The full payroll records of more than 2,400 de facto state employees are available to the public for the first time after being released by Health Research Inc. (HRI), a non-profit organization closely linked to the state Health Department.

HRI initially resisted the Empire Center’s request for the records, claiming to be a private organization and exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Law. On June 25, after an 11-week delay, HRI provided the requested records for 2018, 2019 and 2020 while continuing to maintain that it was not legally required to do so.

The center has posted the data at SeeThroughNY.net, a transparency website that includes the payroll records of millions of current and former government employees.

HRI was founded in 1953 to accept grants and donations on behalf of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, a state-funded research and treatment institute. HRI has since evolved into an off-budget adjunct of the Health Department with more than $800 million in annual revenue and 2,400 employees – most of whom function as department officials and work side-by-side with full-fledged civil servants.

Its 2020 payroll includes 1,449 individuals based in Albany and associated with the Health Department, representing more than one-fifth of the department’s overall workforce. The other 978 are based in Buffalo and associated with Roswell Park.

The organization was in the news this spring after it was reported that a “special adviser” to the health commissioner, Dr. Eleanor Adams, had participated in providing expedited COVID-19 tests for friends and family of Governor Cuomo in the early weeks of the pandemic, when testing was scarce. In response to a query from the New York Post, the Health Department said it could not provide Adams’ salary because she was on the payroll of HRI, not the state.

The newly released HRI records show that Adams had income of $163,160 in 2020, including base pay of $149,257 and overtime pay of $13,903. She has since left the department.

Also on HRI’s payroll are several other high-ranking department officials, including Dr. Charles Gonzalez, the medical director of the AIDS Institute, whose 2020 income was $191,831, and Michael Primeau, director of the Office of Health Emergency Preparedness, who was paid $178,926.

Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who serves as HRI’s president, collected $66,958 from the organization as part of a decades-long arrangement to supplement the commissioner’s statutory salary, which currently stands at $210,000.

The information released by HRI doesn’t necessarily give the full picture of its employees’ income. According to its most recent IRS filing, which lists the pay of certain high-ranking or high-paid officials, HRI’s executive director, Cheryl Mattox, received total compensation of $217,226 in 2020 – including $157,220 that would be reportable on her W-2 form, and $50,006 in “other” compensation. The payroll information provided by HRI, however, puts her total compensation in 2020 at $167,435.

Similarly, the IRS filing shows that Zucker received a total of $75,025 from HRI – $65,927 that would be reportable on his W-2 and $9,098 in “other” compensation. The payroll information provided by HRI shows only $66,958 in payments to Zucker.

Despite its intimate relationship with the Health Department – and its central role in governmental functions such as emergency preparedness and AIDS response – HRI operates outside the usual guide rails for state agencies. Its budget is not subject to approval by the Legislature, its employees are not covered by civil service rules and, as HRI argues, its records are not public.

“As you know, it is our position that HRI, as a private sector not for profit, is not properly subject to FOIL,” HRI attorney Heather Diddel wrote in a June 25 letter accompanying the released payroll records. “However, as I have told you since our very first communication, notwithstanding and without waiving its objections, HRI’s consistent practice has been to respond to requests for information in a way that satisfies the requester while protecting HRI’s and its employees’ rights.”

Diddel further argued that HRI employees do not belong in SeeThroughNY’s payroll database, which focuses on employees of state and local government.

You are aware that HRI administers federal public health and scientific research grants and that its employees on those grants are, by definition, federally funded. The Empire Center’s inclusion of HRI’s federally funded employees on its site mischaracterizes the true source of salary funding for HRI’s federally funded employees and misleads New Yorkers into thinking that (1) their state and local tax dollars are being spent to fund those employees’ salaries and (2) HRI properly falls into the category of employers SeeThroughNewYork purports to include on the site, neither of which is true.

This argument falls flat for two principal reasons: First, tens of billions in federal aid flows to many parts of state and local government and pays all or part of the salaries of countless bona fide public employees. Second, the duties performed by HRI employees appear to go well beyond merely administering federal grants.

For example, more than 400 of its employees – 28 percent of its Albany-based payroll – are listed as working for the AIDS Institute. Established by the Legislature “within the department of health” in 1983, the institute is tasked with stopping the spread of HIV while providing financial and medical support to people who are already infected. Although the institute receives a lot of federal aid, a chart on its website indicates that 45 percent of its 2018 budget, or $176 million, came from the state.

About the Author

Bill Hammond

As the Empire Center’s senior fellow for health policy, Bill Hammond tracks fast-moving developments in New York’s massive health care industry, with a focus on how decisions made in Albany and Washington affect the well-being of patients, providers, taxpayers and the state’s economy.

Read more by Bill Hammond

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