The Praxis board of directors has named a new executive director — and he is no stranger to helping fix housing finance schemes.
Sipping on early morning tea and lemon at Wolf’s Delicatessen in the basement of 120 Broadway last week, longtime Democratic party man Charlie King set lofty promises for the troubled AIDS housing group’s future.
“I plan to make Praxis the poster child” for supportive housing, said King, 44.
Wolf’s was a fitting place to meet, considering that only three floors up, Attorney General Elliot Spitzer’s charity bureau is investigating questionable spending practices made by Praxis’ former leaders, G. Sterling Zinsmeyer and Gordon Duggins. The two resigned three weeks ago, as the US Attorney’s Office and the Department of Housing and Urban Development also looked into potentially improper spending habits.
An attorney by trade, King has some experience cleaning up the mess left by mismanaged housing funds. As director of HUD’s New York regional office under Andrew Cuomo from 2000 to 2001, he was part of the team that tried to patch up the 203(k) scandal, which left nearly 600 apartment buildings in disrepair after many nonprofits — in cahoots with crooked appraisers, mortgage lenders and real estate hucksters — took advantage of government-guaranteed loans. While these homes are slowly being sold and fixed up, HUD’s role in the recovery during King’s tenure received mixed reviews.
As for Praxis, King says during his time on the job he never came across the group, which has received more than $10 million from HUD over the last nine years. In fact, he says he first heard of Praxis only a few weeks ago when a friend on the board suggested he apply for the job.
He did know Zinsmeyer, and is also friendly with Spitzer — through politics, King’s true passion. In 1998, and again in 2002, King ran for lieutenant governor, most recently on Andrew Cuomo’s ticket. While he should be kept busy at Praxis, and with a class action lawsuit he’s filed on behalf of parents charging the city with violating the No Child Left Behind Act, he does have other aspirations: If Spitzer runs for governor in 2006, King says he will campaign to replace him as attorney general.
In the meantime, he stressed, “We’re cooperating fully” with Praxis investigations. “What people may not realize is that Praxis houses people who are in the most desperate state of their lives,” he said. “Every day we have miracles. I’m here to ensure that those miracles get fulfilled.”
He has a lot to learn about the group first, though. Asked about the recent sale of Praxis’ most lucrative asset, the Greenpoint Hotel in Brooklyn, which the group’s attorneys say netted a $900,000 profit, King asked, “Where’s the Greenpoint Hotel?”
Still, King says he’s committed to making Praxis more effective. He plans to spend nights in Praxis shelters. He’s flirting with the idea of drug testing his employees. He plans to place stricter financial controls in place.
“My goal is to make Praxis the most successful group like this in the city,” he said. “And I’m going to ensure that it happens.”