This post deals with some things the Spitzer administration elected to shroud. Not so coincidentally, it gives us an opportunity to muse on the subject of investigations and how the new preoccupation with federal stimulus funding could make them particularly important.
This continues our series regarding letters about Atlantic Yards written to politicians and people of influence. Early in the series was a letter to then Governor Spitzer (see: Dear Eliot, . . . . . Please be a true reformer, Friday, August 22, 2008). As we said in that post, we received a response to the letter we sent to Spitzer when he was still governor and the letter we received is an interesting story in itself. Interesting enough to provide it to you here, together with our letter in response to that gubernatorial response.
Our Letter Series
Our original letter urged Governor Spitzer to be a true reformer. Spitzer ran for his short-held office on a platform of general reform and specifically on accountability and proper governance of public authorities, Our exchange of letters revealed that Mr. Spitzer turned out to be quite the opposite. That was before he abruptly left office when other ethical problems came to light.
Other letters in our series to date are Dear Mr. Bloomberg, . . . . . the Harm and the Foul (Tuesday, August 19, 2008) and the letter we arranged to be on his desk of Clark Hoyt the day he started his job as the Times Public Editor, Time to Times; Dear, Dear, Dear, (Wednesday, December 17, 2008).
Your Letters and Petition to Paterson
Now is certainly a good time to be writing letters to Governor David A. Paterson. As before, we invite others to borrow freely from ours in structuring their own letters. (In addition, here is quick link to a petition you can sign to tell the Governor that Atlantic Yards should not be allowed to sop up federal stimulus funds sorely needed for worthwhile use: Petition to Governor Paterson.)
We will talk more at the end of this post about federal stimulus funds and what President Obama said in his speech Tuesday night about their proper use.
Original Letter to Governor Spitzer
Our original letter to Mr, Spitzer was a careful, comprehensive list of the problems with the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment, including the errant governmental process (or lack thereof) that engendered it. The letter was written from my perspective as an attorney and urban planner experienced in development as a senior government official who spent a significant amount of time implementing ethics and public authority reforms.
Peter A. Drago’s Executive Chamber Response
The response we received from Peter A. Drago, Director of Governor Spitzer’s Executive Chamber was, on its face, respectful and encouraging.
We reprint it here in full:
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May 31, 2007* * *
Dear Mr. White:
Governor Spitzer has asked me to thank you for contacting us and for sharing your concerns about the Atlantic Yards Project.
Your correspondence has been forwarded to the appropriate members of our staff. I am sure it will be of interest to them. Please be assured that we will keep your comments in mind during any discussions we may have on this matter.
Once again, thank you for writing.
Peter A. Drago
(Click on the picture to see an enlarged image version of this letter.)
Mr. Drago’s letter notwithstanding, when we called Governor Spitzer’s Executive Chamber to follow up we discovered the reality was far from what was represented or promised. We found that a flood of correspondence opposing the megaproject was coming into the governor’s office. What was the governor’s office doing with those letters? Making sure they were buried and didn’t see the light of day even if they raised concerns that absolutely needed to be addressed elsewhere in other government offices; for instance, the Inspector General’s Office.
Letter in Response to Mr. Dragos’ Response: We Infer Mr Spitzer is NOT a Reformer
I will let my letter back to Mr. Drago speak for itself.
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October 18, 2007
Mr. Peter A. Drago
Director of Operations
State of New York
Albany, New York, 12224
Re: Executive Chamber Handling of Correspondence Seeking Reform and Proper Conduct and Governance of Public Authorities- Proposed Atlantic Yards Megadevelopment
Dear Mr. Drago:
I am writing to follow up on correspondence about Atlantic Yards: The letter my wife and I wrote to Governor Spitzer on May 29, 2007 and your letter in response sent to me on behalf of the Governor of May 31, 2007. I consider myself privileged to have received your response: I know the Governor receives significant volumes of correspondence on the State-sponsored proposed Atlantic Yards and I appreciate that the number of those letters that receive any response is negligible.
Yesterday when I called your office to inquire about the action taken with respect to our letter it was suggested in the conversation that a letter would be appropriate follow-up to get additional information.
Your letter to me informed me that our “correspondence has been forwarded to the appropriate members of our staff” and provided your assurance that our comments will be kept “in mind during any discussions we may have on this matter.” It stated you were “sure” our letter would be “of interest.”
Notwithstanding, with respect to the status and follow-up on our correspondence about the ongoing project, I understand:
1. Your file on our correspondence was closed out on September 26, 2007.I have long been keenly aware that the amount of correspondence that the Governor receives about his and the State’s sponsorship and facilitation of the proposed Atlantic Yards is extraordinarily voluminous. Therefore it is not at all surprising to confirm with your office that the Governor (as handled by your Executive Chamber operation) gets thousands upon thousands of letters about Atlantic Yards, in a continual unceasing stream, that they come from people wide and far, in Brooklyn and all states in the union, and that virtually none of these letters express support for the proposed project. I was not surprised to confirm that this substantial volume of letters is all negative about the project. I also appreciate the fact that the letters about this exceedingly unusual proposed megadevelopment stand out as a highly appreciable portion of the 90,000 or so communications your office deals with in an average week.
2. Throughout the time that the file on our letter was open our letter was kept internal within the Executive Chamber and never sent out to any external agency or authority. That means it was not shared with agencies where actions needing scrutiny are taking place: It was not shared with the Urban Development Corporation (a.k.a. the Empire State Development Corporation) or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It was also not, for instance, sent on to an agency such as the State Inspector General’s Office.
Yes, our letter was one of a scant minority of letters about this megadevelopment to have received any acknowledgment. I would like to think that our letter earned that distinction, and became a representative voice for the multitude of other letters the Governor has received criticizing this proposed megadevelopment because of the carefully considered analysis I offered and my qualifications as: a.) a real estate development and public finance lawyer, b.) an urban planner, and c.) a senior State government official with expertise and experience in proper public governance and public authority reform. (Much of my expertise in public governance and public authority reform was developed and refined implementing reform initiatives backed by candidate Spitzer.- Governor Spitzer was the fourth Governor whom I served.). The recognition was also perhaps because my wife and I were once early supporters of the Governor.
I request more information about how our letter was followed up upon. By whom was it reviewed? What was done? From a standpoint of my familiarity with government I do not see how our letter could have received appropriate consideration by keeping it simply within the Executive Chamber. I am forced to wonder what purpose or expedient has been served by the handling it has received.
I remind you, and by copy of this letter remind the Governor, that our letter urged project scrutiny, process scrutiny, and the Governor’s communication with the State employees sensitive to: i.) everything which is wrong with the proposed megadevelopment, and ii.) knowledge of how it desperately needs to and might be fixed. It detailed reasons for the Governor to give his urgent attention to public authority reform in this critical area. If the Governor is simply quarantining in the Executive Chamber all letters offering criticism or legitimate insight into the project’s obviously errant DNA, it seems impossible that any of this has occurred.
Candidate Spitzer ran on a platform of public authority reform: If these are the actions by which Mr. Spitzer defines himself as Governor, what are we to infer?
Michael D. D. White
CC: Hon. Eliot Spitzer
Brooklyn Heights Association
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New York State Office of the Inspector General
Clearly there are a number of places in government where it would have been valuable for correspondence such as mine to go, not necessarily limited to the State Inspector General’s Office. We want to focus for a minute, however, on the Inspector General’s Office because there are certainly many things respecting the no-bid Atlantic Yards project it would be their purview to look into, including, for instance, what explains the very peculiar Boymelgreen wrench shape of the project’s footprint. We quote here (in full) from the Inspector General’s mission statement on its website:
New York State’s residents are entitled to a government that is committed to the highest standards of integrity, efficiency, and accountability. We in the Office of the State Inspector General have been entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that State officials and employees meet these fundamentally important standards. It is a responsibility we take very seriously. Indeed, we are committed to promoting and enhancing an environment that instills public confidence in our government and are proud to work with and for the thousands of public employees and citizens alike who share that commitment. The Office of the State Inspector General operates under the authority of New York State Executive Law Article 4-A. Our mission is to detect, investigate, deter and eliminate corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest, abuses of office, and waste in the State entities under our jurisdiction. These include executive branch agencies, departments, divisions, offices, boards, commissions, public authorities and public benefit corporations -- any entity of State government headed by an appointee of the Governor that does not have its own statutory Inspector General. Our jurisdiction encompasses more than 150 entities employing the vast majority of New York State’s nearly 190,000 public servants, as well as private entities doing business with the State.There may be those who feel they have good reason to believe that the Inspector General’s Office will hold back from investigating the Governor’s Office in a situation such as Atlantic Yards. That might normally leave a void. But here is where something struck us as interesting when we listened to President Obama’s speech on Tuesday. . .
We have implemented two distinct but complementary strategies for accomplishing our mission: We vigorously and fairly investigate allegations of misconduct; we also conduct audits and systemic reviews of State agency programs and procedures, recommending improvements for positive and permanent reform of agency operations.
We perform these functions with a professional staff of trained investigators, experienced attorneys and skilled forensic analysts who possess a broad range of expertise and a commitment to combating corruption and promoting greater efficiency in State government.
Our efforts could not succeed without the assistance of the overwhelming majority of public employees who do their jobs honestly and effectively. If you are a State employee who is aware of misconduct by a State official or employee or by any individual conducting business with the State, you are required to report your information to us promptly and may do so by calling our Hot Line, contacting us by Mail or using our On-Line Complaint Form. Those who suspect or are aware of misconduct by a State official or employee, but who are not public employees themselves, should similarly report such information to us. Keep in mind that any State employee who acts in good faith to report such misconduct may not be subject to dismissal, discipline or other adverse personnel action.
Again, welcome to our site. We appreciate your interest in our Office. Please send any questions or comments about our site to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Federal Recovery Plan Inspector General
President Obama, talking about the federal recovery plan spending, announced his appointment of a federal inspector general to hold “mayors and governors across the country” accountable for the federal recovery money they spend (emphasis supplied)
I know there are some in this chamber and watching at home who are skeptical of whether this plan will work. I understand that skepticism. Here in Washington, we've all seen how quickly good intentions can turn into broken promises and wasteful spending. And with a plan of this scale comes enormous responsibility to get it right.That means that if Atlantic Yards were ever to receive federal stimulus funds a federal inspector could mount an investigation.
That is why I have asked Vice President Biden to lead a tough, unprecedented oversight effort - because nobody messes with Joe. I have told each member of my Cabinet as well as mayors and governors across the country that they will be held accountable by me and the American people for every dollar they spend. I have appointed a proven and aggressive Inspector General to ferret out any and all cases of waste and fraud. And we have created a new website called recovery.gov so that every American can find out how and where their money is being spent.
It is interesting when just one office like a State inspector General’s Office has jurisdiction to look into improprieties. They may ignore them or choose to be lethargically inactive. What may raise interest sufficient to get an investigation rolling under one state administration may differ from another administration, and vice versa. We have noticed, however, that the dynamic often changes significantly when at least two such offices share jurisdiction over a matter: Casual disregard of a matter’s significance recedes as an option and competition can take hold. We certainly don’t ever want to see Atlantic Yards put on a list of projects to potentially receive federal stimulus money. But if that were ever to happen, a shift in the dynamic of who wants to investigate what and when and with how much vigor could cause things to become very interesting.
(President Obama delivering his inaugural address.)