Monday, April 27, 2009

Watch It Bud . . How “Bloomie” Are Things After Bloomie’s Falls?

Last fall we wrote about Mayor Bloomberg’s self-congratulatory masterminding of the New York City Waterfalls whose spewing salt poisoned the soil and removed the leaves from trees and vegetation in the vicinity. See: Self-Congratulation “Befalls” a Man Who Would Know No Limits (Wednesday, October 15, 2008). More recently we wrote on reports that vegetation is reportedly not coming back the way it should. See the end of our Bloomberg Update: Fire and Ice (Part II) (Sunday, April 12, 2009).

It’s April 27th and we have been watching the Honey Locust trees on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to see how well they might recover with the arrival of spring. Today we think we have a partial answer. And we have pictures that show the situation.

Last Summer

First, below is a picture (click to enlarge) of the barren tress taken last summer. It appeared in our first piece on the subject: Wednesday, September 3, 2008
“Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass.” (Inartful Clues to New York City Government?).

A Control Group: Healthy Honey Locust Trees That Were Far from the Waterfalls

Here are two photos (click to enlarge) of healthy Honey Locust trees budding. You have to walk far to get a good control group because the salt spay from the falls affected trees on the Promenade to some extent as far away as Clark Street. On the healthy trees the buds are opening robustly all along the branches right out to the tips.

Most Damaged Honey Locust Trees

Here are two photos (click to enlarge) of Honey Locust tree buds on a tree that was near the Waterfalls and is struggling to come back. The budding is not as robust and there is no budding at the branch tips indicating that there may be a fair amount of dieback from which the tree will need to recover. If anything this tree ought to be further along at this point since it is in a spot where it gets more sun.

Tempting to Forge Links? Digressing to Say That This Is “Hard(ing)ly” About Bloomberg

(Enlarged portion of New York Times image in article about arrest of Ray Harding.)

Last week we were writing a piece consisting of just one week’s worth of news updates about Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. (Although all the updates were confined to those involving reasons for concern about the mayor and his administration,- but are there any others?- the piece already ran long. See: Keeping up with Bloomberg and Friends: Stark New Scandals and Is it True WSJ Readers Don’t Commit Murder? - Sunday, April 19, 2009.)

Hevesi and Harding and . . .

We were tempted to mention Ray Harding’s indictment as part of the Bloomberg story, but it didn’t seem sufficiently Bloombergian. We could have worked it in because we did write about the widening Hevesi investigation in regard to revelations that Steven Rattner arranged for his investment firm, the Quadrangle Group, to pay $1.1 million to obtain New York State pension fund business. We said that this raises Blombergian questions since Rattner is not only a friend defended by Bloomberg, but his firm was named “to manage the personal and family foundation assets of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” which are supposed to be managed according to strict standards to avoid conflicts of interests for Bloomberg. All it takes for Rattner to blow the theoretical protections against the conflicts is for Rattner to tell Bloomberg more than he is permitted to know about his money (his billions). For more on this, listen to The Brian Lehrer, Pension Scandal, April 21, 2009 with guests Tom Robbins, columnist for the Village Voice, and Peter Lattman, Wall Street Journal reporter. (BTW: We put in our two cents worth with a comment on the site.)

The most recent update on this story is that:

Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement on Tuesday that he had no plans to move his money and that Quadrangle was doing “a great job.”
(See: Quadrangle Facing Questions Over Pension Funds, by Louise Story, April 21, 2009.)

Pursuit of More Endorsements Hardly Gets You There Either, Even When “Liberally” Considered

Another way we could have worked the Harding indictment into the Bloomberg story was to talk about the political party endorsements Bloomberg is garnering. The variety of miscellaneous endorsements Bloomberg is pursuing may make for some odd mismatches of questionable import. As for Bloomberg and Ray Harding’s Liberal Party? This is from the Daily News:

In 2005, the mayor again ran with GOP and Independence Party support and also gathered signatures to run on the Liberal Party line. The Liberal Party lost its ballot line in 2002 after its gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Cuomo, failed to capture 50,000 votes - the threshold necessary to keep it.

Asked if Bloomberg might seek to run on yet another independent party line this fall, Wolfson said: "Nothing is ruled out or in."
(See: Mayor Mike Bloomberg seeks endorsement from Working Families Party, Monday, by Elizabeth Benjamine, April 13th 2009.)

A New Connection: Will Thompson Be Undermined In His Race Against Bloomberg?

Here is something that just happened that could tie the Hevesi pension fund investment investigation and the aforementioned Quadrangle Group into Bloomberg’s race for mayor in yet one more way. And it could also mean that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation into the pension fund will have an unexpectedly adverse affect on Cuomo’s expected run for Governor in 2010.

Right now William C. Thompson Jr., the New York City Comptroller, is the front-running challenger to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in this fall’s election. The Hevesi investigation is widening so that Cuomo will now also be investigating, Thompson who succeeded Alan Hevesi as comptroller. Thompson’s office also had dealings with Quadrangle. Thompson issued a statement that “called for Mr. Cuomo’s office to investigate his office, and specifically whether the city pension funds `were intentionally misled or deceived as to the identities of any placement agents involved in an investment by the funds in the Quadrangle Group.’” and “to clear the air.” (See: New York City Comptroller Draws Scrutiny, by Danny Hakim, April 22, 2009.) One must wonder whether Thompson expected that Cuomo was otherwise going to announce that it was going to begin investigating his office as the “fallout from a pension corruption inquiry continued to widen.”

The Times pointed out the obvious potential effect on the mayoral race:

So far, Mr. Thompson has kept free of the pension scandal. If that changes, it could compromise his already formidable task of unseating a billionaire mayor.
(On Sunday the Comptroller Office issued a sort “the-plot-thickens” press release saying that Quadrangle did not accurately identify the placement agent it used and expressing the comptroller’s disappointment that Quadrangle’s did not “see fit to vote to terminate the investment of monies to a fund that is under such a cloud and stand firm in my position that the City Pension Systems acted appropriately in voting to terminate any such further investments.”)

And how might this affect Cuomo’s race for governor? The more Bloomberg’s race for Mayor is an uncontested event, the more Bloomberg is likely to be strengthened if he later goes into the race for governor as a stepping stone towards challenging and ousting Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Cuomo might find himself rather bloodied by a primary fight with Paterson, a fellow Democrat. On the other hand, since no one seems to want to take on Bloomberg’s billions in a serious fight, Bloomberg could arrive on the scene with a reputation for invulnerability, no one having effectively tested the chinks in his armor. If anything, Bloomberg would be thankful to Cuomo for knocking out Paterson for him before he next moves to take on Obama.

So There is No Bloombergian Harding Link After All?

So there it is: Try as we might, there are no links we can think of that would have allowed us to work in the Ray Harding arrest story into our Keeping up with Bloomberg and Friends Bloomberg update story. . .

Wait a minute! What about that piece we just did that connected Mayor Giuliani’s Housing Development Corporation chief, Russell Harding (Ray Harding’s son) to Bloomberg’s Commissioner of Finance, Martha E. Stark? Wouldn’t that have worked? (For the link, see: Monday, April 27, 2009, Links to Avoid: Unnecessary Temptation, Unnecessary Subsidies.)

Links to Avoid: Unnecessary Temptation, Unnecessary Subsidies

(Enlarged portion of New York Times image in article about arrest of Ray Harding.)

By the end of this article we will be talking about the evils of unwarranted public subsidies and their abuse by top government officials. But first . . .

A Teaser?

What is the name of those little teaser headlines that appear, lines separating them from the rest of the text, in the middle of the newspaper or magazine story in which they appear? They are not subheads, not sidebars, not “pull quotes.”

Ah, but why worry? What’s in a name anyway? A rose by another name! . . . (. . .and all that) Let’s just call what we described a `teaser subhead.’ There is a `teaser subhead’ in a New York Times article (print edition only) which currently has us interested:
A boss is linked to the sort of corruption his old party once fought.
The article in question?- - Ex-Leader’s Indictment Further Weakens Liberal Party, by Sam Roberts, April 19, 2009. The story is about the recent indictment of Raymond B. Harding, the former Liberal Party leader in the broadening Hevesi pay-to-play investigations scandal. See also: Ex-Chairman of New York Liberal Party Indicted, by Danny Hakim, April 15, 2009.

A Party in Name Only

These days people are wondering whether the Liberal Party is a party “in name only.” That brings us right back to the slippery question we started with: “What’s in a name?” Things will be what they are, but names can be misleading if things drift away from the names by which they are known.

A Tempting Drift Diagnosis

We offer a diagnosis of the source of political drift: We think that what most often separates a political party from its name and principles is the pull of temptation. The temptation in the comptrollers’s scandal is that the structures allowed one man to control too much money and there was a lack of transparency to boot. It was just too easy to skim. That’s why reforms called for in the wake of the Hevesi scandal envision a board at the state level rather than having single individuals be responsible for investments. (By the way, we note that this important reform was not amongst the reforms proposed by the State Comptroller, the Governor and the State Superintendent of Insurance, in December 2007 per state press release proclaiming that the pension fund had been brought “up to modern standards”: GOVERNOR AND COMPTROLLER PROPOSE PENSION FUND REFORMS- Changes Will Create New Ethics Standards and Increase Transparency.) We suggest that as an indicator of earnestness, people watch to see which reformers call for pension investment decisions to be reposed in a newly formulated board and which reformers call for less than that.

Forging a Link: Describing Another Temptation

We’d like to forge a link here and wend our way to talking about another temptation in politics: Discretionary subsidies. Ray Harding’s arrest couldn’t help but make us think of the criminal prosecution of his son, Russell Harding, who once held a political position under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Russell Harding was put in charge of the New York City Housing Development Corporation by Giuliani. In that position he oversaw the flow of huge amounts of subsidy and was invested with a fair amount of discretion that could tilt the balance with respect to the financial value of that flow for recipients. Russell Harding was ultimately sentenced to more than five years in prison for embezzlement (and possession of child pornography). It was excellently covered in articles by Tom Robbins in the Village Voice. (See- Features: The Private Lives of Russell Harding, The Feds Enter the Picture, Tom Robbins, Tuesday, June 11th 2002. as well as the “related stories” at the site.)

The sad tale of the younger Harding’s looting of the city agency for personal expenses obviously involves cumulative infractions significant enough for Harding to have wound up in jail but it also involved small pettiness like Harding’s having the agency pay for his morning bagels.

Eliminate Unnecessary Subsidies to Eliminate Political Drift

We have another prescription to eliminate temptations that lead to political drift: Eliminate unnecessary subsidies. Even though subsidies are proliferating in our society that does not mean they are necessary, and unnecessary subsidies engender political drift. They are hard to police and in pursuit of their tempting allure, Democrats cease to act like Democrats and Republicans and Conservatives cease to act like Republicans and Conservatives.

Atlantic Yards Example: Public Rolled With the Drift of Role Reversals

Consider, for example, the case of the highly unnecessary Atlantic Yards that is proposed to be massively subsidized almost beyond belief. For starters, the project will never deliver its ostensible benefits which are little but Orwellian fictions. In championing this project, Republican’s like former Governor Pataki or former Senate Leader Joe Bruno become proponents of excessively large government and an extraordinary level of government intervention in the private sector. Conversely, Democrats, like former governor Eliot Spitzer, become proponents of specially aiding a wealthy real estate developer and sports team owner like Bruce Ratner at the expense of the general New York populace. Voila! What better example could you have of political drift?

Unencumbered by a fixed party label, Bloomberg alone is not subject to such criticism since, names aside, he seems to be fixedly devoted to only one thing. He is regularly on the side of an oligarchic big government that aids the privileged.

Prosecutorial Drift . . .

Speaking of drift, the Russell Harding story also tells the tale, if it is to be believed, of a former prosecutor (Giuliani) behaving like a criminal. We suggest giving belief a try even if the story is told by convicted felon Russell Harding himself Last September a story came out when Mr. Harding started blogging. The story regards Harding's role in getting Judith Nathan, the girlfriend and future wife of the then “still-married Giuliani, an Upper East Side apartment at below-market rent.” If it is true, it provides a good example of how unmanageable these kinds of public subsidies can be and a good argument for eliminating or strictly limiting them. (See Atlantic Yards Report: Saturday, September 27, 2008, In tale of Giuliani influence, insight into the flexibility in size of affordable housing units.)

We won’t repeat the Atlantic Yards Report story above at length but it is a piece well worth revisiting that highlights highly problematic concerns and offers:
. . . insight into how much flexibility the city allows regarding the size of apartments designated as affordable housing.
Even if the Judith Nathan below-market apartment procuring part of the story is not true or provable, Atlantic Yards Report’s analysis of the problematic “flexibility” described by Harding in his blog is real and incontrovertible.

Awkward Toleration?

Did the alleged Judith Nathan impropriety occur as described? Part of the overall Russell Harding HDC story is that Harding’s other improprieties at HDC were known and not halted or publicly revealed by colleagues and other professionals at the agency. Without being on the inside, it is hard to say for sure who perceived exactly what wrongs occurred and who was fighting those wrongs in what ways. But what was done to stop Harding is significant; this is the kind of thing that affects careers. One wonders what those professionals believed would ultimately become public. And who knows which of those professionals may, for instance, have been doing a public service by feeding information to prosecutors or Tom Robbins at the Village Voice?

Why wasn’t Russell Harding outed sooner? We offer the explanation that he was perceived as being supported from the top no matter what was his misconduct.

Analogy Offered: Another Mayoral Administration (Bloomberg’s), Another Unnecessary Subsidy (for the Yankees), Another City Agency (Taxation and Finance) in Moral Drift

We cannot help but analogize. The HDC situation under Giuliani’s Russell Harding seems like the current situation of New York City Finance Department under Commissioner Martha E. Stark. The Finance Department is beset at the top simultaneously with nepotism scandals and with a (bigger) scandal involving manipulation of real property assessments in order to specially benefit the Yankees with financing (something that was desired by Bloomberg) at the expense of the public. (We mentioned above Bloomberg’s penchant for oligarchy delivering goodies to the rich.)

We have already asked whether Bloomberg’s reliance on Commissioner Stark to deliver an inflated property assessment for Yankee Stadium’s benefit engendered the culture gone awry in the City Finance Department:
. . . By the same token, we can see how if Commissioner Stark was a little bit lax in the nepotism department she might have problems enforcing rules against her top deputy engaging in a little bit of the same. . .

Beyond this, there is something else: Did Ms. Stark and Ms Ottley-Brown, by virtue of executing the Yankee Stadium maneuvers, feel that they had insurance for a little bit of the inside privilege that was swashing about? After all, the IRS and the U.S. taxpayers were being raided for millions.
(See: Sunday, April 19, 2009, Keeping up with Bloomberg and Friends: Stark New Scandals and Is it True WSJ Readers Don’t Commit Murder?)

Doesn’t this sound a great deal like Russell Harding under Giuliani?

Top-Down Moral: Avoid the Drift

The moral here is that when there is toleration or endorsement of subsidy abuse that comes from the top and the resulting haze of political drift takes over, you can readily get a culture of corruption that permeates down.

It is all linked. One things leads to another. Our prescription for a cure? Avoid all unnecessary subsidies: Our politicians are not mature or responsible enough to handle them and our technocratic professional class can’t be counted upon to keep us safe from their abuse.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Markowitz, McCullough, Me and Other Merry Minions of the Blogosphere

A national news magazine, Newsweek, is on our Noticing New York beat, featuring a story we’ve been covering: Dock Street! And we have Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s comment on this, together with other updates on that story. Dock Street, the tower proposed to be built next to the Brooklyn Bridge, is mostly what this post is going to be about.

First, a little about the setting in which Mr. Markowitz commented on Dock Street.

BP’s Bagels for Brooklyn Bloggers

(Marty Markowitz far left. Norman Oder far right.)

Do you want evidence that blogging is becoming a more important part of the local news? Thursday morning Mr. Markowitz held a Bloggers’ Breakfast at Brooklyn Borough Hall to discuss coverage of local events. We were at a conference table full of other bloggers and on-line journalists. The others, including Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report, have already reported on the event and there is even some on-line video of part of the morning, courtesy of the Brooklyn Heights Blog. For a fuller account you might want to start with Atlantic Yards Report, which links to the coverage available from the other bloggers, allowing comparison of a few different takes. (Friday, April 24, 2009, Breakfast with Marty: jousting about budget issues and adding urban planners to community boards.) AYR also has made audio availble. We may return to the morning’s discussions in a follow-up report, but right now our focus is mostly on the development issue of Dock Street.

Present besides ourselves were: Atlantic Yards Report’s Norman Oder, Brownstoner's Jonathan Butler; Flatbush Gardener's Chris Kreussling; Ditmas Park Blog's Liena Zagare; Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn's Louise Crawford; Brooklyn Heights Blog (four people), which is announcing the imminent on-line rollout of something called The Brooklyn Bugle, Self-Absorbed Boomer’s Claude Scales;'s Dan Cavanagh; Pardon Me for Asking's Katia Kelly; and the New York Times “The Local” blogger Andy Newman.

What’s “Off” About Restriction What’s “On” the Record

We bristled a bit when we were asked to consent to a segmenting of the morning into on and off the record portions. Crikey, it’s only just recently we wrote about problems we have with this kind of approach (See: (See: Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Permission to Speak Frankly: How We Know More and Less From Breakfast Interviews With Marisa Lago.) In retrospect, we wish we had screwed our courage to the sticking point and pressed for a majority vote to resist this structuring by Mr. Markowitz’s aides. Hindsight convinces us that going off the record didn’t benefit the bloggers present or serve the public. Also, after reading some of the blogged coverage we are not sure that everything that probably never should have been off the record, actually stayed off the record, putting us in a strange position if we want to comment on that published coverage.

Would it be improper to hint at questions the collected bloggers might have been asked? Or what if we extemporized here to say that whatever the differences between print and on-line journalism might be, defining those differences is a rapidly moving target in a world where things are changing fast. It is sobering to think that the renowned and much revered Gowanus Lounge, created by Bob Guskind, a journalist who shifted into on-line journalism, had only existed for two years when Mr. Guskind died. (Noticing New York is coming up on its first birthday. Brownstoner “went live” in late 2004.) And would we be breaking confidences if we were to extemporize about the relative ethics of on-line journalism and the more traditional print media by pointing out that many bloggers and on-line journalists are raising ethical questions about the (increasingly consolidated) ownership of the larger enterprises and whether objectivity and impartiality is adversely affected by such ownership, as well as who their landlords and business partners are? (See: Tuesday, March 31, 2009, Looking at Things From Another Point of View: Do We See Distinctions That Make A Difference?)

Here are some thoughts about being “off the record” parallel to our own from Dan Cavanagh’s

They divide the meeting into “Off the Record” and “On the Record” Which in my opinion there is never an “On the Record” or “Off the record”. Its just another way That a way that they are used to dealing with regular reporters, its also a way to control try and control the way their information gets out there, because if you violate the sacred rule and don’t play nice, you don’t get any more information.

The “Off the Record” part just consisted of the bloggers going around the room, saying who they were and what they do, which Marty listened to. Then their staff asking questions to clarify or to expand on what we actually do. They were mainly curious about how we accept advertising and who is a paid employee or just a volunteer.
(See: Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz Invites Brooklyn Bloggers for a Discussion.)
Here is Louise Crawford of OTBKB on the subject of going off the record:
I know whatever Marty said was supposed to be off the record but what about all the interesting things the bloggers said? We talked about journalistic ethics, advertising, and the role that blogs play in Brooklyn.

I was impressed and surprised that Marty invited Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report to the breakfast. Oder, who describes his blog as "a watch dog blog that offers analysis, commentary, and reportage about Forest City Ratner's planned $4 billion Atlantic Yards project, . . . . Needless to say, there was some tension and even conflict during the event between the two.

But I can't remember if that part was on or off the record.
Face Time

Louise Crawford in OTBKB also offered this observation: “It's always fun to attend blog gatherings because it allows you to put a face to a blogger that you know only on-line.” If you are curious, the collective coverage has quite a few photos of the attendees. The best way to put a face to Noticing New York’s Michael D. D. White is the first photo in the account from Pardon Me for Asking. We can be distinguished by our tie, blue jacket and serious demeanor.

Other On-the-Record Coverage

Atlantic Yards Report has the most thorough coverage of the on-the-record portion of the morning, including Markowitz’s response to an important development issue question: What about endorsing Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s move for more support and resources for community boards. (A related concern discussed by AYR is the independence of individual board members to vote their conscience on a project like Atlantic Yards or Yankee Stadium if it is contrary to what the Borough President wants.) See also AYR’s coverage of the budget for the BBP’s office which relates to the role of the BBP, also discussed by AYR.

As AYR notes, other questions concerned the BP's position on the Gowanus issue, (MM: “I am trying to get a grasp of what it would all mean. Trying to get a handle on it.”), further digitization of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and “the funding of Markowitz's charities by Bloomberg L.P,” which AYR described as our NNY focus with a useful link to our:“Charity?” We Begin to Groan (Monday, October 20, 2008). AYR notes we were told that Markowitz and staff would get back to us on this issue.)

Newsweek’s McCullough “Viewpoint” on Brooklyn Bridge Views and Insight from Marty’s View

That brings us to the question we asked which most directly addressed development in New York: It concerned what is unfolding with respect to the Dock Street project, the tall tower that is proposed to go up in DUMBO next to the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite mounting high profile opposition, the City Planning Commission just approved the project on Wednesday (the day before) with only minor modification. (See: April 22, 2009 DUMBO development: Smaller Dock Street project moves forward, by Ben Muessig, The Brooklyn Paper.) Significantly, the commissioners voted 11-2 in favor of the project despite the fact that Shirley McRae, the commissioner representing Brooklyn, (appointed by Marty Markowitz) voted against the project. Karen A. Phillips, the commissioner appointed by Public Advocate Betsy Gottbaum, also voted against the project. (We remember that Ms. Phillips also courageously voted in opposition to the Columbia University expansion plan’s use of eminent domain.)

We asked for Mr. Markowitz’s reaction to the article about the project, just out in Newsweek, by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning, historian David McCullough, author of The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. We noted that Newsweek’s cover featured a headline lead-in to the double page spread in the magazine’s interior. Mr. Markowitz is meeting with Mr. McCullough next week. (See the Newsweek article: Viewpoint: A Masterpiece in Jeopardy, The biographer of the great Brooklyn Bridge on how a proposed new building could ruin an icon of American ingenuity.)

Mr. Markowitz offered some interesting observations about the process by which the Walentas’s Dock Street had obtained its approval from the City Planning Commission, including saying that opposition by him to the project, had he offered it, “would have been taken and thrown out the window” and he used interesting slang to describe City Planning Commission Chairman Amanda Burden’s next move after he offered his proposed modification of the project: “Then that got her out and then she `walked the streets’ or whatever she did.” The bottom-line message Mr. Markowitz seemed to be communicating was that while he will meet with Mr. McCullough to “hear him out,” this meeting should not be expected to change something that is on an inevitable political course. Mr. Markowitz refereed a New York Post article for its value in that it “illuminates how the next step may go.” We think a look at the Post’s article makes Mr. Markowitz’s reference ominous.

Here is Mr. Markowitz’s answer at length, after which we will discuss what the Post article portends:

Listen, my Dock Street position - We maximized. . . I chose not to say `no development, no residential development’ it would have been irresponsible because residential development is going to happen. We decided. . . This office took, I can’t tell you how many weeks, to come up with, including walking over that bridge and taking photographs. I mean, really, I wish we had the monies to do like some of the big developers have the money to do. And we came up with a decision that maximized the bridge’s view, maximized the `bowl’ . . Because, listen I sat through close to four hours of hearings upstairs. Over a hundred speakers. I don’t mind telling you . . . everyone of them. And there were certain themes that were coming out. I then went to the Brooklyn Heights Association to talk about it as well.

And I know what he [David McCullough] is going to talk with me about it, obviously, and I share a lot of his concerns. But for me, for instance to have said, `Sorry, I’m against the Walentas proposal:’ It would have been taken and thrown out the window.

So what happened was, that when I came out with my position, Amanda Burden, you know, obviously it prompted her to ah. .then revisit. . because she had to certify, to begin with, her agency, then the Brooklyn Office of City Planning. Then that got her out and then she `walked the streets’ or whatever she did. And then she issued a modest modification, is the best way to put it. Nowhere near mine.

But I will be eager to speak with him. I have met him on a number of occasions. Particularly, the last time was in Fort Greene Park, in fact. And when he visits me I’ll hear him out.

Next, battle now goes to the City Council. That’s where it is. And the Post today, (is it today?), but on-line, had a very interesting story* that I read yesterday and I don’t know if you read it, but I think you ought to. I think that it illuminates how the next step may go.
Prompted by one of his aides to speak about whether the real estate site for which the project is proposed has “as of right”development options, Mr. Markowitz continued:

Right, that’s why I say residential development of a hotel or whatever, and there are those who say, `well, he wouldn’t build a hotel:’ I can’t say that! How do I know?
(* Controversial Dumbo Project Gets Ok: Residents: Building Will Block Bridge Views, By Rich Calder, April 22, 2009.)

Benefits of Post Perspective on Predestination

Here (emphasis provided) is reporting from that Post article to which Mr. Markowitz referred.

Councilman David Yassky, who represents DUMBO, is one of the project's biggest critics. But while the council usually backs the wishes of a local councilman on land use issues, it currently appears divided over the project.

Meanwhile, records show the Walentases' firm, Two Trees Management, spent $409,323 lobbying the city since Jan. 2007, with much of the money going towards trying to sway support for the Dock Street project.

Officials for the company -- including the Walentases – have also dished out $29,700 in campaign donations over this period to Councilwoman Melinda Katz and another $19,800 to Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Katz, a Queens Democrat running for comptroller, heads the council real estate committee, which must eventually decide whether to put Two Trees' request for a necessary zoning change before the full council for final approval.
In other words, it doesn’t look good in terms of the effort to defeat this project.

You can observe from the forgoing a strange alignment that indicates how far the Bloomberg administration is willing to go to honor a deal it has cut with a developer in advance of a public process. Notice that those closest to their local community constituency oppose the project, but they are being overridden by those at a remove who are closer to the Bloomberg administration. A vote from a commissioner purely independent of Bloomberg’s influence like Commissioner Phillips aligns with the community constituency and is in favor of protecting a national monument.

Proof that the Bloomberg administration (at the very highest levels) started its manipulation of the end result far in advance of the public process can be seen in what is coming clearly to light now via FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests: the surreptitious coordination by the School Construction Authority to “bundle” the Walentas Dock Street with a school that the community wants but denying the community that school where it wants it and where it should go.

Bloomberg’s Parochial Partiality to Protecting A Special Developer Deal

We believe that there are times when mayoral influence can be appropriately used to override local community opposition to projects, but we think that those situations are confined to times when a greater public good must be served, such as a prison, transportation network or sewage or trash disposal facility that serves the greater public at large. In the case of the Walentas project the mayor is using his enormous power as mayor (and as the city’s richest resident) to fight for something parochial, a single 18-story tower that benefits only a single developer. The only reason to build this building at this particular site is because the developer owns and controls the site.

McCullough’s View of the Greater Public Good: Stewardship For a Monument to Our National Soul

We think the point of nonparochial view as to what best serves the greater good is expressed by Mr. McCullough in Newsweek, where he calls for us to be stewards of the bridge as a national treasure. A few extracts of his eloquence from the article, which should be read in its entirety:

The most long lasting of great American works, the structure destined "to convey some knowledge of us to remote posterity," said a New York writer long ago, was "not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge." . . .

"The Great Bridge" was news everywhere. It was the moon shot of its time, a brave, surpassing technical triumph, and more. . . . Over the years it has been photographed more than anything ever built by Americans. It has been the inspiration for songs, poems, paintings, no end of personal reminiscences and the setting for scenes in movies. It has remained New York's most famous, best-loved landmark.

Above all it has stood through good times and bad as a majestic symbol of affirmation, still there, still spanning the river for all to see and enjoy,

* * * *

In the 14-year struggle to build the bridge, work in the caissons below the river, accidents of all kinds took the lives of more than a dozen men and left many more crippled for life.

In the years since, its importance has seldom ever been doubted or seriously challenged. The sanctity of its own space has been unviolated by and large. Until lately. . . . To permit such a project so close to the bridge would be a shameful, inexcusable mistake. . .

Would we wish to see an 18-story building go up beside the Statue of Liberty, or next to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or beside the Washington Monument? Of course not.

Would the city of Paris permit an 18-story building beside the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame? Unthinkable.
(BTW: If you are interested in assessing the visual impact of the building in greater depth you might want to look at the readback section comments to the Newsweek article. We think that the developer, uncomfortable with the facts, is attempting to deny them.)

Choreographing the Inevitable

If the process Mr. Markowitz described for the Dock Street project and the ultimate disregard for the Brooklyn Bridge is (like the mayor’s third term race itself) one of Bloombergian inevitability and predestination, then what are we to think about Markowitz’s description of his weeks of work to propose a compromise? However earnestly he describes his efforts, Mr. Markowitz’s proposed compromise was not well received. Coming out just before the City Planning Commission hearings, it tended to confuse things somewhat and while Mr. Markowitz observes that Ms. Burden’s compromise was “Nowhere near mine” it might be said that Mr. Markowitz’s proposed compromise actually paved the way to make “Ms. Burden’s” non-compromising-compromise seem more acceptable. (Notice, in terms of mayoral control by Bloomberg, how the one-story reduction of the project is referred to as Ms. Burden’s rather than the work of the City Planning Commissioners collectively.)

Violins Doing Violence to Process

If the deal with the developer that the School Construction Authority manipulated to put in place in advance is an inevitable result orchestrated by Bloomberg, then the “public process” that precedes it is just a dance. That makes Mr. Markowitz’s proposed compromise just a part of that dance where various functionaries get to play various face-saving roles. Some of the song for that dance is being provided by Amanda Burden herself. Listen for the violin music for this one; according to the Post:

City Planning Director Amanda Burden called the application "one of the most difficult to come before the commission in many years."

We have heard the “agony” theme before. We heard it from Councilman David Yassky when he voted to extend the mayor’s term limits and we heard if from Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Fred Bland when he voted to let the St. Vincent’s proposal go forward. The expression of agony should not be a refuge for an inexcusable vote. The good news is that Councilman Yassky is working hard to defeat Dock Street, including leading the FOIL investigation into the activities of the School Construction Authority. Commissioner Bland’s architectural firm, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, is responsible for the design of the Dock Street project so you can see how readily things become tangled.

(City Councilman David Yassky, who is running for Comptroller, testifying against Dock Street project before City Planning Commission.)

There is no reason for Ms. Burden’s agony because there really was no reason for her to approve the Walentas building, putting the interests of the developer ahead of the interests of the greater pubic. And if there was a reason for her agony, why shave off only one story of what the developer proposed? And don’t we know that a part of these dances is for developers to propose more than they expect to get to begin with? (We do not agree one whit with the Brooklyn Paper’s suggestion that the shaving off of the single story from the development was because the commission was “partially swayed by a late push by Brooklyn Bridge historian David McCullough.” We think this was part of the prearranged dance choreographed long ago. See: Saturday, March 14, 2009, At the City Planning Commission Hearings on Proposed Dock Street Project: A Reprise.)

How Inevitable is What Bloomberg Wants?

We would like to think that the Bloombergian plans to push the Dock Street project through City Council are not inevitable and we think the opposition should continue to fight with the assumption they have a chance of winning. How often do you have David McCullough and the rest of the nation on your side? This week’s Brooklyn Heights Courier in a cursory article (Stars Sock Dock!, by Stephen Witt) is reporting that other recognized stars are mobilizing in opposition to Dock Street. The list includes: film maker Ken Burns who did a PBS documentary on the Bridge, Gabriel Byrne of “In Treatment” and “the Usual Suspects,” as well as actors Helen Hunt, Gary Sinise, Ana Gasteyer and Skipp Sudduth.

Perhaps, with attention from a national news magazine like Newsweek, Bloomberg can be swayed from his obstinate fight. He should care: Wednesday morning at a New School forum the Media and the Mayor: Michael Bloomberg's Transformation, (Thursday, April 23, 2009, Debating whether Bloomberg's changed, media panelists offer mixed but critical views of the mayor), Wayne Barrett a reporter who has written for the Village Voice some of the best thoughtful, well researched and deeply considered pieces about the Bloomberg administration, talked about the likelihood that Bloomberg will be running for president in 2012, looking to oust Obama. Bloomberg tried running in 2008 and Barrett says he thinks Bloomberg still “harbors the dream.” We agree.

At that same New School forum, the panel discussed how inevitable Bloomberg’s election to a third term as mayor might be. Right now people are betting the odds are strongly in favor.

Dock Street and Bloomberg third term victories? The fights to stave off these Bloomberg orchestrated seeming inevitabilities are difficult. But just imagine how much more overwhelming the odds will be for those opposing Bloomberg if Bloomberg wins, particularly if he ascends to a third term so that more checks and balances fall away. It is likely that in most future fights the opposition will not have on its side a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning historian like David McCullough. The more one thinks about it, the more one realizes how critical it is to hand Bloomberg the defeats he deserves as quickly and as decisively as possible.

Monday, April 20, 2009

All Eyes Are On. . . . Coney Island

If Coney Island ever dies, nobody is ever going to want to have to take the political blame!

Things are not going well for the beautifully scrappy and resilient amusement community that is fighting for its life largely due to multiple missteps that can be laid at the door of the Bloomberg administration. Despite its many missteps, the Bloomberg administration is working strenuously to avoid the appearance of responsibility for a possible Coney demise. When it comes to appearances, however, even developer Joe Sitt (Thor Equities) is making a half-hearted attempt to avoid the appearance of being responsible for Coney’s current woes. This is the same Joe Sitt who has systematically been sorely stressing Coney’s lifelines, most recently evicting Astroland. Sitt is now running subway advertisements inviting people to temporarily use the former Astroland site as low rent flea market space this summer. Really? Couldn’t the other vacant seaside land created by the city’s and Sitt’s policies have been used for such flea market space without evicting Astroland?

The City and Sitt notwithstanding, people are fighting hard to save Coney.

All eyes are now on another politician who has been in office throughout the Bloomberg administration years, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Will he call for changes to proposed zoning provisions essential for the historic Coney Island amusement area to survive? The Coney Island amusement community has great hopes that Markowitz will do the right thing, that if his name is to be forever linked to the Borough of Brooklyn as one of its greatest boosters, that he won’t want this greatest and most famous of Brooklyn legacies to have faded out on his watch.

If you haven’t contacted Marty about Saving Coney yet you may want to make it an immediate priority:

Brooklyn Borough President
Marty Markowitz
(718) 802-3700

People are mobilizing with energy, resources and talent to save Coney. Last week we were at the Coney Island USA 2009 fund-raising Spring Gala (see opening the picture and others). We hope you were there and if you weren’t, we are sorry we didn’t tell you to go. But there will be other events and you can send money anyway. The Municipal Art Society is also doing its part to mobilize resources to save Coney. Among other things MAS has just been writing about the former Childs restaurant building on Surf Avenue and 12th Street, which has been fixed up as the home of Coney Island USA.

Here are the bottom-line essentials Mr. Markowitz needs to call for in terms of proposed zoning plan changes in order to support the survival of the Coney Island amusement area:

1. There should be a much larger (the largest possible) amusement area in order for Coney Island to succeed as an amusement destination. The area should be devoted exclusively to amusements. The community is calling for it to extend, at a minimum, from the boardwalk to the Bowery. It should be even larger. Local recreational uses, restaurants, and retail should be located outside of this core amusement area and uses within this amusement area should be limited to the following:

Amusement parks, animal exhibits, dark rides, Ferris wheels, fortunetellers, freak shows, miniature golf courses, games of skill, water parks, food stalls, souvenir stands.
2. There should be no hotels south of Surf and east of Keyspan Park. Hotels south of Surf Avenue present three problems:

a) Design: High-rises would obstruct sight-lines to the beach and cast a pall over Coney's sea side atmosphere. Buildings south of Surf should be limited to six stories.

b) Encroachment on amusement uses: Hotels would encroach on the already limited area devoted to amusements. The frontage and a sizable percentage of the first two stories of any hotel south of Surf should be devoted to uses that complement amusements. Any buildings south of Surf should provide a minimum of on-site amusements to properly integrate itself into the district.

c) Preservation: Hotels south of Surf would compromise some of the few remaining historic buildings in Coney: the Popper building, Nathan's, and the Henderson building. The demand for hotels can be easily be met elsewhere in the district where it would not counterproductively undermine the historic Coney Island heritage which, preserved, will strengthen and fortify Coney Island as a brand name and destination.
3. There needs to be support for local entrepreneurs and locally-owned small businesses within the amusement district. Small, locally owned businesses and local entrepreneurs have proven their resilience and have historically been the lifeblood of Coney Island. They, above all else, can be credited with the endurance of Coney’s unique character and appeal. They can survive and thrive in this economy where the national chains are failing. Space must be made available to accommodate these small businesses, most of which are far smaller than the 2,500 sq ft proposed by the city (most are under 1,000 sq ft, and many are as small as 500 sq ft).
What you see above is what the Coney’s amusement area community is asking for as Coney fights for its life. We believe the citizens of this city want to see Coney survive and that we owe the community even more support to preserve it.

For more of our thoughts on Coney Island see these previous NNY posts:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Hearing the Coney Island Narrative

Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Our Noticing New York Testimony at Yesterday’s Community Board Hearing on City’s Proposed Coney Island Rezoning

Saturday, July 19, 2008
June 24, 2008- Hearing on Proposed Coney Island Development

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Keeping up with Bloomberg and Friends: Stark New Scandals and Is it True WSJ Readers Don’t Commit Murder?

(Bloomberg, above, at February press conference resisting answering questions about how the extraordinary level of his campaign spending is triggering the expenditure of more taxpayer dollars.)

We can’t keep up with the Bloomberg updates. . . but we will give it one heck of try!

It wasn’t very long ago, (February 2, 2009) we did what we considered a fairly comprehensive two-parter about why we, as New Yorkers, ought to have some pretty significant concerns about the Bloomberg administration, Bloomberg’s wealth and what it is doing to the city. (The Good News IS the Bad News: Thanks A lot for Mayor Bloomberg’s “Charity”). It quickly became necessary to provide a comprehensive update. That required another two-parter to cover just the recently surfacing evidence of how much reason for concern we have. (Sunday, April 12, 2009, Bloomberg Update: Fire and Ice.)

That was barely a week and now it seems it is already time to provide still another update. We are thinking that we better post quickly if we don’t want to wind up with another two-parter. (Just when we thought we were done, Bloomberg in his inimitable Bloombergian way pulls us back in with more fascinating fodder. ) Oh well, here we go. . .

The Wall Street Journal Class: No Culpa (Maxima Non-Culpa)

The New York Times printed an extraordinary pair of stories. It seems that if you are a friend of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s then, as a presumed reader of the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg assures the rest of us that you are not the sort that commits murder or can be held responsible for destroying the economy. In medieval Europe the Church used to sell “indulgences” to the rich, absolving them from any sins they might have committed. Well, in modern day New York, Bloomberg has cut out the middleman- now the rich can get their indulgences straight from New York City’s very richest resident.

(See the Times two stories: How Bloomberg Knows Who’s Not a Killer, -Killers Don’t Read Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Says- by Michael Barbaro, April 13, 2009 and Much Vilified, Financial Titans Find a Friend in Bloomberg, by David W. Chen, April 13, 2009.)

From the Times story on Bloomberg saying that readers of the Wall Street Journal don’t commit murder:

During a television interview about gun control on Monday, Mr. Bloomberg suggested that the titans of American capitalism who subscribe to the newspaper are simply not the homicidal kind.

“I don’t know how to break this to you,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “but people that go out and murder people don’t read The Wall Street Journal.”
The pithy article goes on to provide as its conclusion a convincing contradicting list of Wall Streeters who have, in fact, committed murder.

The other Times article begins with another list of “vilified” Wall Streeters, titans like Dick (Richard S.) Fuld Jr., the former chief executive of Lehman Brothers, whom Bloomberg has vouched for. Bloomberg, famously quoted now for his “we love the rich people,” remark and his various defenses of the privileges of the Wall Street rich defends people like Fuld who have, in essence, been murdering the economy. For a good account of Fuld’s role in helping to set up the subprime crisis we suggest you watch Frontline’s Inside the Meltdown (February 17, 2009).

Mr. Bloomberg on Mr. Fuld, from the Times article:

“There’s Lehman Brothers, who I feel very sorry for,” he said during a news conference. “Dick Fuld, I’ve known for 40 years, who’s a competent guy, and people are criticizing him. They didn’t criticize him when things were going well for an awful lot of years.”
The Times article does a thorough job in talking about what it refers to as Mr. Bloomberg’s “chameleon-like politics” but the gist of the extended article is:

Mr. Bloomberg has emerged as perhaps the foremost defender of the financial industry in the political world, while other elected leaders seize on the populist anger over the economy and executive compensation.
Near the end of the article it offers an interesting observation preceded by a mistake:

No one would ever accuse Mr. Bloomberg, who is drawing a token salary of $1 a year, of pursuing public office for personal gain. But Eduardo Castell, who is managing City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr.’s mayoral campaign, noted that Mr. Bloomberg had an extra incentive, perhaps, to cheer on the financial services industry, since the fortunes of his own company, Bloomberg L.P., hinge in part on other companies’ staying healthy and subscribing to the firm’s financial data terminals.
The mistake is pretty much obvious from the observation offered: “No one would ever accuse Mr. Bloomberg, who is drawing a token salary of $1 a year, of pursuing public office for personal gain.” We think there are many who would “accuse Mr. Bloomberg . . . of pursuing public office for personal gain” precisely because “the fortunes of his own company, Bloomberg L.P., hinge in part on other companies’ staying healthy and subscribing to the firm’s financial data terminals.” Our prior articles have pointed out how frighteningly intertwined the health of Bloomberg’s company is with what Mr. Bloomberg does as mayor. And we have to wonder about how the skyrocketing of Mr. Bloomberg’s wealth coincided with his involvement in politics.

The Madoff Economy Point of View

For a point of view contrary to Mr. Bloomberg’s respecting how the conduct of those in the Wall Street oligarchy has been bad for the nation’s economic health, listen to the recent Terry Gross Fresh Air segment, (April 15, 2009), Fighting America's 'Financial Oligarchy.' In it you can hear
Former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson predict an inevitable showdown between Wall Street and our federal government if the government properly insists upon representing the public. Mr. Johnson thinks the “U.S. suffers from "financial oligarchies" — government officials and elite members of the financial sector that run the country like a profit-seeking company” and “explains that the close connections between government officials and financial leaders are a major part of the U.S.'s economic problems.” From the program’s website page on the segment:

"We face at least two major, interrelated problems," Johnson writes. "The first is a desperately ill banking sector that threatens to choke off any incipient recovery that the fiscal stimulus might generate. The second is a political balance of power that gives the financial sector a veto over public policy, even as that sector loses popular support."

* * * *

Unless the U.S. breaks up its financial oligarchy, Johnson warns that America could face a crisis that "could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression — because the world is now so much more interconnected and because the banking sector is now so big."
This just in on Simon Johnson: Atlantic Yards Report has a post today observing how quotes from Mr. Johnson’s article in the May issue of The Atlantic, headlined The Quiet Coup, adapt to superbly discribe the fix Bloomberg and cohorts have gotten us into with Atlantic Yards:

Local banks, sometimes pressured by the government, become too willing to extend credit to the elite and to those who depend on them. . . .

* * * *

Enormous companies teeter on the brink of default, and the local banks that have lent to them collapse. Yesterday’s “public-private partnerships” are relabeled “crony capitalism.”
See Mr. Oder’s analysis and the more extended Simon Johnson quotes he extracted at: From “public-private partnerships” to “crony capitalism" (Sunday, April 19, 2009).

For more thinking about the fallacy of trusting Bloomberg’s recommendations to trust those on Wall Street who have been responsible for what New York Times columnist and economic Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman has dubbed the “Madoff Economy” see our: Run, Mike, Run With What You Made Off With (Monday, December 22, 2008). Mr. Krugman writings frequently provide trenchant academic analysis of the pitfalls of “crony capitalism.”

Stark III, Reporting Who’s In The Ball Park

In our last update, we were writing about the ethics problems of New York City Finance Commissioner Martha E. Stark. Ms. Stark ought to be most famous for the role she had in coming up with the bizarrely inflated real estate tax assessment figures that were used to issue more tax-exempt bonds for Yankee Stadium than should actually be permitted (under the IRS loophole theory being used by the Bloomberg administration). She apparently did this at the behest of the mayor (or someone at the pinnacle of his administration representing him) and it remains to be seen whether someone is ultimately going to be charged with illegal acts as a result.

That is what Ms. Stark should be most famous for. When last we wrote her notoriety was predicated on two recent ethics scandals. First Ms. Stark was forced to resign from a “moonlighting” position on a real estate company’s board. Then it turned out that her chief deputy was improperly paying her spouse for work based on time sheets certifying work he was not present to perform. . . .

. . Now it turns out Ms. Stark is involved in her third new scandal surfacing in a relatively short period of time. This scandal gets us back into the ball park of our original Yankee Stadium discussion. Interestingly, as Norman Oder’s Atlantic Yards Report has already pointed out, most of our New York press is missing the most significant aspect of the story. The press is not only missing the most significant aspect of this incredible story, they are not even in the “right ball park.” They are not reporting about the broadening story about the squirrely manipulation of the Yankee Stadium property tax assessments. Hold onto your hats for this one and proceed to the next paragraph! (See: Tuesday, April 14, 2009, The latest cloud over Finance Commissioner Stark: a romance with the (former) assistant in the middle of the Yankee Stadium controversy.)

Ms. Stark’s third scandal involves hiring and/or remunerating a number of family members or extended family members. What is drawing the most press attention is the escalating salary she paid to her lover, Dara Ottley-Brown. (The superb visual of these pay increases at the side cribbed from Atlantic yards Report is, ironically, originally from Bloomberg, LP.) Here is what is truly astounding and the part of the story that only Atlantic Yards Report is covering: Ms Stark’s lover, Ms. Ottley-Brown was very much involved as a key player at the center of events when the real property tax assessments were being manipulated. When this was first reported (but not Ms. Ottley-Brown’s recently discovered concurrent personal relationship to Ms. Stark) by Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez he was calling for an investigation. ("That's why it's time for some prosecutor to step in, subpoena every document and figure out if the Bloomberg administration manipulated land assessments for the Yankees.") Talk about being in the “right ball park!”

How integrally was the Tax Commissioner’s lover involved in the questionable activities? The Daily News story about what has been referred to as the “smoking gun” tells itself quite nicely if you just refer to the paragraphs that talk about Ms. Ottley-Brown (the non-Ottley-Brown paragraphs are bracketed):

The e-mails show that City Attorney Joseph Gunn notified Stark's former assistant commissioner, Dara Ottley-Brown, on July 15, 2005, that "the Yankees have an interest in seeing that the assessed valuation will be high enough to generate as much PILOT for tax-exempt debt as is lawful and appropriate."

[They also show Stark's staff met at least three times with the Yankees and other city officials to discuss the department's assessment method.]

On March 21, 2006, a few weeks before City Council's vote on the Yankees project, Maurice Kellman, the city's chief assessor, sent Ottley-Brown the stadium assessment report. It estimated the value of the land under the stadium at $26.8 million.

[Finance Department spokesman Sam Miller said Tuesday that a "senior assessment team" decided Kellman's estimate was too low compared with the construction cost of the new stadium.]

After a series of frantic phone calls and e-mails on March 21 and 22 between a half-dozen city officials and the Yankees, Ottley-Brown ordered Kellman to produce a new report.
(See: E-mails reveal how city went to bat for Yankee to inflate value of stadium land, Tuesday, by Juan Gonzalez, December 16th 2008.)

Lawyering Up (With the “Mastro”) After Stark III

We have previously wondered what individuals might be lawyering up “to represent them in any prosecutorial proceedings such as those called for by the Daily News article.” (See: Saturday, December 20, 2008, Legal Notice! A Hearing May or May not Be held! (It Depends, Call Us!)

According to the Times, Ms. Stark’s attorney handling question about Ms. Ottley-Brown, (or at least one of the layers speaking for her) is former Deputy Mayor (under Guiliani) Randy Mastro. That is an interesting choice in that Mr. Mastro, with the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutchor, has been involved in legally challenging the term limits extension, fighting alongside attorney (and candidate for Public Advocate) Norman Siegel. His firm profile mentions that he also: “recently led the litigation effort to defeat the City's controversial West Side Stadium project, among other high-profile matters.” Mr. Mastro’s name has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace retiring District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

We wonder in what capacities Ms. Stark may have hired personal attorneys. Gibson, Dunn & Crutchor does have a white collar defense practice, but Mr. Mastro is not listed as practicing in that area though he is a litigator and was once a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York so he should be considered to have qualifications in that area. His firm profile starts out saying: “Randy M. Mastro is Co-Chair of the Firm's Litigation Practice and Crisis Management Groups.” Mr. Mastro should also know his way around investigations of illegal quid-pro-quo exchanges in return for the manipulation of government subsidies: His firm profile says that “he served as Associate Counsel on the Independent Counsel investigation of HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce.” (Though Mr. Mastro’s time with the investigation was limited the investigation is distinguished, among other things for its length.) Mr. Mastro’s client list includes impressive names plus one that always catches our eye: Forest City Ratner.

Commissioner Stark may, of course, may have more than one lawyer. We do not know who, if anyone, might be giving legal advice at this time to Dara Ottley-Brown. Nor do we know who else may be hiring personal counsel.

Stark III, Who’s Out? Is That the Ball Game?

Others have told us that they are wondering whether Commissioner Stark will continue in her job for very long: A sort of “three Stark-Scandals and you’re out” approach. We ourselves are not so sure Ms. Stark won’t continue in office.

One thing we have found ourselves wondering about is the way that all the Martha Stark scandals have piled out into the news in succession. It is impossible to say exactly what happened or why, but our experience tells us that, generally speaking, when there is an investigation of a scandal such as there was with the challenged time certifications of Ms. Stark’s deputy for her spouse, administrative steps are usually taken to make sure those in charge up the ladder know the lay of the land before the boom is lowered. Things are done like talking to coworkers and checking where the bodies are buried and what skeletons are in what closets, etc. Therefore, one can predict that there would be pretty good information available before the first move is made.

We notice that the first thing that happened was that Ms. Stark was forced to resign from the board of the real estate company of which she was director. That would have cut off a financial lifeline for her. We also wonder about the details of how that postion was obtained in the first place. Apparently the Bloomberg administration did know about it since she obtained approval from the city’s Law Department. Did the Law Department issue an approval without others in the administration knowing? Without communication? And was the discrepancy in how many board meetings a year were expected or materialized really so significant: the approved “three or four meetings a year” vs. perhaps “sixteen?”

We notice how the next two scandals dribbled out, Chinese water torture style, not the way you would expect an administration to manage things by choice. First the real estate board matter. Next, out came the investigation respecting Ms. Stark’s top deputy engaging in some questionable/objectionable nepotism. Then finally, out comes Ms. Stark’s own nepotism scandal. Overall, it looks like things had gotten out of hand in her department; people were feeling too comfortable about helping themselves to their own little pieces of the action. Word must have been getting around.

Now a very strange state of affairs has been created: two of the people now in the public eye by virtue of this scandal, a Commissioner and her lover as another public official working for her, were integrally involved in setting real property assessment values for the Yankee Stadium land, something that almost all informed individuals probably think was manipulated. Does this create something of a standoff? Whatever the story, things are very strange indeed!

We don’t want to be overly harsh about what Commissioner Stark did, except for the Yankee Stadium land valuation. The last time we wrote about these emerging scandals we noted:

The Bloomberg administration’s treatment of Ms. Stark, requiring her to resign from the real estate company’s board may seem disproportionate in light of everything else that goes on in the Bloomberg administration . . .
Though we don’t think what Ms. Stark was doing was right or that there is an innocent explanation for it, we want to keep perspective. Ms. Stark may well have believed or rationalized that Ms. Ottley-Brown and members of the extended family she hired were competent valuable employees who were not overpaid. That doesn’t make it right, but we must point out that living by these rules is probably tougher for Ms. Stark than the rules Mr. Bloomberg is expected to live by.

To be entirely fair to Commissioner Stark we must mention Diana Taylor. Ms. Taylor is, to put it variously, the companion, parade-partner escort of Mr. Bloomberg or unofficial first lady. She was also the former New York State Superintendent of Banks appointed by Governor Pataki in 2003. According to the Times: “When Mr. Pataki appointed her to the banking position, there were rumblings that it was a political move prompted by her Bloomberg connection” (The Mayor's Lady, Her Own Woman, One and the Same, by Diane Cardwell, February 12, 2006). Governor Spitzer, who came next, found another position for Ms. Taylor: chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust’s board of directors. It was speculated that Spitzer did this as a favor to Bloomberg because Spitzer was trying to manage weakening relationships after Troopergate: (See: August 15 - 25, 2007, Diana Taylor tapped to head the Hudson River Park Trust, By Lincoln Anderson.)

It is not that Ms. Taylor isn’t professionally qualified, and these appointments, even if they are in whole or in part because of Mr. Bloomberg, are not strictly nepotism in the direct sense that Ms. Stark’s escalating the pay of her lover can be considered such. (We like Hudson River Park.) But you cannot deny the intermingling of the professional position and how it is likely obtained with relationships and politics. It is hard to forget such intermingling when recalling the story of Ms. Taylor’s near ascendancy to Chief Executive Officer of the FDIC (“Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation”). That promotion was coming from George W. Bush in early 2006. We remember, of course, Bloomberg had stumped for Bush in late 2004, including going to extremes in terms of stage-managing things here in New York during the Republican Convention. Pursuit of the FDIC position for Taylor is one instance where Bloomberg’s influence didn’t prevail but worked in reverse: The nomination was shot down by the National Rifle Association because of Bloomberg’s New York City style anti-gun stance.

Ms. Stark’s salary boosts to Ms. Ottley-Brown are direct and lack checks and balances, but the point is that Bloomberg has the extraordinary influence to accomplish much the same result indirectly. Does it redound to Mr. Bloomberg’s benefit politically, financially or in terms of dealing with real estate developers to have Ms. Taylor in such positions? It would be hard to believe that it does not work to Mr. Bloomberg’s advantage in many ways.

Compare this as well: There was a nepotism situation benefitting relatives of Ms. Stark’s top deputy and, similarly, we previously noted that family members of Bloomberg’s top deputy, Patricia Harris, are benefitting from Bloomberg administration appointments:

Ms. Harris’ husband, Mark D. Lebow, is a lawyer with Lebow & Sokolow LLP whose practice areas include real estate. Bloomberg appointed him to the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Ms. Harris’ stepson also works for the Bloomberg administration.
We see distinctions but isn’t it just possible that Ms. Stark, didn’t see the difference between what she was doing and what Bloomberg was readily able to accomplish through his greater influence? She no doubt knew that Bloomberg was not considered to be breaking the rules.

A Piece of the Action When Awash in “Black Money”

Frontline did another documentary recently, Black Money, about illegal international bribery. One thing that becomes clear watching that documentary is that in situations awash with illegal cash floating around it seems as if almost everyone feels entitled to take a little bit of it for themselves. By the same token, we can see how if Commissioner Stark was a little bit lax in the nepotism department she might have problems enforcing rules against her top deputy engaging in a little bit of the same. Taking this one step further we understand how Ms. Stark herself might not have believed there was a serious qualitative difference between what she was doing and the way that Bloomberg was managing to benefit his own companion through his public position and influence. And there was also the way that his top deputy’s family members were benefitting.

Beyond this, there is something else: Did Ms. Stark and Ms Ottley-Brown, by virtue of executing the Yankee Stadium maneuvers, feel that they had insurance for a little bit of the inside privilege that was swashing about? After all, the IRS and the U.S. taxpayers were being raided for millions.

Moral relativism creates such headaches!

Updates Parked in the Strangest Places: Political Privilege for a Bloombergian “Former Government Official” in the Private Sector

Here is a bit of oddness that indicates how government officer/employee-style perks are handed out to those who, even though they are off in the private sector, are somehow still viewed as being part of a bigger interconnected family of individuals involved in an exchange-of-favors game. Go to Atlantic Yards Report’s story: How Rudy Giuliani gave Bruce Ratner and Jim Stuckey parking permits, Saturday, (April 18, 2009). It tells of how, in December 1988, the Guiliani administration was handing out city parking privileges (for 1989) to special selected political supporters who were not government officials.

Atlantic Yards Report’s story is mainly about how two such specially benefitted nongovernment -officials, "Democrats for Giuliani" developer Bruce Ratner and Forest City Ratner executive Jim Stuckey. Each of these individuals were obviously key private sector protagonists in the massive subsidy collection endeavor known as Atlantic Yards. Rather than describe these individuals as political supporters or campaign contributors the Guiliani administration memo obscures their cozy status by referring to them as “FORMER GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS.” Right, former government officials who are being treated as if they are still part of an inside club entitled to special privileges! Bruce Ratner served as city Consumer Affairs Commissioner. Out in the “private sector” Ratner hired Jim Stuckey, who had served as head of the Public Development Corporation. (Stucky’s government experience equipped him to abuse and pervert eminent domain practices to go after special windfall benefits for Ratner at Atlantic Yards.)

Here is the Bloombergian part of the story not pointed out by Atlantic Yards Report: Also on the list of “FORMER GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS” treated to these special high-level privileges was Bloomberg LP’s Patti Harris (picture above) who had worked for the Koch administration. (See the image supplied by Atlantic Yards Report where we have added one extra circle around Ms. Harris name. Click to enlarge.) At the time Ms. Harris, working in the private sector for Bloomberg, was overseeing its Philanthropy, Public Relations, and Governmental Affairs divisions. It is ironic that Ms. Harris, who apparently knew about and got in on this high-level special benefit (and felt entitled to it!) is, as we have already noted in other pieces, one of Mayor Bloomberg’s chief political gatekeepers when it comes to handing out Bloombergian benefits, both from his privately controlled charities and also what issues from City Hall. Yes, Ms. Harris is the one who calls up recipients of Bloomberg’s private “charity” to make them uncomfortable when they contribute to Bloomberg’s political opposition. (See: Tuesday, February 3, 2009, The Good News IS the Bad News: Thanks A lot for Mayor Bloomberg’s “Charity” (Part II) and Sunday, April 12, 2009, Bloomberg Update: Fire and Ice.)

The Hevesi Pay-to-Play Pension Fund Investment Scandal: How Now, Mr. Bloomberg?

Another update concerns a rather big emerging scandal involving the intersection of Wall Street and government. Are we surprised or not that Bloomberg’s name came up in this ever-expanding Hevesi play-to-pay investment scandal? Consider how that factors into concerns about quid pro quoing in the Bloomberg administration.

According to inside sources, documents in the investigation say that Steven Rattner, co-founder of the Quadrangle Group, the prominent private equity firm, arranged for his investment firm to pay $1.1 million to obtain New York State pension business. Right now, Mr. Rattner is receiving a lot of focus because he is, as the New Times puts it: “The man leading the Obama administration’s efforts to restructure the auto industry.” In other words, he was selected as Obama’s new “car czar.” We focus here on the fact that Rattner’s Quadrangle Asset Management (focused on investing in media and communications companies) is the firm named “to manage the personal and family foundation assets of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.” Rattner is apparently a former Times reporter, so watching what kind of coverage this gets from the Times will be interesting.

This brings us back to where we started: Bloomberg is once more offering praise for a Wall Street guy for his “competence.” According to Crains and other sources:

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg considers Mr. Rattner a friend and praised him earlier this month as a "phenomenally competent guy." The billionaire mayor's investments are handled by Quadrangle Asset Management, which is part of the Quadrangle Group.
NPR’s Report (and others) adds more Bloombergian praise:

"He's very philanthropic, he's been a great New Yorker," Bloomberg said on April 2.
(See: Obama auto adviser embroiled in pay to play probe, from The Associated Press.)

According to multiple reports, Crains and NPR included, Bloomberg’s personal relationship with Rattner was very close, close enough so that he conferred with Rattner about the Obama position:

Bloomberg said he and Mr. Rattner had discussed whether Mr. Rattner should take on the Obama administration job.

"We did have conversations about whether he should do it," Mr. Bloomberg said. The mayor, who was a businessman before he entered politics, said he warned Mr. Rattner there was a lot to think about before going into public service, including "the disclosure issues."
(See: April 17, 2009, White House stands by auto adviser Rattner President Obama’s press secretary says administration was aware of allegations that former private-equity executive paid more than $1 million to secure business with New York’s employee pension fund.)

The integrity of relationship of individuals handling Mr. Bloomberg’s personal and foundation assets is very important because Bloomberg is officially supposed to be subject to restrictions on the way that his private funds are invested and what he is allowed to know or have communicated to him about them. (See: Ruling Allows Wider Investment Options for Bloomberg and His Foundation, by Ray Rivera, December 27, 2007.)

The current set of restrictions are a new, more relaxed set of restrictions, As we wrote before:

The new Conflicts of Interest Board requirements were new because they were requirements that were being relaxed from what was previously required. At the same time, long into Bloomberg’’s second term, it was being reported that Bloomberg had not complied with requirements to avoid conflicts that the Conflicts of Interest Board imposed upon him at the beginning of his first term.
And we wrote about the new requirements:

Specifically this was spelled out as the arrangements with which the mayor (Ms. Harris too?) was theoretically expected to comply:

Under the arrangement, the mayor will select one or more investment firms to oversee his personal and charitable foundation’s investment strategies, and then recuse himself from any city business involving those firms.

The firms will then choose managers who will carry out the investment decisions, but their identities will not be shared with the mayor, the board said.

* * * *

. . . the mayor could advise the investment firms about categories of investments and could hire or fire managers based on reports about their performance. But the mayor must receive no information about the specific holdings in his or the foundation’s accounts, and must not know the identities of the managers, the board said.
We asked before whether this was only meant to sound good to the public. In that vein we must now ask whether Mr. Rattner’s integrity, when he handles Mr. Bloomberg’s investments, is up to such rigorous standards. If people like Rattner can’t be trusted in this regard it could provide a contributing explanation for Bloomberg’s amazing skyrocketing wealth.

Hevesi Investigation Continues Heavily

The investigation, which the Times describes as “sprawling,” is being conducted by both Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo’s office and then the Securities and Exchange Commission:

In 2007, Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo’s office and then the Securities and Exchange Commission took over the inquiry, which has ballooned into a sprawling investigation involving some of the most prominent players in New York’s political and financial worlds.

Hundreds of investment firms have been subpoenaed. Three people have been criminally charged and another has pleaded guilty to a felony. And the scandal has grabbed the attention of Wall Street, as members of the investment establishment’s top tier now face scrutiny.
Whatever confidence is currently being expressed, we are still in suspense about where the investigation will lead:

Mr. Cuomo emphasized this week that more developments were to come. “We do expect additional charges because we have other cases that are being worked up as we speak,” he said. “The investigation is continuing.”
(See: In State Pension Inquiry, a Scandal Snowballs, by Danny Hakim and Mary Williams Walsh, April 17, 2009.)

If more aspects of the investigation concerning Mr. Bloomberg surface, dynamics could prove quite interesting as Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Bloomberg could be running against each other for governor in 2010, even if Bloomberg wins the mayoralty in 2009. (In terms of political step-ups, Bloomberg might also be take his defense of Wall Street show on the road with another run for the presidency, taking on Obama, whom he did not support, in the 2012 race.)

BTW: We have previously made the point (in the context of inspector generals for Atlantic Yards) that when multiple prosecutorial agencies are involved, investigations are often more vigorous. (See: Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Permission to Speak Frankly: How We Know More and Less From Breakfast Interviews With Marisa Lago.)

The Bloombergain Endorsement Juggernaut: Will the Unwary Be Besmirched?

We will conclude this set of updates with the latest on Mr. Bloomberg’s continuing accumulation of endorsements which we think he is garnering from the unperspicacious. Newark mayor Cory Booker has endorsed Bloomberg. (See: Newark Mayor Cory Booker agrees to endorse N.Y.C. Mayor Michael Bloomberg for re-election, by The Star-Ledger Continuous News Desk, April 17, 2009.) Booker, the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, is a rising star, and until we hear something that convinces us otherwise we are quite impressed by him. Still, it is a symptom of current misalignments that Mr. Booker is endorsing Bloomberg at this juncture without having to wonder whether doing so will ultimately besmirch his own name. The New York Times print edition ran the story of Booker’s endorsement (also mentioning the prior day’s endorsement by Jerramiah T. Healy, the mayor of Jersey City) in the middle of a sea of surrounding print covering a story they gave much more attention to: Bloomberg’s insensitive treatment of a disabled journalist at a press conference. (See: April 17, 2009, Backing for Bloomberg, From Newark, by David W. Chen and A Bloomberg Apology (Sort Of) Is Accepted (Sort Of), by Julie Bosman, April 17, 2009.)

This kind of coverage (click image below to enlarge) doesn’t look auspicious for Mr. Booker or for future endorsers of Mr. Bloomberg. Bloomberg buyers beware! If you wonder more will emerge, just note: All of the above represent just one week’s worth of reported updates about Mr. Bloomberg.