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Estelle Cooper’s park group eyed in missing cash

TimesLedger Newspapers

A nonprofit that funded activities at Flushing Meadows Corona Park is under investigation after more than $100,000 in expenditures could not be accounted for.

Unisphere Inc. is a registered nonprofit that raised money to upkeep and provide programming at the park, and for years was helmed by Estelle Cooper, who also worked for the city Parks Department as an assistant commissioner for the city Parks Department.

In November, a review of Unisphere’s books revealed that a substantial chunk of money was withdrawn from the conservancy over a period of two years, yet could not be accounted for, according to the man who filed the nonprofit’s tax returns.

Phil Ragusa, who is the chairman of the Queens Republican Party, has filed yearly tax returns for Unisphere Inc. in his capacity as a certified public accountant.

In November, he noticed the money was taken out of the account through the use of an ATM card, yet no receipts were provided to show what it was used for.

Ragusa asked then-head of the conservancy, Estelle Cooper, who was its only paid staff with a $7,500 yearly stipend, to turn over proof as to where the cash went.

When she did not produce sufficient documentation, Ragusa alerted President Bruce Bendell and the rest of the board to what he called the discrepancies.

Cooper, a Republican who once ran for borough president, could not be reached for comment. Bendell, who also serves as the treasurer of the conservancy, did not respond to requests for comment.

Ragusa said the board retained the legal firm Farrell Fritz, which then passed the case on to the Queens district attorney, although this could not be confirmed by the board.

The firm declined to comment, but a partner there has ties to the nonprofit.

Lawyer Charlotte Biblow was appointed to Unisphere’s board in 2011.

The Queens DA declined to comment.

According to records filed with the office of the state attorney general, the conservancy made $66,000 in profits in fiscal year 2011.

The nonprofit also has about $281,000 tucked away in savings, the records showed.

In January, Cooper quietly resigned her $101,507-a-year post at Parks.

When asked, a spokesman told TimesLedger Newspapers Jan. 12 that Cooper would begin a career at a political communications firm.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by email at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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