Those curbside tables manned by people soliciting donations for the United Homeless Organization are nothing more than a scam that funnels money to the bosses at the top, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. You'll recall that UHO founder Steven Riley was deliciously skewered in a classic Fox 5 "Shame" segment last month; now Riley and UHO director Myra Walker are in Cuomo's crosshairs, accused of co-opting "a tax-exempt, charitable corporate structure for their own benefit"—benefits such as paying Riley's bills for cable and Weight Watchers!
The alleged scam is simple: individuals (many of them homeless or on the margins) pay Riley a flat-rate $15 to $25 to rent a table and empty water jug for a four-hour shift. "In exchange for paying a fee to Riley, UHO workers received tables and UHO-branded materials, including a tablecloth, apron and plastic jug, and the right to claim membership in UHO," the suit alleges. After paying the "rent," workers keep the rest—sometimes $80 or more—for themselves, despite telling donors that the money goes to soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters and detox centers.
According to the lawsuit, one worker even admitted to an undercover investigator: "We don't own any shelters or soup kitchens. The money provides us with everyday money." Riley and Walker may have pulled in $100,000 in fees a year, which they allegedly treated "as their personal kitty, dipping into them whenever they choose." They're accused of using the money for a wide variety of personal expenditures, including shopping at the GameStop, Home Shopping Network, Bed Bath & Beyond and P.C. Richard. The AG is now seeking a temporary injunction to shut down the UHO, then ultimately disband it and seek restitution.
In a statement [pdf], Cuomo says, "UHO exploits the good intentions of people who thought that their charitable donations were helping to fund services for the homeless. Instead, their donations go directly to UHO's principals and workers, who abused the organization's tax-exempt status to line their own pockets. The greater tragedy in this is that bad actors like UHO undermine the public's willingness to give to legitimate charities across the state. My office will continue to uncover these unscrupulous organizations and ensure that they don't threaten the generosity of hard-working New Yorkers."