

However, David Lee, the building's current first-floor tenant who runs a dancewear factory there, said that he had just signed a new one-year lease and was unaware of any plans to be moved out. Tom Cisco, the building's manager, said the group had shown interest in the building, but they were not about to move in.

According to the group's Web site and interviews with Ms. Santana and others, the project was to be an all-inclusive repository for Puerto Rican culture.

"This is a very scholarly type of project," Ms. Santana said. "We are modeling this after the Smithsonian. The mission of the Smithsonian is to collect the artifacts of a culture. That is what we are hoping to do."

But scholars, artists and curators active in the Puerto Rican community said the group's board, which also includes Mr. Lugovina's son-in-law and Ms. Santana's daughter, had little expertise in such matters.

Juan Flores, a professor at Hunter College, who has met with some of the project's proponents, including Ms. Santana, said: "When I talk to her it is not like I'm talking with someone who knows a lot about Puerto Rican culture."

Susana Torruella Leval, the former director of El Museo del Barrio, said she was only vaguely familiar with the group, but that its board's composition was troubling.

"It is a hard situation when Puerto Ricans speak ill of each other," she said. "But it is public money, and there is a sense of responsibility that should be there, but sometimes isn't."

An examination of the group's 2002 tax return shows that it spent $351,013 on a program called the Fred Daris Action Theater as well as "Casa Cultural" to bring "arts and culture to residents of the South Bronx." Mr. Daris was long active in running a theater program in South Bronx schools, and Representative Serrano considered him a mentor.

Ms. Santana described the Daris theater group as "still an idea in a file." When asked about how money given to the group was used, Ms. Santana said it was spent on feasibility studies and legal fees to explore using a space inside a building owned by a limited partnership. Among the owners, she said, was her fiancé, Mr. Lugovina.

Mr. Lugovina did not respond to several messages left at his business and at a phone he shares with Ms. Santana. Friends and acquaintances describe him as a Buddhist priest active in peacemaking movements.

Mr. Rosado, the former state senator, was paid $3,000 a month for "13 or 14 months" until last December. He said there was no conflict in his work for the group, even though as district leader he played a role in rallying support for the campaigns of both Serranos.

"I was a man looking for a job, and I found one," he said. "It was something very close to my heart. I liked the concept."

It has been difficult, he said, to get the group to meet its lofty goals.

"It has been uphill and uphill, and we haven't been able to find the downhill part yet," he said. "I hope the downhill part of this will come very soon. It hasn't been easy."

Ms. Santana insisted there was no problem with the board or the group's dealings.

"I am the C.E.O., the founder, the visionary of the project," she said. "This board is my board. I have no qualms. These are the most wonderful, trusting and hardworking people."

Yet even along the streets of Melrose, where the group has its storefront office, people active in the arts heard nothing about them until only a few months ago. Even then, the first approach was troubling, they said.

Carlos Torres, a musician who also uses the name Tato and works at several cultural centers in the neighborhood, said he was approached by members of the Casa Cultural for what he thought was a meeting to help him resolve problems with an endangered community center and garden. He said they dropped a lot of names, but no money. Instead, he said, he was asked to lend his group's name to the Casa's fund-raising efforts.

"I work with institutions that get no money, nothing from the politicians," Mr. Torres said. "Then to top it off, the people who get money from the politicians come here piggybacking off our work and sweat. It is just shameful, when we reach out to politicians and get nothing because they are giving it to their compadres."

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