By Christine Chung, THE CITY
This story was originally published on Sept. 3, 2019 by THE CITY.
Digging deep into the operations of a Queens graveyard, state Attorney General Letitia James sued leaders of Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery Tuesday for alleged mismanagement she says let its longtime boss to retire with a pot of gold.
Among the more than 540,000 people laid to rest in the 225-acre expanse, which some reports say has seen better days: Fred and Mary Trump, the parents of President Donald Trump, as well as his late brother Fred Trump Jr.
The civil complaint filed in Manhattan state Supreme Court stems from routine audit of assets by the New York State Division of Cemeteries, which revealed that Daniel Austin Sr. received a $900,000 lump sum shortly before retiring as Lutheran All Faiths’ president in 2014 and becoming board chair.
His successor as president of the Middle Village cemetery was his son, Daniel Austin Jr., also a defendant in the attorney general’s lawsuit.
The complaint describes “extraordinary misconduct” by the duo.
James accuses Austin Sr. of extracting “enormous financial benefits” from the cemetery to enrich himself and his son — “enabled by the complacency” of the six other defendants, all current or former paid board members.
Among their actions, James alleges, was making mortgage loans to relatives using restricted trust funds belonging to the cemetery, collecting unwarranted fees and ignoring auditors’ recommendations.
“The defendants funded their overspending with regular unlawful incursions into a segregated trust fund that is expressly protected under New York law for the care and maintenance of individual burial plots,” the complaint reads.
The board members, charged with financial management of the cemetery, hired treasurers whom the lawsuit alleges could not identify “basic elements of the cemetery’s balance sheet.” The board also allowed past chairman Daniel Austin Jr. to resign in August 2018 with full pension benefits after removing him for stealing more than $60,000 from the burial ground’s operating funds, according to court documents.
The board let Austin Sr. repay the embezzled sum on his son’s behalf without interest, according to the complaint. At the time of his retirement in 2014 after 24 years as president, the senior Austin earned $325,000 annually, according to the attorney general.
Austin Sr., a former NYPD detective raised in Glendale, said on Tuesday evening he did not want to comment on the suit “because I just found out myself five minutes ago.”
Perpetual Care and Disrepair
The cemetery’s website describes it as a “picturesque” final resting place with grave plots that are accessible to people of different faiths and income brackets. It also touts the “many improvements and upgrades” made under the leadership of Daniel Austin Sr.
But for years, families of those buried at the cemetery bordering Metropolitan Avenue have bemoaned the grounds, which they describe as in a state of utter disrepair — toppled gravestones, overgrown grass being colonized by weeds, roads riddled with potholes.
In an interview with the Queens Daily Eagle last year, Austin Sr. attributed frayed conditions to families’ failure to pay for upkeep.
This money is stored in a restricted fund dedicated to perpetual care — the same fund the board tapped to “support their overspending,” the attorney general’s filing contends. In 2017, the cemetery’s auditor reported that the board had drained $1 million in these sealed funds to offset general operating costs.
James is seeking to remove all three defendants still serving on the board, restore any assets that were lost or stolen, seal off any future payments to the defendants, and recover salaries previously paid to them. She also wants to permanently bar the defendants from ever working in a fiduciary role at another non-profit organization in New York.
“This is totally shocking and disappointing, if true,” said Councilmember Bob Holden (D-Middle Village). “I suspected there was some change happening when the cemetery fell into disrepair, but I never imagined something like this. They used to work with the community and I know my neighbors will be saddened by this.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.