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BOARD QUESTIONS FINANCES, SEEKS AUDIT OF FOOD PANTRY

Ignatius "Sonny" Miano, the self-proclaimed Pied Piper for those who live in a deep pocket of poverty on Buffalo's West Side, has collected thousands of dollars over the past several years to feed those who come to his Helping Hands soup kitchen and food pantry at 382 Massachusetts Avenue.

Only Sonny Miano knows how that money is spent.

Miano, whose operation has never been audited, refuses to answer questions about Helping Hands' finances from his newly appointed board of directors.

"What we need right now," board President Daniel Brennan said after Miano's refusal to respond to the board, "is a complete audit."

But Brennan and the three others remain committed to keeping the kitchen and pantry open while the board reviews how Helping Hands has been operated.

One of the pressing questions the board wants answered is what happened to a $113,000 bequest made to Helping Hands in 1995.

Miano's accountant said only $271 was left at the end of 1996.

Miano draws no salary from the operation, according to state and federal records.

The board also wants to know
more about loans that Helping Hands made to Miano, according to tax returns.

Records show Miano received loans of $15,116 in 1995 and $8,977 and $13,350 in 1996.

Miano opened the kitchen in 1986, and at that time, the City of Buffalo agreed to rent him the city-owned building for a $1 a year and pay all the utility bills.

The lease Miano signed gave the city the right to audit his books once a year, but no audit has been done.

"Sonny never let anyone, even me, open the mail," said his wife, Ruth Miano.

"When the weather was OK, he would sit outside the center smoking his cigarette waiting for the mailman," Mrs. Miano said. "When it wasn't nice, he ordered the girls to take the mail directly to him as soon as it arrived.

"He was the only one who knew what donations came in the mail, and I really don't know where he recorded the donations," Mrs. Miano said.

Mrs. Miano didn't know until The News questioned Miano that Helping Hands received a $113,000 bequest in 1995.

She also said she had no idea Helping Hands was receiving from $4,000 to 6,000 annually from the United Way. All those canceled checks were signed by Miano, according to United Way officials.

"Sonny is a stubborn man," his wife said. "He does what he wants to do. No matter what comes out of this investigation, it is going to be embarrassing."

For most of the past six years, Miano has run his operation without a board looking over his shoulder and making decisions.

But the state Office of Charities requires nonprofit agencies to have at least a three-member board overseeing the operation.

In 1996, Miano reported donations for the entire year of only $12,132 as compared to several previous years when he reported donations ranging from $54,475 to $32,534.

Regardless of the donations and the $113,000 bequest, Miano continued to ask for money and food, and the public continued to respond.

The Food Bank of Western New York responded with all the food he said he needed to fill food bags and provide one meal, five days a week to crowds he insisted numbered up to "400 people." Food Bank officials estimated his clients at no more than 250.

The public's perception that Helping Hands "is the most important player when it comes to taking care of our poor people is what has allowed Miano to do exactly as he pleases," said Al Cooper, the "dean" of the Food For All Network of food pantries and soup kitchens.

Cooper has a thick file of complaints he has received over the years charging Miano with mismanagement of both monies and food received by Helping Hands.

"But everybody was afraid to go public," Cooper said, "because they are afraid of him.

"He would scream and holler at the poor people and threaten them with the loss of their welfare checks and food stamps if they said anything."

As for politicians or other community leaders who had concerns, Cooper said "they were afraid to take him on because of his connections with the television stations.

Niagara District Councilman Robert Quintana, who readily admits he is no fan of Miano's, agreed with Cooper's assessment of Miano's public image.

"Everybody is afraid of him because they are convinced he could hurt you through the media," Quintana said. "My office has had many, many complaints about his operation that show a track record of abuse and mismanagement of food and money.

"I complained to the former director of the Food Bank, Jim Serafin," he continued. "I made calls to the Social Services hot line and asked them to investigate.

There were private foundations that also had concerns.

"We had questions about Sonny's management," said Catherine Schweitzer of the Baird Foundation, "but with so many pressing needs in that community, we felt we had to do what we could to keep the poor people fed."

Early in 1997, unable to meet the only obligation he has to the City of Buffalo -- to pay the insurance -- Miano went to the Baird Foundation.

"Just to be sure the money was used properly," Mrs. Schweitzer said, "we sent a check for $6,879.81 to the insurance company and then paid $2,141.20 he had outstanding at the Food Bank."

Currently, Miano is again delinquent with his Food Bank payments, owing in excess of $7,000.

Helping Hands and Friends of the Night People are the only two of the major soup kitchens in the city that are not affiliated with a religious organization.

As independent nonprofit agencies, they are accountable to the state Office of Charities, but annual audits do not occur.

"When you have more than 35,000 nonprofit agencies in the state and an office with three attorneys and two investigators to keep track of them, it is impossible," said Molly Conkey, Catholic Charities spokeswoman.

"That is why the board of directors is so vital," stressed Jeffrey Hirshberg, president of the Friends of the Night People board.

"When Dr. Piver (M. Steven Piver) accepted the presidency of this board in 1988, the record-keeping was a shambles. But Steve put a board together that made Night People a responsible and accountable agency."

The board hired a paid director and approves all bills. It also established a lock-box operation with M&T Bank directly receiving all donations sent through the mail, directs fund-raising, prepares annual budgets and often donates its own labor.

The board raises in excess of $175,000 a year to keep the soup kitchen solvent.

"We receive at least another $200,000 worth of food donations," Hirshberg said. "Those along with what we receive from the Food Bank provide adequate meals for our clients. That is why we only budget $2,000 for food and that is to buy coffee and a few other items that are not supplied by the Food Bank."

During a meeting with his board and a reporter, Miano refused to explain the donations and expenses reported in federal tax returns from 1994 through 1996.

He blamed discrepancies on either his accountant or "the girls who help out here and don't know anything about keeping records."

"The returns are prepared correctly with the information provided by the client (Miano)," said Helping Hands' tax preparer, Patrick M. Johnson of Kenmore.

Miano's refusal to attend a second meeting with Johnson shocked the four new directors, who were committed to helping Miano put his financial house in order.

"After the first meeting, " said Brennan, "I left word for Sonny that we wanted to know more about what was going on. But Sonny didn't return my call. Instead, I got a call from his attorney asking me what was going on."

"No matter what that audit reveals and what changes might have to be made with the operation of Helping Hands, this board is committed to do what we must to keep Helping Hands open," the board president promised.