About a month ago we had an interesting conversation on a Brooklyn street corner that led us to a lot of interesting unanswered questions.
Question About WPF, ACORN and Atlantic Yards Enters a Street Tableau
As we were walking down the street we came upon someone running a tabling operation for the Working Families Party. We figured it was worth a quick saunter over. (BTW: This is something you can try in your own neighborhood. You might even want to YouTube it.) We addressed the tabler: “You know the support of the Working Families Party and ACORN for the Atlantic Yards megaproject is a real problem.”
Then we were told something we didn’t expect. The tabler told us that it wasn’t a problem anymore because the Working Families Party and ACORN were no longer affiliated. “Because of all the ACORN scandals with the embezzlement and Atlantic Yards.” “Really?” we asked. We said that we hadn’t heard that ourselves. “Yes,” we were assured. The tabler told us that she herself was opposed to the Atlantic Yards project and that she knew most people were* but that it wasn’t a problem for the Working families Party because they were no longer associated with ACORN.
(* This was even before the substantial changes in Atlantic Yards, including the conversion of the arena to an airplane hanger, that have made it so much worse than it ever was before. News that Gehry had been dropped and the airplane hanger design substituted didn’t come out until Thursday, June 04, 2009. In very short order thereafter this, and a great deal of other additional negative information about the project emerged.)
Worth Investigating: Had a Step Been Taken to Advance Beyond the Origin Story?
Interesting, we thought. This was worthy of investigation. What better way to investigate than to go directly to the Working families Party and ask. A split would be interesting. The Working Families Party was formed by ACORN (and by the auto and communications workers’ unions) in 1998. (See: A Small Party Pushes to Be a Statewide Force, by David M. Halbfinger, October 30, 2008.)
Wheeling Round: The Many Spokes of a Conversation With a WFP Spokesperson
We contacted Dan Levitan, spokesperson for the Working Families Party. This is how our discussion unfolded.
Mr. Levitan told us that despite the information we had received on the street, the Working Families Party has NOT disaffiliated from and still maintains relations with ACORN. More specifically, Mr. Levitan informed us that "the scandals at ACORN" at had not caused any disaffiliation.
Clearly Distinguishing Scandals in Actual Question
We had to be clear in our discussion to confirm with Mr. Levitan that by “scandals,” we were not talking about anything like the Fox News attacks on ACORN about their voter registration activities. We were specific that we were instead talking about the embezzlement that was concealed from various people, including the ACORN board and interested government agencies with which ACORN transacts business. We said that we were also talking about the huge loan that ACORN received from Forest City Ratner that was reportedly similarly concealed. We expressed to Mr. Levitan that we believed that when New Yorkers think of the ACORN scandals this is what we think typically jumps to mind.
We told Mr. Levitan that when we were informed that the Working Families Party had broken off relations with ACORN it was the subject of these scandals that was volunteered as being the reason for the breaking off of relations. Later, in an e-mail to Mr. Levitan, we communicated that we went further to say that we could only assume that these were the scandals being referred to since they are far more significant and of much more concern to New Yorkers than the Fox News attacks.
(For more information about the ACORN embezzlement scandals, see Thursday, July 24, 2008, Falling Acorn! How Far from the Tree? and Monday, January 05, 2009, More details emerge about Forest City Ratner bailout of ACORN: did Bertha Lewis mislead her board? Tuesday, December 02, 2008, With $1.5M grant/loan, FCR bails out national ACORN, parent of major CBA partner, Wednesday, January 21, 2009, Flashback: four years ago, ACORN's Lewis scoffed at getting paid by Forest City Ratner.)
News on Ms. Lewis
Mr. Levitan confirmed to us that Bertha Lewis of ACORN is still on the Working Families Party's executive committee. (We asked in a follow-up e-mail to let us know about any other such connections that would be pertinent in understanding ACORN and Working Families Party connections.)
WPF as it Deals with Atlantic Yards and the Candidates Who Do Too
We asked Mr. Levitan additional questions. He mentioned in the conversation that there was widespread (though up to that point not universal) opposition within the Working Families Parties to Atlantic Yards even though the Working Families party has not taken a postion on the megadevelopment. He also noted that many of the candidates the Working Families Party had endorsed were opposed to Atlantic Yards. He mentioned in particular Brad Lander's strenuous (and eloquent) criticism of Atlantic Yards. Mr Lander is running for City Council in the 39th District. Mr. Levitan did not mention, but could have, that one of Atlantic Yards most vigorous opponents is the valiant Council member Tish James, whom the Working Families Party has endorsed. Interestingly, they are playing up this endorsement.
Another candidate the Working Families Party endorsed for senate, Daniel Squadron, won defeating long-term Senator and former Senate Minority leader Martin Connor after Squadron distinguished himself from Connor by opposing Atlantic Yards and the Bloomberg administration plan tangling development into the Brooklyn Bridge Park. It also appears that the Working Families Party might have difficulty in finding any candidates to endorse if it doesn’t endorse anti-Atlantic Yards candidates because the sentiment against Atlantic Yards is becoming so universal. (See: City Council candidates don't support AY project, May 08, 2009.)
Will WPF Now Oppose Atlantic Yards?
We asked Mr. Levitan whether the Working Families Party would now be taking a position opposing Atlantic Yards, especially given the recent news reports that the project will be verifiably so substantially worse than it was ever previously promoted as being. We were contacting Mr. Levitan at the beginning of June. It had just been announced that Frank Gehry was departing and that the arena would look like an airplane hanger and more information was coming out in addition. Other information already out at that time which we brought up talking to Mr. Levitan was the decades-long timetable (30-40 years?) during which our public agencies are agreeing to have the 30+ acre Forest City Ratner monopoly continue with very little (if anything) actually being built, and the delayed dates, now clearly evident, by which the developer will be providing benefits. (See: Monday, June 1, 2009, Negotiating With Your Contractor: The Atlantic Yards As Kitchen Renovation Metaphor.)
Right-Sizing the WPF “Frying Pan”
Mr. Levitan told us that, heretofore, the Working Families Party had not taken a position on Atlantic Yards because it had “bigger fish to fry.” We responded that it was hard to imagine something bigger than this mega-boondoggle. Mr. Levitan mentioned the $18 billion budget gap in Albany. We suggested that one need only compare the total subsidies (as much as $2.5 billion?) proposed to go into Atlantic Yards to put that number into relative perspective. Mr. Levitan said he thought the greater proportion of that money might be federal. It's not. And it's money being redirected away from other New York State and New York City projects.
Doesn’t the WPF Care About MTA Funds Going Astray?
We raised the subject with Mr. Levitan about how the MTA is NOT getting full value from Forest City Ratner for the land that it is proposed to be giving Ratner for the project and how now it is proposed that the MTA will collect even less from Ratner in this time of the MTA's increased fiscal needs.- We pointed out how we are talking about perhaps a hundred million dollars on this score alone.
So, our question was: Would the Working Families Party will be taking a position on Atlantic Yards?
Very Important Question: Does Lewis Recuse?
We asked one other very important related question that Mr. Levitan said he would need an e-mail to answer. We asked whether Bertha Lewis recuses herself on the subject of Atlantic Yards whenever the Working Families Party discusses the subject of Atlantic Yards including what positions WFP might take on Atlantic Yards.
Our Questions By E-Mail: WPF Needs to Check For Answers
We explained why we were asking this question and Mr. Levitan said that he needed our inquiry to be submitted by e-mail because he was unfamiliar with our reason for asking the question. He said he was unfamiliar with the fact that ACORN has entered into agreements with Forest City Ratner (frequently referred to as a Community Benefits Agreement) that contractually precludes Ms. Lewis (this would also apply to anyone else who, like Ms. Lewis, comes from ACORN) from formulating an independent opinion on the subject of Atlantic Yards. Ms. Lewis is also precluded from disclosing any negative information she has about Atlantic Yards. Ms. Lewis is contractually obligated to support Atlantic Yard in virtually any shape it might take. (For more on this see: Saturday, June 28, 2008, Selling out the Community for Beans (A Giant Wrong).)
Further, we explained to Mr. Levitan the same “CBA” agreements create an additional problem and conflict of interest for Ms. Lewis in that the agreements constitute ACORN as a business partner with Forest City Ratner in connection with a profitable homeownership program work that ACORN wants to get to do. (See: Thursday, July 24, 2008, Falling Acorn! How Far from the Tree?)
Then, of course, there is also the very substantial loan that Forest City Ratner has made to ACORN that had been the subject of one of the scandals we were talking about earlier. (See: More details emerge about Forest City Ratner bailout of ACORN: did Bertha Lewis mislead her board?)
Ergo our question: Does Ms. Lewis recuse herself when matters concerning Atlantic Yards come up for consideration by the Working Families Party? I offered Mr. Levitan a definition of recusal which he said he didn't need but, I did ask him that if it turned out that Ms. Lewis was recusing herself on these matters we wished to get information as to exactly what her recusal entails. We wanted to know whether Ms. Lewis leaves the room during discussions. Is care taken to make certain that she is not privy to information about debates taking place and who is taking what positions? Is she precluded from lobbying other members of the Executive Committee?
No WPF Answers (But Enough Time Goes by So We Have a New NNY Question)
It is a long story but a lot of time went by without our getting an answer to the questions we put to Mr. Levitan. Enough time went by so that we had the opportunity to add one more question to our list. We e-mailed Mr. Levitan this additional query:
Can you tell me why the Working Families Party did not supply a statement in opposition to the MTA's giveaways this week of millions upon millions of extra dollars to Forest City Ratner? Diminishing the capacity of the railyard alone constitutes at least a $100 million giveaway to Ratner with potentially severe repercussions to the MTA and straphangers in the future. Then there is another $80 million that the MTA is not collecting from Ratner in its own financial time of need. The giveaways on Wednesday did not end there.We Conclude Confirming Unanswered Questions
Now we think we have given Mr. Levitan and the Working Families party enough time to get back to us. From our last rather brief conversation with Mr. Levitan it appears our questions will not be answered. We left off our communications with him by confirming the following by e-mail:
You said that you had gone over what I sent you and that it was mostly a summing up and annotation of our earlier conversations. You said you felt: “We had already had this conversation.”[*Note: There was suspicion about who the Working Families Party might endorse. See: Wednesday, July 1, 2009, Working Families Party set to endorse Bloomberg. If the Working Families Party endorsed Bloomberg it would be supremely odd given the lead WFP took in protesting Bloomberg’s extension of term his limits with their “It’s Our Decision Campaign.” There has been another rumor floating around: That WFP will give Bloomberg a backdoor endorsement for mayoralty by announcing there will endorse no one. Democrats be damned! Whatever underlying truth there might have been to these concerns, word has just come out that the WPF is endorsing Bill Thompson for Mayor.]
I reminded you that I had asked whether Bertha Lewis was recusing herself or was involved in the formulation of the Working Families Party policy determination with respect to Atlantic Yards.
I said I had asked whether Ms. Lewis was recusing herself and you had said you didn’t know and would have to get back to me. You denied that you told me that you did not know whether Ms. Lewis was recusing herself.
You said what I’d sent referred to “background info” that was unfamiliar to you which I had not sent you. You said that you were “waiting” for that background information. I said that you had just asked for my questions so that you could get them answered and that I was sure that although you personally might not be familiar with the stories to which I referred, I was sure that other people at your organization were. In fact, policy makers at WPF really should be more familiar with these issues than those of us on the outside who have less access to this information. (These are major news stories and the representatives WFP has on the street seem quite familiar with the stories.)
You then begged to get off the phone because the Working Families Party was getting close to endorsing somebody for mayor.*
I asked if I should now assume you were no going to get back to me with answers to my questions as you had originally agreed to do the first week in June. You essentially confirmed this by saying you thought you have “given me an answer to pretty much everything.”
Therefore I will assume that you will NOT be getting back to me with answers respecting to the following:1. Does Ms. Lewis recuse herself when matters concerning Atlantic Yards come up for consideration by the Working Families Party? (If so, what does that recusal entail?)To editorialize, I do not know whether the Working Families Party does not have answers to these questions or just not satisfactory ones.
2. Will the Working Families Party now be taking a position opposing Atlantic Yards, especially given the recent news reports that the project will be verifiably so substantially worse than it was ever previously promoted as being. (This was before the recent votes of the MTA and ESDC for further giveaways to Forest City Ratner.)
3. Can you tell me why the Working Families Party did not supply a statement in opposition to the MTA's new recent giveaways of millions upon millions of extra dollars to Forest City Ratner? (Diminishing the capacity of the railyard alone constitutes at least a $100 million giveaway to Ratner with potentially severe repercussions to the MTA and straphangers in the future. Then there is another $80 million that the MTA is not collecting from Ratner in its own financial time of need. The giveaways on Wednesday did not end there.)