Additional reporting by Suhail Bhat

In the early months of the COVID pandemic, as the virus spread like wildfire through New York City, the de Blasio administration began placing inmates released from Rikers and state prisons into hotels.

The point was to keep them safe — and to curb the spread of the virus. But did City Hall implement adequate safeguards to protect the released inmates from non-COVID dangers?

One former inmate THE CITY spoke to alleges she was sexually assaulted in August 2020, while staying at a hotel involved in the program, the Wyndham Hotel in Fresh Meadows. She is suing Exodus Transitional Community, the nonprofit group hired by the city to administer hotel placements.

When asked by THE CITY, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), which oversaw the project, could not definitively identify the firm that provided security at the Wyndham as a subcontractor to Exodus. At times, MOCJ and Exodus pointed to two different firms as the security provider in 2020. 

But when reached by THE CITY, executives at these two firms denied that their companies were subcontracted to provide security at the Wyndham. Under law, firms that provide security at city shelters, including hotel placements for inmates, must be properly licensed.    

When THE CITY requested documentation that the firm providing security at the hotels had a proper state security guard license, MOCJ provided a license that belongs to one of the firms that denies having anything to do with the ex-inmate placement program.

Records show the no-bid contract signed by the mayor’s office with Exodus to place inmates in hotels grew from $835,000 to $55 million in just 16 months. Under the arrangement with MOCJ, Exodus was not required to report to the city crisis incidents that occurred there, including violent ones like sexual assault.

The Adams administration recently awarded Exodus another $40 million contract for “emergency reentry hotel services” that runs through June under a no-bid process. Adams’ team did not respond to THE CITY’s question about the nature of the ongoing emergency.

No Crisis Incident Reports

Upon her release from Rikers Island in June 2020, Latoya Walker, 32, was placed into a Wyndham Hotel in Fresh Meadows, one of six hotels managed by Exodus as part of the inmate release program.

There, Walker alleges, she was sexually assaulted in her room by an Exodus employee who’d been assigned to her as a caseworker. The man was ultimately arrested on sex abuse and other charges. Although the Queens district attorney later dropped the case due to delays in bringing it to trial, Walker has since filed a civil suit against Exodus that is pending.

Walker claims that from the moment she brought in the police, Exodus resisted cooperating, delaying turning over a surveillance camera tape that she says helps corroborate her accusation.

After a detective in the special victims squad was assigned to investigate, Walker said, “Exodus wouldn’t give her the tape. They wouldn’t give her information on (the caseworker)’s employment,” she told THE CITY. “I felt like Exodus was just sticking together. Every time I brought it up as something that was bothering me, they started giving me the brush off.”

The Department of Homeless Services managed a similar effort to place shelter residents in hotels to stifle the spread of COVID-19. But DHS required all providers to report every “critical incident,” such as assaults, at the hotels where the homeless were placed. The inmate hotel program had no such requirement.

Exodus’ founder, Medina, refused to answer any of THE CITY’s questions, including whether he reported Walker’s allegations to MOCJ. The mayor’s office also declined to say whether they were aware of the incident, other than to say the hotel ex-inmate program had no incident reporting requirements.

A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams wrote in an email: “The City takes any accusations of misconduct against our service providers seriously, but does not discuss whether an investigation is occurring and does not provide details of that potential investigation.”

A Most Mysterious Security Provider

Two years after MOCJ began placing released inmates in hotels — and even after Exodus was sued — the question of who actually provided security at some of these hotels remains unresolved.

In the city’s contract system, MOCJ listed Global Security Solutions as handling “security services for 3 hotels managed by Exodus” from mid-July 2020 through January 2021 under a $2.8 million subcontract with Exodus. That covered the period when Walker alleges she was assaulted. Media coverage at the time also reported Global Security Solutions was on site at the hotels.

But the Commack, L.I.-registered firm Global Security Solutions, Inc., the only New York security business recorded with the name, denies having anything to do with the inmate hotel program. In an email to THE CITY, Andrew Saraga, an attorney representing the firm, wrote that Global Security Solutions “was not involved with the project involving Latoya Walker and Exodus Transitional Community Inc. at Wyndham Garden Fresh Meadows.”

Exodus, meanwhile, provided another version of who handled hotel security in 2020.

In December an attorney for Exodus, Anthony Luis, told Walker’s lawyer in an email that the correct firm is actually Global Operations Security Inc.

When The CITY called a number for Global Operations Security at the Syosset, L.I., address Exodus’ lawyer provided, the woman who answered said they were just a payroll service for Global Operations Security. She refused to give out the firm’s actual number.

Then on Friday the mayor’s office emailed THE CITY stating “Global Security Solutions and Global Operations Security are the same firm, Global Operations Security Services Inc.” They provided that firm’s state security guard license number.

But the holders of that license, Global Operations Security Services, say their company has had zero involvement whatsoever with providing security at any of the hotels where Exodus placed ex-inmates.

In an email sent to the mayor’s office on Friday, Amit Levi, general counsel and executive vice president of Global Operations Security Services, made clear that his firm “is NOT associated in any way, shape or form with Exodus Transitional Community, Inc. (or Exodus Transitional Community), the Wyndham Hotels and Resorts or the program involving Rikers inmates or former Rikers inmates.”

The Manhattan-based firm has clients worldwide and describes itself as an “integrated security and protection solutions agency, providing its clients with security consulting and management, risk analysis & threat assessment.” Levi noted that his firm “was never located at, or associated with” the Long Island address Exodus listed for the firm providing security at the hotels.

The mayor’s office did not respond to Levi’s email or explain to THE CITY why it represented Global’s license number as belonging to the firm that handled security at the hotels. On Sunday spokesperson Jonah Allon emailed, “We have no further comment at this time.”

All of this occurred as Exodus’ emergency no-bid contract rose more than sixfold in just 16 months, to a whopping $55.6 million. 

Pledge of ‘Cost Savings’

To date the group has been paid $51.4 million under the initial agreement, records show. Under de Blasio, the Mayor’s Office modified the contract 11 times — adding millions of taxpayer dollars on six occasions — as Exodus expanded the number of hotels from three to four to six and began placing some inmates into what they call “transitional housing.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks about the city’s coronavirus plans, March 12, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

It’s not clear how many inmates have been placed in hotels or transitional housing under the emergency COVID release program. In a report posted on its website, Exodus says it put 900 former inmates in hotels in 2020 but does not spell out how many were placed last year. It also doesn’t quantify transitional housing placements.

When contacted by THE CITY last week, Medina said: “I tell the public when the public wants to know.… I don’t need to defend what I do.” He then cursed at the reporter and hung up.

Medina founded Exodus in 1999 after he finished doing time for drug dealing. He aspired to help former inmates get jobs and find their way upon release, a process known as “re-entry.”

Exodus last year hired former state Senate Majority Leader John Sampson upon his release from prison after serving time for corruption charges. Sampson is a longtime ally of Adams from when the two served in the State Senate, and he attended the mayor’s election-night victory celebration. Neither Exodus nor Sampson would discuss details of his work there, but a judge overseeing Sampson’s criminal case described it as “seeking property for the program.”

In the years leading up to the arrival of COVID-19, Exodus took in about $4 million each year from a handful of city and state re-entry contracts, according to the financial report on its website.

The pandemic changed that dramatically. In 2020 Exodus reported taking in $15.4 million, then another $21.4 million last year, with some of that funding passed through to pay for the hotel rooms.

In their emailed response to THE CITY, MOCJ spokesperson Colby Hamilton said that the spike in costs was needed to help contain the spread of COVID-19: “To prevent hundreds of formerly justice-involved individuals from being displaced to the street, the mayor’s office has now contracted with Exodus for both services and hotel subcontracting, which required an exponential increase in funding.”

The Adams team contended that the cost of the Exodus contract will play out as “overall cost savings to taxpayers for the services not being provided in the form of homeless shelters, emergency health care, recidivism into the justice system, etc.”

Hamilton said the $51 million spent so far paid for “Hotel accommodations at six sites, private security, and the administration of wrap-around services such as job training, assistance in finding permanent housing, wellness checks, behavioral health services, and other needs-based programs (this includes food and laundry) for our neighbors returning to our communities after incarceration.”

City records indicate that to date Exodus has hired two subcontractors for security for a total of $5.5 million. That includes security at the Wyndham Hotel Walker stayed at in Queens.

Assault Allegations

In a lawsuit filed last year by Manhattan attorney Andrew Buzin, Walker alleged that on Aug. 28, 2020, her Exodus caseworker, Michael Melendez, came into her hotel room claiming he was there to fix her bathtub. Once there, she charged, he “aggressively pursued [Walker] sexually despite the plaintiff informing Melendez that he was required to leave and that she was not allowed to have men in the unit per the rules.”

In the suit, Walker alleged that Melendez refused to leave and tried to kiss her, grabbed her and threw her against a wall, “forcibly made [her] touch her private parts” and “repeatedly put his hands down her pants.”

Walker stated that she “continuously attempted to break free from Melendez during the entire time he assaulted, battered and sexually assaulted her.”

She also alleged in the suit that Exodus and the security firm at Wyndham “were on notice that there had been previous incidents of sexual misconduct committed by Melendez, yet the defendants allowed Melendez to remain on the premises and in a capacity whereby he had access to residence units and female residents.”

The jail-release hotel in Fresh Meadows, Queens. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Melendez was arrested on March 16, 2021, and charged with third-degree sexual abuse and forcible touching, both misdemeanors, as well as second-degree harassment, a violation, records show.

Melendez’s lawyer in the criminal case, Mehdi Essmidi, said the Queens DA ultimately dismissed the charges due to delays in the case that violated speedy trial requirements. He said Melendez “said it never happened. He said it was a lie, (that) the witness was mentally ill. He was working there helping people.” A spokesperson for the Queens DA declined to discuss the case.

Noting that Melendez was arrested but that his charges were ultimately dismissed, Essmidi complained that his client “was still put into Rikers and he had to sit there while probation hearings happened.” Essmidi didn’t know details of the probation issue, but Melendez had previously served 23 years in prison after his conviction in 1991 on second-degree murder charges, records show. He was released to parole in 2014, records show.

Alice Spitz, an attorney for Melendez in the civil case, declined to speak for this story, writing in response to THE CITY’s questions, “We do not comment on pending litigation.” Anthony Luis, an attorney representing Exodus in the civil case, did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment from THE CITY.

Contract records indicate Global Security Solutions’ contract ended in January 2021 and show a second security firm, International Trendz, was hired by Exodus that month. MOCJ was able to produce a license number for International Trendz.

Nevertheless it’s still not clear who’s currently performing security at the Wyndham. Last week a reporter for THE CITY spoke with a security guard there with a yellow-on-black embroidered patch that said “Global Security.”

The guard said he’d worked there for a year and added, “There hasn’t been no criminal incidents in the hotel since I started here.”

In late summer 2020 some 9,000 neighborhood residents signed a petition protesting the placement of released inmates into the Wyndham. Since then area residents say they’ve experienced no problems with the inmates staying at the hotel.

Mary Abrams, an associate director at Executive Office Center, a company located next door to the hotel, said, “The Rikers inmates were living there for months and no one knew that these were inmates. Certainly some people won’t be comfortable with that.” 

“I haven’t witnessed or heard from anyone that the inmates staying there led to an increase in any violent crimes,” she added. “The only problem I had was that the city gave no details to residents when they moved them here. We didn’t know for months that it was a shelter for inmates. Obviously someone with a criminal past living next door is not good for business.”

New $40 Million Deal

Former city Comptroller Scott Stringer, who sued de Blasio administration over its COVID emergency spending, said no-bid contracts like the one with Exodus leave the taxpayer at a disadvantage:

“Because there’s no competition for the service, these no-bid contracts are inherently more expensive  because you’re not comparing and contrasting in multiple bids. While I understand that you’re in the midst of a pandemic and you have to move quickly to get services to the public, as the years evolved you can make the argument that many of these contracts were not emergency contracts. And you’re now going to uncover waste because there was no oversight of these contracts.”

Since Feb. 14, THE CITY has sought to obtain Exodus’ contract documents from the Adams administration. Adams’ press team first said the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services said the contracts “are not readily available” and instructed THE CITY to request them from MOCJ. In turn MOCJ referred THE CITY back to the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services.

As of Sunday, the Adams’ team had yet to provide the requested contract records.

The Hotel Wolcott in Midtown Manhattan, where Exodus Transitional Community has housed people released from city jails during COVID. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In January, the Adams administration decided to extend Exodus’ arrangement through a “negotiated acquisition” — again deciding not to seek bids but to automatically award the contract for “emergency reentry hotel services.” This time it was for $40 million with a term of just six months.

As an Adams’ spokesperson explained, “To provide continuity of services, which now include the provision of accommodations as well as services at multiple sites, Exodus has continued to work.”

The new contract is different in one respect: unlike Exodus’ initial COVID emergency deal with MOCJ, city Comptroller Brad Lander will have to sign off on it. As of Friday, he had yet to do so.

Lander noted that providing housing to inmates upon release reduces the chance that they’ll wind up back in prison. Under the pandemic hotel program, there was “some incremental success towards reducing recidivism in part thanks to emergency housing providers like Exodus.”

But he advised  that going forward, Adams should increase funding toward more stable supportive housing “so we do not see both contract costs for temporary reentry hotels and recidivism rates grow.”

“While Exodus has served as a nexus between incarceration and life back into the community, its ballooning contract highlights the failure of our system to shepherd formerly incarcerated individuals from jail to more long-lasting housing,” Lander said.