The Elena Melius Foundation has donated more than $2.8 million to nearly 500 charities or individuals over the last three decades, according to the Oheka Castle website and filings with state regulators.
Recipients have included well-known health care organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association; Catholic Charities, the American Jewish Committee and other religiously affiliated groups; and law enforcement organizations like the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
“I never promote what I give away,” Gary Melius said in a conversation with Newsday editors last April.
A section of the Oheka website called “Oheka Cares” lists more than 480 recipients of donations since 1986. The donations were made through the foundation, named after Melius’ late mother and headquartered at Oheka. On average, the foundation donated $153,000 annually between 2006 and 2015, or more than $1.5 million altogether, according to state records.
Melius said recent financial difficulties had not stopped him from giving his money away. “I am broke now,” Melius said in the Newsday interview. “I still borrow money to give to charity.”
While many of the recipients of Melius’ generosity are Long Island charities, organizations in New York State and beyond are also recipients of money from the Melius Foundation, state records show.
In 2014, for example, the foundation’s grants and contributions included $15,500 to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; $15,000 to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota; $10,000 to the Family & Children’s Association of Mineola; $6,000 to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor; and $6,000 to St. Christopher’s Inn, a shelter and treatment center for homeless men in upstate Garrison.
Charitable groups created by politicians with whom Melius has been allied have also received donations from his foundation. Among these are the Pat Cairo Family Foundation, created by Joseph Cairo, a Republican Party leader from North Valley Stream, in honor of his wife, Pat, to support cancer patients; and the Marie Cuthbertson Scholarship Fund, named for the mother of Huntington Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson.
The Family & Children’s Association, based in Mineola, provides assistance to Long Island’s most vulnerable children, families and seniors. Patricia Pryor-Bonica, a board member of the association, said she believes that Melius shares her concern that struggling families should be helped — and that, like her, his willingness to help was rooted in his own experiences in tougher times.
“There was no help back in those days,” said Bonica, recalling her youth in the 1940s and ’50s.
The Elena Melius Foundation has experienced controversy at times. In 2002, it purchased a 98-acre parcel for $50,000 on the Akwesasne Indian reservation near the Canadian border, where Melius had been involved in the tumultuous construction of a tribal casino. A year later, the foundation tried to sell the land for $300,000, according to court records.
Because the transactions involved the foundation, the sale could not be completed without the approval of the state attorney general’s office, which regulates charitable groups. The attorney general objected, saying that a $50,000 “finder’s fee” for Melius that was part of the sale represented “self-dealing” by Melius, a director of the nonprofit.
Melius tried two more times to obtain the state’s approval for the sale, this time including a $25,000 fee to a Melius employee, Rich Hamelin, according to court records. The attorney general’s office continued to object, saying that the fee was “an improvident use of charitable assets.”
Finally, Melius went to court, where State Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey J. O’Connell approved the sale and the fee in 2007. In his ruling, O’Connell cited “the apparently undisputed large profit to the foundation, which will assist it greatly in carrying out its charitable purposes.”
In another instance, Melius said last year that the state attorney general’s office had issued subpoenas to him and his foundation, requesting documents. Newsday reported that the subpoenas related to the foundation’s acceptance of $250,000 from another foundation that one of his friends, Steven Schlesinger, then counsel to the Nassau Democratic Party, had been appointed by the courts to manage.
Melius’ statement came in an application to Nassau County for a sewer connection to Oheka Castle that would handle wastewater from a related proposal to build 191 condominium units.
Melius has strongly denied any wrongdoing.