Turnover at Riverhead Foundation following alleged board rift

06/16/2016 7:07 AM |

Robert DiGiovanni, center, helps release Tucker, a seal found in East Quogue, back into the water after it was rehabbed at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Rehabilitation.

For more than 20 years the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation has worked to protect the area’s marine environment through conservation efforts. It is the only organization authorized by New York State to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals and sea turtles.

Since its inception, Robert DiGiovanni had served as the nonprofit’s director and senior biologist. Now, it appears Mr. DiGiovanni’s tenure with the organization has come to an abrupt end. 

The News-Review learned through an anonymous letter this week that Mr. DiGiovanni resigned May 17, days after five members of the foundation’s board of directors also stepped down from their posts. The letter claimed that the resignations followed recent disputes among board members over donations the foundation received that had been allegedly reallocated to the Long Island Aquarium, where the Riverhead Foundation is based.

One of the board members who resigned, former president Tom Telesca, said this week that the series of resignations comes at a time that finds the organization is at a crossroads.

“There was a fundamental disagreement over the direction of the foundation, among other things, that forced me to resign,” Mr. Telesca said.

Mr. Telesca confirmed that he resigned on May 13 along with former treasurer Scott Walker and fellow board member Lori Pack. A fourth board member, Paul Grosser, resigned the following day, followed by Robert Melman on May 15.

Mr. Telesca declined to further discuss the changes, including any questions related to the Riverhead Foundation’s finances.

The resignations leave the Riverhead Foundation board of directors with seven members, according to its website, a majority of whom have personal or professional connections to the Long Island Aquarium.

Longtime board member Charles Bowman, who took over as president following Mr. Telesca’s departure, said turnover is not unusual on this type of volunteer board and said he believes the resignations had more to do with the amount of time board members are required to put in.

“It’s just a tremendous amount of work,” said Mr. Bowman, owner and president of Land Use Ecological Services in Medford, which lists the Long Island Aquarium as a client on its website. “We’re looking to make some major changes in the direction of [the organization].”

Those changes include an increased emphasis on fundraising, he said.

In follow-up interviews, Mr. Telesca and Ms. Pack both said the amount of volunteer time required of board members was not the reason they resigned, with both reiterating that a “fundamental disagreement” led to the resignations.

Reached by telephone this week, Ms. Pack said she did not see any way those differences could be resolved. Mr. Walker, Mr. Grosser and Mr. Melman could not be reached for comment this week.

Mr. Bowman said he’s served as an unofficial director since Mr. DiGiovanni’s resignation and that a search for a new executive director is in progress. He said the board hopes to fill the position within a month with a manager who specializes in fundraising, rather than someone with a biology background.

“The program is still up and running and in great shape,” he said.

Mr. Bowman said the recent resignations of two other staff members — a fundraising coordinator and a biologist — were unrelated to the resignation of Mr. DiGiovanni, who did not return telephone messages left at his home this week. The recent resignations leave the organization with seven employees and three consultants, according to its online employee directory.

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The Riverhead Foundation released the following statement acknowledging Mr. DiGiovanni’s departure after this story was published Thursday:

It is the policy of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation (RFMRP) not to comment on personnel matters publicly. RFMRP Board President Charles Bowman did share that “the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation acknowledges and appreciates the many positive contributions that Robert DiGiovanni has made during his tenure as the Executive Director of the organization. After extensive strategic planning over the past year, the current Foundation board is focused on restructuring the organization’s leadership so that we can more effectively rescue and rehabilitate stranded marine animals as well as expand our existing research, education and outreach programs. The change in leadership dynamic will carry the Foundation into an exciting new period of growth and development that will further advance our mission of protecting marine animals and inspiring conservation of their environment.” Celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year, RFMRP is looking forward to another exciting and successful year. They thank the public for their continued support of the organization and its many programs.

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The last five financial statements filed by the Riverhead Foundation with the Internal Revenue Service show that its fundraising efforts have fluctuated from year to year, generating contributions just under a low of $620,000 in 2014 and a high of nearly $800,000 in 2010. (The organization’s 2015 annual report and its public filing with the IRS have not yet been released.)

Revenues obtained through government grants have also varied significantly with just under $350,000 secured in 2010 and more than $900,000 received in 2014.

As a result, the Riverhead Foundation’s total annual revenues have ranged in recent years from $1.1 million to $1.5 million with small profits reported for each of the past three recorded years.

Asked if the Riverhead Foundation board had any disputes over how donations are allocated, specifically between the Riverhead Foundation and the aquarium, Mr. Bowman said, “Not really.”

“There were some questions raised,” he said. “But again, it’s a not-for-profit. We’re under very strict requirements as far as the state [is concerned] and we have to submit an audit every year.”

Mr. Bowman said because those discussions took place during executive session, he did not wish to comment further on the matter.

Neither Long Island Aquarium owner Joseph Petrocelli, who has served on the Riverhead Foundation board of directors since 2012, nor aquarium general manager Bryan DeLuca responded to telephone messages seeking comment for this story.

In January, both men appeared at a pair of Riverhead Industrial Development Agency hearings seeking tax incentives for the aquarium and a neighboring parcel it owns.

Mr. DeLuca said without the incentives the aquarium’s parent company would owe close to $1 million a year in taxes and the aquarium would not be able to stay open.

“We are operating on razor-thin profit margins,” Mr. DeLuca told the IDA Jan. 4, adding that the aquarium partially funds the Riverhead Foundation and houses it rent free.

“They’re a nonprofit organization and they struggle financially with fundraisers,” he said at the time.

Caption: Robert DiGiovanni, center, helps release Tucker, a seal found in East Quogue, back into the water after it was rehabbed at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. (Credit: Nicole Smith)

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