The new acting director of Praxis Housing Initiatives, chosen last week as investigations into the group’s spending practices continue, may have a record as questionable as the directors he’s replacing, according to former Praxis officials and colleagues, who say the appointment does nothing to quell concerns about the future of the organization.
Two weeks ago, the Praxis board of directors named Avi Fichman, the group’s chief financial officer since last summer, to run the organization’s day-to-day operations after former directors Gordon Duggins and G. Sterling Zinsmeyer unexpectedly resigned.
Fichman’s history with the organization goes back almost as far as Praxis itself. From 1997 to early 1999, he served as Zinsmeyer’s assistant at the AIDS housing and social services group, according to Duggins’ attorney Jeffrey Hoffman; at the same time he worked as a paid consultant who organized political events and calendars for Zinsmeyer, who was then president of the Stonewall Democrats, a gay and lesbian political club.
In his job at Praxis, several former employees say, Fichman was responsible for preparing money transfers between Praxis’s bank accounts. A few months ago, following a report in City Limits, some of those transfers raised red flags with the U.S. Attorney’s office, federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, State Attorney General and city Department of Investigation. These agencies are currently investigating whether Praxis shifted hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds from the nonprofit’s bank accounts into for-profit enterprises owned by Zinsmeyer and Duggins.
“It would be impossible for Avi not to have known about those transfers,” said former Praxis comptroller Hugo Puya, who worked regularly with Fichman during that time. “His job was to do anything Sterling asked — and that specifically included preparing the transfers.”
After leaving Praxis, Fichman served as vice president for administration and finance at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health (PCMH), which administers about $15 million in federal Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA) funds. For several years, Praxis received between $250,000 and $500,000 a year in HOPWA funds from PCMH, according to Praxis audits.
Had Fichman known about improprieties at Praxis when he took the PCMH job, says PCMH’s former director of HOPWA contracts Jeff Natt, he should have told his boss, Dr. Jacob Barak, as well as officials at the Mayor’s Office of AIDS Policy. While rumors about improper financial decisions at Praxis had been swirling for years, Errol Chin-Loy, then director of the Mayor’s AIDS office, says Fichman never said a word to him. Phone calls to Barak were not returned.
Now, former Praxis officials are concerned. “Avi shouldn’t be anywhere near Praxis,” said former Praxis board chair Cyril Brosnan, who resigned last summer, in part, he says, because Zinsmeyer and Duggins rehired Fichman without the board’s consent. “I wasn’t even given a job description,” said Brosnan.
Hoffman defends Fichman: “Avi is a highly respected person in this community and if he had known about any improprieties, he would have informed the appropriate authorities.” Fichman did not return phone calls.