White House official’s architectural bills draw scrutiny

The following article appeared in USA Today (March 12, 2009)

NEW YORK (AP) — Prosecutors are looking into why the new White House urban affairs director hasn’t paid an architect for house designs made two years ago — the same time he recommended the architect for a lucrative city contract.

Adolfo Carrión, the former Bronx borough president, has said he would pay when he received the bill. But industry experts say the delay of payment is unusual.

“Normally after a project is completed, we get paid,” said Chris Thomas, project manager and architect at AENArchitects in New York City. “I don’t understand why he waited. That doesn’t make sense.”

It would be illegal for an elected official to accept renovation plans as a gift from an architect doing business with the city. And if Carrion pays less than fair-market value, his relationship with the architect, Hugo Subotovsky, would be a conflict of interest.

“The facts, as reported, raise questions we are attempting to get answers to,” Steven Reed, a spokesman for District Attorney Robert Johnson, said Thursday.

Carrion did not respond to a phone call or e-mail Thursday.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at a briefing Thursday that the White House expects Carrion to pay for the work.

The revelations about Carrion make him the latest in a string of White House appointees to have trouble emerge in their backgrounds. Among them, former Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew from consideration for health and human services secretary over tax issues and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew as commerce secretary amid a pay-to-play probe.

Nancy Killefer also withdrew over tax issues from her appointment as the first chief performance officer in a White House and as a deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget.

Problems with paying for home improvements have brought down other politicians. Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted last October of lying on Senate disclosure documents about hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations.

Carrion hired Subotovsky in 2006 to design the porch and deck on his Victorian home on City Island in the East River. Construction was completed in 2007.

Subotovsky was part of a team seeking approval of a development in the Bronx, called Boricua Village, which included a 14-story college building and 679 units of housing. Carrion recommended approval of the project in 2007 and it went to the city Planning Commission, which approved the necessary zoning changes.

Real estate developers were among his biggest campaign donors, and campaign finance records show that Subotovsky and the team behind Boricua Village gave Carrion tens of thousands of dollars.

After the Daily News raised questions about whether Carrion had ever paid Subotovsky for the plans, Carrion said in a statement that he plans to pay the architect $3,627.50 for 51 hours of work, calling it the firm’s “usual rates.”

“As is his practice for projects of this kind, the architect will present his bill and be paid after the final survey is filed and approved, when his work is complete,” Carrion said. “I anticipate that the survey will be completed, filed and approved shortly, at which time the bill will be presented and paid in full.”

A person who answered the phone at Subotovsky’s office said he was out of the country all week and not reachable for comment.

Burton Roslyn, president of New York State’s American Institute of Architects and founder of Roslyn Consultants, said it was hard to say why it why it took so long to bill Carrion. He said the arrangement sounded plausible, but unusual.

“Is it typical? No. Is it possible? Yes, depending on the architect’s practice and how he’s billed. It’s entirely possible and feasible that was the business arrangement between the architect and the owner of the property.”

Good-government advocates said they were troubled by Carrion’s failure to pay the architect promptly.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday, asking to investigate Carrion.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said she wondered whether a two-year delay in paying for design work was in fact standard practice. “It does seem he’d getting an awfully good deal,” she said.

Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union, questioned whether Carrion would have paid the architect at all had the matter not been the subject of published reports.

“It is irresponsible for an elected official not to conduct his personal affairs above board and avoid any perceived conflict,” Dadey said. “He should have paid the architect before now, given his role as borough president and the architect’s involvement with development projects.”

As Bronx borough president, the 47-year-old Carrion championed rapid development including 40,000 new units of housing and 50 new schools. Carrion also backed the building of a new $1.5 billion ballpark for the New York Yankees.

Carrion’s approval of Boricua Village was not necessary for it to go forward, but the Planning Commission typically goes along with the recommendations of the borough president.

While the project generated little opposition, Carrion’s friendly relationships with business interests angered some community activists.